James Brown at W.F.Arber & Co Ltd
James Brown & Gary Arber
In the week before Christmas, I always want to go and visit my friend Gary Arber, the custodian of W.F.Arber & Co Ltd, the family printing business and former toy shop at 459 Roman Rd started by his grandfather in 1897. This year, James Brown furnished my excuse for a visit, as I accompanied him when he called round to present Gary Arber with the print of the famous green W.F.Arber shopfront which he has created as a tribute to this celebrated business where once the suffragettes’ handbills were printed in the basement.
James rang the bell and Gary emerged to greet us from behind a pile of boxes in his blue boiler suit that is subtly reminiscent of his former career as a flying ace. An experienced third-generation printer, Gary immediately pointed out the quoins on either side of the phrase “A PICTURE” and I think I noticed a barely-concealed sigh of relief from James when Gary gave the work his approval. We were informed that when Gary’s grandfather originally did the sign-writing in 1897, the number 459 flanked the name on both sides of the fascia but when Gary repainted it in 1947 and again last year, he found it sufficient to paint it just once, cocking a snook at the paltry demands of symmetry.
In former times, there would be queues outside W.F.Arber & Co Ltd at this time of year as East Enders lined up to collect the toys they had been saving for all year through the Christmas Club. Nowadays, Gary is able to enjoy peace and quiet in December since chain stores took the toy trade away. But he keeps the age-old posters for Triang and Scalextrics upon the counter and century-old wooden display cases for dolls still line the walls today, and he delighted to show us his nineteen fifties Mr Happy wallpaper in the former toy showroom at the back. Sometimes collectors come in to make Gary offers for his residual stock of toys and memorabilia, yet he wisely chooses to keep everything for his personal enjoyment.
One year, a thief broke in and stole a box of toys including a handsome train that had been in for repairs. When the box was recovered in an abandoned house nearby, the train was still there – but, by the time the police returned the box to Gary, the train was missing. Imagine Gary’s surprise when the Chief Constable’s son brought the train in for repair the next year and Gary recognised it from the serial number he scratched upon the inside of the case when it was first mended. Characteristically, Gary kept this information to himself until now, choosing instead to savour the knowledge that had been granted to him privately.
Do not make the foolish mistake of going to W.F.Arber & Co Ltd Printing Works and asking for printing, because Gary does not take on printing jobs. Instead, he keeps the business ticking over with a few sales of stationery while focussing upon his primary interest – that of maintaining the premises as a receptacle for stories. His big achievement this year has been the repair of the roof, creating another bulwark against the passage of time at his extraordinary shop. And it was my great delight make the call, deliver the print, present Gary Arber with the compliments of the season and know that all is well at W.F.Arber & Co Ltd.
James Brown’s “Arber & Co Ltd” is one of a series of screenprints of shopfronts currently displayed in his exhibition LOVE & WORK at the Town House, 4 Fournier St, Spitalfields until 23rd December.
James Brown’s print - “Writing is a picture of the writer’s heart.”
Gary Arber’s shopfront before the Olympics
Gary’s Arber’s shopfront after the Olympics
My portrait of Gary Arber in the Comp Room at W.F.Arber & Co Ltd
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