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At M&G Hardware & Ironmongery

April 26, 2012
by the gentle author

Sarfaraz Loonat

If you need to have a key cut, get scissors sharpened or buy a sturdy metal bucket, there is no better place in Whitechapel to go than M&G Building Supplies, Hardware & Ironmongery at 20 Cambridge Heath Rd, where you can be assured of a generous welcome by proprietor Sarfaraz Loonat. Sitting behind the counter like the captain at the bridge of a great ship, he waits poised to supply your every need in do-it-yourself and household maintenance. In his mind, Sarfaraz has an exact virtual replica of the shop and, by searching this mental labyrinth, he can instantly recall where every single size and type of nut, bolt, watering can, hinge or spanner can be located in the crowded shelving, cupboards, racks and draws of his actual shop. Sarfaraz relishes the opportunity to offer a personal service that cannot be matched by the superstores and, for connoisseurs of ironmongery and hardware, M & G is a rare delight.

If you should ask, Sarfaraz will be proud to tell you that the business was started in 1884 by James de Hailes, as a locksmith and ironmongers, just around the corner in the appropriately-named Key Close. He will bring out the old photographs and explain that the shop moved to its present location after the original premises was destroyed in the blitz, and he will inform you that it once occupied three generations of the de Hailes family. First there was James, then his son James George, and finally his daughter Dorothy who ran it with her husband Ronald Bull until September 1985, when they put the shop up for sale. At sixty-two, Dorothy, who had worked for her grandfather James since she was a small girl, recalled affectionately, “My only clear memory of him was when burnt me with his cigar by accident.” Adding regretfully, “It is sad to go, but we have worked here a long time and we want a bit of enjoyment.”

Fortunately, Malagar Singh bought the shop, succumbing inexorably to the irresistible magnetism of ironmongery and cherishing the endeavour with equal devotion to that shown by the de Hailes family – so that when he came to retire four years ago, he was diligent to appraise his successor. This was the point at which the young contender appeared, ambitious twenty-seven year old Sarfaraz, graduate in business management and rising employee of Philip Green’s Arcadia Group in the West End. “For two years I enjoyed working there,” Sarfaraz admitted to me, leaning over the counter at M&G to confide, “but when I decided to get married, I need more money to buy a flat for me and my wife to live in. And, even though I saved the company hundreds of thousands of pounds in my work preventing fraud, they refused to give me a pay rise. It was always my dream to have a business of my own. So I sat down with my grandfather, my uncles and my father, explained my situation and told them that I needed to do something with my life.”

Sarfaraz was overjoyed when his grandfather suggested that he consider the hardware store.“We had a family meeting and they said they’d back me,” Sarfaraz explained, “It was a bit daunting though, when I went along to meet Mr Singh. He was quite up for it, but he said, ‘You’ve got to work here for two weeks and if I like you, you can have it.'” Then, once Sarfaraz confessed that he had no holiday weeks left that year, Mr Singh turned dogmatic. “If you really want this, you must hand in your notice,” he insisted, challenging Sarfaraz to show the whole-hearted commitment which running a hardware store entails.“I wanted to implement the corporate way of doing things at once,” Sarfaraz told me with a blush at his former self, “but Mr Singh insisted I abide by the traditional way. My wife Mohsina came along and worked with me – and, after four weeks, Mr Singh handed over the keys and left.”

And so, with an interest-free loan from his family and after selling his car, Sarfaraz began a new life at M&G Ironmongers as a married man. “It was a complete unknown but with the love and support of my family, it was possible,” Sarfaraz assured me with a tender smile, “they gave me the confidence to believe I could do it.”

“After four years, I have paid back my family. I remember the first day I woke up and had no debt on my head – the shackles were off! I had two fantastic years at first, followed by one year of not taking a penny home due to a drop in sales caused by the economic crisis – we lived hand to mouth – but then this past year has been my best yet. People search on Google to learn how to do-it-yourself, and they are slowly buying tools and making their own toolkits. Through the recession, they have gained confidence in doing household repairs themselves. Often couples come in together, fathers come in with their children or they bring their friends. People are working together to get things done.”

In the meantime, Sarfaraz and his wife had two daughters, and all their friends and relatives now assist in keeping the shop staffed until the children are of school age. “Then it will be me and my wife together in this shop full-time and our aim will be to work towards buying a house for our family.” said Sarfaraz, eagerly envisaging his future.

“Most Asian shopkeepers they go for takeaway chicken or mobile  phone shops, but I wanted to do something different. There aren’t many Indian Gujaratis in the hardware trade, it’s mostly white guys and some Sikhs.” he declared, growing passionate in his personal manifesto, “Offering a friendly service is very important to me. If people come in to buy two screws, I will give them five. I want them to know I am trying to look after them, it’s not just about the money. I expect to be here behind the counter with my wife in twenty years time. This shop has a story and a history, and I’m not going to be the one to let it die.”

Making an unexpected radical choice, Sarfaraz Loonat swapped the corporate world for that of the independent shopkeeper and, at thirty-two years old, he has found that the challenge has given him more self-respect and and satisfaction, as well as bringing him back to heart of his family and the centre of his local community in Whitechapel.

Sarfaraz Loonat – “It was always my dream to have a business of my own.”

Sarfaraz’s nephew Mohammed Mayat helps out in the shop.

De Hailes’ Locksmith & Ironmongery in Key Close, Whitechapel, 1890. James George de Hailes stands on the far right with his father James next to him.

M&G Building Supplies, Hardware & Ironmongery, 20 Cambridge Heath Rd, Whitechapel, E1 5QH

You may also like to read about Sarfaraz’s father and uncles

At London Trimmings

17 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy Willoughby permalink
    April 26, 2012

    Thank you for another wonderful story. When I have been in, they are always so helpful.

  2. Vicky permalink
    April 26, 2012

    I love shops like M&G Hardware and London Trimmings and will certainly go there when the need arises. Thank you for telling us about them.
    After reading yesterday’s piece about the East End Trades Guild I feel worried for their future as the Cambridge Heath Rd area with its small family businesses and pretty shop fronts could be the next target for the ruthless landlord. Perhaps it already is. I hope the Guild gets lots of new members, fast.

  3. Marina B permalink
    April 26, 2012

    A real treasure trove! Thank you!

  4. April 26, 2012

    A great story. I love shops like this and they’re increasingly rare. So much better an experience than an out-of-town superstore where, if you want screws, you’ll have to buy a box of 500

  5. Anne Forster permalink
    April 26, 2012

    Like an Aladdins cave, so many things to see and buy.

  6. April 26, 2012

    I found this website in The East of London History Society newsletter.
    What a find! I feel like retiring to a room on my own and reading every one of the previous entries. My ancestors were Huguenots. I haven’t visited Spitalfieds area for a few years.

    Wish we had a shop like Mr Loonat’s here in Dorset, there must be everything you would ever need and it would bring a whole new meaning to DIY.

  7. Gary permalink
    April 26, 2012

    Sarfaraz has the correct business attitude to succeed.
    Good Luck to him

  8. Stefan Carey permalink
    April 28, 2012

    Customer service is everything. No mission statements (that no-one remembers anyway) are needed to understand this. Neither are Powerpoint presentations, nor the fluff, fog and sludge of corporate meetings.

    Good luck to Sarfaraz.

  9. Sarfaraz Loonat permalink
    April 28, 2012

    To the ‘gentle author’ you have recorded a very befitting and accurate article.
    Firstly, well done! Secondly, Thank you.
    I will be proud to show my two daughters when they grow up this very article and will also forward on this special heart touching article to the late Mr Padam’s family…the De Hailes and Padam legacy lives on god willing.
    I wish you all the best in all that you do.
    Yours sincerley
    Sarfaraz (Saf)
    A very proud shop keeeper ‘again’ thanks to you!

  10. Aziz permalink
    April 28, 2012

    I totally agree with Stefan, customer service is the key to success. Furthermore the story tells everything. This sucess is the result of Patience, Transparency, Hardworking, Attitude, Honesty and of course customer service.
    I hope and request all the people to keep the ancestors’ history by following the way Sarfaraz has done it.

    Sarfaraz!.. keep it on….and good luck

  11. zuriee permalink
    April 28, 2012

    Thank you young man for providing a vital service in the area, it’s always nice to have someone who stocks most products and has some knowledge on them. There is normally always a smile that greets me whenever I walk in, don’t get that from the big stores. A tradesman like me can phone up and check what he has in stock and have it ready for me to pick up.
    Nothing better than the old traditional service with a smile, still waiting for my order of skyhooks thou.

  12. April 29, 2012

    A great shop & article. They always have what you want!

  13. Jeffrey Lewis permalink
    July 10, 2016

    anyone remember my shop
    Simon Lewis in Wentworth st E1
    Hardware over 100 years in same family closed in 1979Two brothers ran it David and Jeffrey

  14. Carla Holbrough permalink
    March 3, 2017

    What a lovely find. I was searching for a photograph of the shop I use to spend weekends in at the back hiding in the wooden shelves.
    My grandmother and grandfather was Dorothy and Ronald bull. I wish I knew more of the background of them but unfortunately they have both since passed on.
    Lovely to see the history of the shop still remains.

  15. Kevin Ellen permalink
    November 4, 2017

    Dorothy de Hailes and Ronald Bull were my grand parents. I once worked at the shop for a week during the school summer holidays back in 1979. Thank you for the wonderful write up and for including the history in the article. I’m so pleased to see that the shop is still going and is so true to its original form and purpose.

  16. November 4, 2017

    The shop in Key Close had an incendiary bomb land on it which caused the shop to catch fire.
    James De Hailes ran the shop with the aid of his son James known as Jim, his son in law Ron Bull and George Prevost who my grandfather took on when just a boy and gave him a job for life teaching him all there was to know about the trade.

    Beatrice Hill married James De Hailes and they both lived above the shop in Key Close bringing up their family. They had nine children but only three survived, John left the family home and started up on his own. James went into the family business and helped his father with both the shop and stall that was taken out on Saturdays.

    Ron joined the shop on being demobbed, he had married Dorothy in 1942 just before being called up. They eventually had four children and all four worked in the shop for short periods, mainly on Saturdays. I was the eldest of the four children and for working on a Saturday my grandfather would give me half a crown which was a mint of money to me at that time in the 1950’s. I would have liked to work full time in the shop but it wasn’t considered suitable for a girl.

    James died in 1956 and left the shop shared between his son James, Ron and George. Owing to certain problems left best unsaid the shop started to go downhill and it became a hard fight to keep it going. George left and Ron and James carried on until James retired. Ron’s wife Dorothy then joined him running the shop, it was hard going but Ron was intent on keeping the shop going to celebrate 100 years. After 101 years and large stores opening up in the surrounding area Ron and Dorothy felt they were too old to modernise and decided to retire.

    There were very few locks that couldn’t be repaired, there was never a call out charge just the cost of the repair, and the shop had a very good reputation with very loyal customers, it was the end of an era.

    I was so pleased to see that the shop is now in the hands of someone who is willing to carry it on in the same tradition, a couple of screws or half a dozen nuts and bolts. It may not make a lot of profit, but going in for that couple of screws can bring in further custom especially when customers find they are given good, friendly service. Nice modern frontage to the shop and certainly plenty on offer, Well Done Sarfaraz thank you for keeping tradition alive, I still feel homesick when I see the old place even if it looks a little different today.

  17. October 4, 2019

    Absolutely astonishing. Never knew there was so much history to this place. Seems almost magical. Indeed the shop is an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of nuts and bolts as someone mentioned in the comments. Great guy Saf. Fabulous customer service everytime I go in.

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