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More East End Shopfronts of 1988

July 21, 2010
by the gentle author

There is an astonishing contradiction in this photograph – taken by broadcaster Alan Dein on Alderney Rd, Stepney in 1988 – between the elegantly written surname upon an eau-de-nil ground, full of majestic promise, and the overstated brutality of the breeze blocks filling the shopfront, intended to shut it down and shut us out, irreversibly and forever. Yet in spite of the pathos of the image, Alan admitted it was “a kind  of bliss for someone like myself who was documenting the ramshackle and the uncelebrated.”

This picture is another of the compelling photographs in the remarkable unseen collection of more than one hundred East End Shopfronts by Alan Dein, from which I am pleased to publish a second selection for you today. Alan was twenty-seven years old when he embarked upon the project, inspired by the work of Eugene Atget, Walker Evans and Bill Brandt, whose work he encountered through well-thumbed copies of monographs of their beautiful photographs in the Art & Music department on the top floor of the former Whitechapel Library.

“From my room in White Horse Road, Stepney I could find so many places close-by that fascinated me at that time. My favourites were shop fronts – particularly the ones with Jewish names, though once I’d run out of those (their era had already passed by), I’d be on the look-out for anything that was pleasing to my eye. Looking back, my motivation was to capture their last moments on earth. I was and I still am, a devotee of ’junk’, and at that time the battered and the worn-out were almost anonymous in a landscape that still resembled a scarred battleground of the WWII Home Front.

The surviving shops didn’t have long to live. These are the last breaths of these little places, before succumbing to the pincer-like squeeze of the Docklands Development Corporation on one side, and the encroaching eastward sprawl of the hungry City upon the other. But the end for many of them had come earlier, as the proprietors retired, moved away or died, and significantly their children wished for another way of life beyond the four walls of the parents’ shop.”

Each of these shops had their heyday and those images would tell a very different story, of the world inhabited by Alan’s grandparents before the Jewish people left the East End, turning their backs on the history of poverty as they moved to newly built suburbs. This earlier world was accessible to Alan only through reluctant family reminiscence. But when he came to walk around the streets of East London, seeking for himself the remnants of the Jewish East End culture in which his family had its origins, he found closed-up shops that acquired a strange beauty for him.

There is an elegiac poetry in every one of these shopfront images, unsentimental in their formal compositions and inscrutable facades – boarded up to exclude squatters or thieves. They show the texture and patina evidencing the activity of those who have gone, and the confident colours and outdated signwriting dramatizing pitifully redundant aspirations to seek “exclusive tailors” or  to “get tuf here”.

The shutter in Alan Dein’s camera became the final curtain that fell upon an unknown drama, framed by the proscenium of each shop window. The actors had gone, the stage was bare, they were theatres only of memory and no more performances would be played, yet Alan’s achievement was to record the human presence that remained.

“Posner’s in Commercial Rd  was just round the corner from where I lived – once the site was gutted, an estate agent moved in, selling and renting properties in the Docklands.”

Stepney Green. “Only recently closed – you can see a hand-written flyer for the Half Moon Theatre in the window.”

Alie St

Hackney Rd

Mile End Rd

Alie St

Brick Lane (see Suskin’s Wilkes St premises in the previous set of pictures)

Commercial St

“I used to buy my shoes at Schwartz’s, trading on the Mile End Road, just by the old Half Moon Theatre. It was lovely to think that these places which resembled those old Ladybird book-style shops of the fifties and sixties were hanging on into the eighties.”

Bow Common Lane

Ben Jonson Rd. “A twilight zone where the shops built underneath the post-war housing blocks were still selling goods from a past age.”

Bow Rd

Here are just two of the many Levy’s that once existed on the streets of East London, above in Ridley Rd and below in Goulston St.

photographs copyright © Alan Dein

Take a look at more of Alan’s pictures here Alan Dein, East End Shopfronts 1988

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Joan permalink
    July 21, 2010

    These really are terrific. I wonder what we should be documenting now which is likely to disappear.

    Loved the Alan Dein series ‘Just Off the Plane’ on radio 4 last week. I was particularly taken with the young American men whose whole idea of London was based on what they’d seen in the movies – ‘To Sir with Love’ in particular, and who were interested in where Idris Elba comes from (East Ham and Canning Town – hardly on the normal tourist trail).

    Best wishes,


  2. Wellwynder permalink
    July 21, 2010

    I’ve only recently discovered your blog and have been exploring it with great pleasure. These shopfront photos are especially fascinating. London needs its Atgets, that’s for sure. And who’d have thought of finding a real-life Stepto(w)e and Son? Many thanks for it all.

  3. Joan permalink
    July 21, 2010

    And staying on the shop front theme lovely to hear the news about the Ben Eine’s painting going to the White House. He sounded like a lovely man on the PM programme just now.

    Best wishes,


  4. Veronica Howe permalink
    March 26, 2012

    I LOVE these beautiful pictures. So evocative of my disappearing London childhood. And don’t they tell a story of migration! I’m always sad when “proper” shopfronts are replaced by ubiquitous plate glass and turned into estate agencies or, like one near me in West London, converted to residential “units”

  5. Neil Hosland-Round permalink
    February 16, 2014

    The sheer beauty of these photos, recording a different world is wonderful. Thank you for every day of Spitalfields life, living near by it brings the most modest buildings to life and the people’s stories surrounding them.

  6. Kath Posner permalink
    April 20, 2014

    I discovered this page shortly before by dad (Arnold Posner)’s funeral last year, and still can’t stop coming back to it. I can barely remember his family’s shop, so thanks for keeping the memory alive.

  7. Maria permalink
    July 31, 2014

    Would that be the same Arnold Posner I worked with at the Morning Star, Kath? I have fond memories of him.

  8. Kath Posner permalink
    December 29, 2014

    Hi Maria,
    Apologies for delayed response, but I’ve only just spotted your posting. Yes that is the same man: he died Christmas Day 2012 and I can’t help but think it was his last two-fingered salute to the System!

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