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At Newmans Stationery

January 26, 2020
by the gentle author

Qusai & Hafiz Jafferji

Barely a week passes without at least one visit to Newmans Stationery, a magnificent shop in Bethnal Green devoted to pristine displays of more pens, envelopes, folders and notebooks than you ever dreamed of. All writers love stationery and this place is an irresistible destination whenever I need to stock up on paper products. With more than five thousand items in stock, if you – like me – are a connoisseur of writing implements and all the attendant sundries then you can easily lose yourself in here. This is where I come for digital printing, permitting me the pleasure of browsing the aisles while the hi-tech copiers whirr and buzz as they fulfil their appointed tasks.

Swapping the murky January streets for the brightly-lit colourful universe of Newmans Stationers, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I went along last week to meet the Jafferjis and learn more about their cherished family business – simply as an excuse to spend more time within the hallowed walls of this heartwarming East End institution.

We thought we would never leave when we were shown the mysterious and labyrinthine cellar beneath, which serves as the stock room, crammed with even more stationery than the shop above. Yet proprietor Hafiz Jafferji and his son Qusai managed to tempt us out of it with the offer of a cup of tea in the innermost sanctum, the tiny office at the rear of the shop which serves as the headquarters of their personal empire of paper, pens and printing. Here Hafiz regaled us with his epic story.

“I bought this business in October 1996, prior to that I worked in printing for fifteen years. It was well paid and I was quite happy, but my father and my family had been in business and that was my goal too. I am originally from Tanzania and I was born in Zanzibar where most of my relatives have small businesses selling hardware.

I began my career as a typesetter, working for a cousin of mine in Highgate, then I studied for a year at London College of Printing in Elephant & Castle. My father told me to start up a business running a Post Office in Cambridge in partnership with another cousin. They sold a little bit of stationery so I thought it was a good idea but my mind was always in printing. Every single day, I came back after working behind the counter in Cambridge to work at printing in Highgate, before returning to Cambridge at maybe one or two in the morning. I did that for almost two years, but then I said, ‘I’m not really enjoying this’ and decided to come back to London and work full time with my cousin in Highgate again.

I wondered, ‘Shall I go back to Tanzania where my dad is and start a business there or just carry on here?’ After I paid off my mortgage on my tiny flat, I left the print works and I was doing part time jobs and working a hotel but I thought, ‘Let’s try the army!’ Yet by the time I got to the third interview, I managed to find a job working for a printer in Crouch End. Then I had my mother pushing me to get married. ‘You’ve got a flat and you’ve got a job,’ she said but I could not even afford basic amenities in my house. If I wanted to eat something nice, I had to go to aunt’s house.

I realised I needed a decent job and I joined a printing firm in the Farringdon Rd as a colour planner, joining a team of four planners. Although I had learnt a lot from my previous jobs, I was not one of the most experienced workers there and I found that the others chaps would not teach me because I was the only Asian in the workforce. I used to do my work and watch the others with one eye, so I could pick up what they were doing and get better. I think I was a bit slow and so, for a long time, I would sign out and carry on working after hours to show that I was fulfilling my duties.

We did a lot of printing at short notice for the City and my boss always needed people to stay on and work late. Sometimes he would ring me at midnight and ask. ‘Hafiz, a plate has gone down, can you come in and redo it?’ I always used to do that, I never said ‘No.’

After five years, the boss asked me to become manager but I realised that I wasn’t happy because there were communication difficulties – people would not listen to me. My colleagues did not like the fact that I never said ‘No’ to any job. So I felt uncomfortable and had to refuse the promotion. When I decided to leave they offered me 50% pay rise.

Then a friend of mine who was an accountant told me about Newmans, he said was not doing very well but it was an opportunity. We looked at the figures and it did not make sense financially, compared to what I had been earning, yet me and wife decided to give it a go anyway. It took us seven years to re-establish the business.

I am still in touch with Mr & Mrs Newman who were here in Bethnal Green twelve years before we came along in 1996. Before that, they were in Hackney Rd, trading as ‘Newmans’ Business Machinery’ selling typewriters. I remember when we started there were stacks of typewriter ribbons everywhere! Digital was coming in and typewriters were disappearing so that business was as dead as a Dodo.

It was always in my mind to go into business. My idea was simply that I would be the boss and I would have people working for me taking the money. After working fourteen hours a day for six days a week, I thought it would be easy. Of course, it was not.

We refurbished the shop and increased the range of stock. We had a local actor who played Robin Hood when we re-opened. We wanted an elephant but we had to make do with a horse. We announced that a knight on horseback was coming to our shop.

We deal directly with manufacturers so we can get better discounts and sell at competitive prices. I concentrate on local needs, the demands of people within half a mile of my shop. I go to exhibitions in Frankfurt and Dubai looking for new products and new ideas, I have become so passionate about stationery…”

Nafisa Jafferji

Marlene Harrilal

‘We wanted an elephant but we had to make do with a horse’

The original Mr Newman left his Imperial typewriter behind in 1996

Hafiz Jafferji

Qusai Jafferji quit his job in the City to join the family business

Qusai Jafferji prints a t-shirt in the recesses of the cellar

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Newmans Stationery (Retail, Wholesale & Printing), 324 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 0AG

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. January 26, 2020

    As a chronic chopper-and-changer I do all my writing on computer these days (so much so that my once-neat hand-writing is now rubbish), but it’s good to read of a business that’s bucking the trend. Good on them!

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 26, 2020

    Wow – that looks like my favourite kind of shop!

    I’m definitely going there next time I’m in the area…(and will no doubt be tempted to buy loads of design and model making materials!)

    And I had no idea there were so many varieties of UHU, my favourite glue.

  3. James Hurley permalink
    January 26, 2020

    Wonderful. A proper stationery store – long may they prosper.

  4. Jude permalink
    January 26, 2020

    Love independent shops but this one is my idea of heaven!

  5. January 26, 2020

    An uplifting story yet again from the Gentle Author.
    I for one will be trotting along to Newman’s more as a
    result of this article. And printing my own T shirts sounds very
    tempting ! ?

  6. January 26, 2020

    It’s a good thing I live in madrid, I wouldn’t be able to resist buying tons of stuff. I find myslf irresistibly attracted to stationery, although I never use it anymore. I do all my writing on computers and my hadnwriting is now illegible (although it was never very good). It’s a wonderful shop. Please congratulate the Jafferjis.

  7. Patricia permalink
    January 26, 2020

    Magnificent photographs of the Jafferji family and Marlene. The essence of the people come through very powerfully and they are complemented, not diminished, by the beautifully displayed and intriguingly varied colourful stock. The GA and Sarah have once more made another people to people engagement, which allows us to have insights into Mr Jafferji’s pretty amazing story of how he came to achieve his business. Hard won it was too.
    Now, I live in the countryside, 20 miles away from any stationary shop.
    This (his) story has made come alive, and is a reminder of the sheer pleasure gained from spending time browsing and purchasing in stationary shops, which was once part of my town life.

  8. Mary permalink
    January 26, 2020

    Who does not love a stationer? Long may the Jafferjis prosper.
    Does anyone out there remember the lovely stationery shop on the Mile End Rd in the 1970s? I used to love going in there to buy the paper and envelopes for my love letters to my boyfriend (now husband of 46 years).

  9. Thomas Toronto permalink
    January 26, 2020

    That was a wonderful story. Such a fine shop, like the others have stated – I shall make a beeline to it when in Bethnal Green. I was horrified to learn the difficulties he experienced, despite dedication, talent, resourcefulness, and determination – simply because he was Asian. Where are those wretched co-workers now? And the manager – I am given to wonder what he did to curb that racist behaviour? That was such a good item, a nice departure from your saving bells and worrying about building facades. I would like to see a few more of these types of items in your virtual pages.

  10. Jan permalink
    January 26, 2020

    I’m so envious. I can’t walk past a stationery shop without going in for a browse.

  11. James permalink
    January 26, 2020

    Thanks for this. I’m always pleased to learn that there are still such shops and shopowners serving your citizens. In the US, shops dedicated to stationery, pens, paper, and writing supplies are as rare as factual statements from the current administration. Things in the writing supplies line are only found in big box chain stores with generally congenial but marginally knowledgeable staff. I hope these Bethnal Green merchants continue to do well.

  12. Richard permalink
    January 26, 2020

    I love stationary shops!

  13. Alifya Sulemanji permalink
    January 27, 2020

    Nice shop! I know the owners, they are wonderful and very kind people. Love the tshirt printing. Some day I’ll get one personalized for myself.

  14. Munira Hamza permalink
    January 27, 2020

    What a lovely store! The Jafferji’s are beautiful people and their store is just an extension of the gentle beauty they add to the world in general.

  15. Masrurah Abdulhusein permalink
    January 27, 2020

    The atmosphere here is vibrant and impressive. The shelves were arranged prim proper. All stationery needs under one roof ! I got a lovely paper blank , it’s cover had Arabic artistry , others had Europian and Asian antiquity . I was inspired how the shop came into existence. Smart work , focus and determination . Success and joy in future ventures.

  16. January 28, 2020

    I knew the Newmans when they were in Hackney road and remember their move to Bethnal Green Road and take over by current owner

    I buy all my pens and paper there. Love that shop!

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