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Steve Dobkin, Bacon St Salvage

October 12, 2020
by the gentle author

“People see a big guy, six foot tall with a bit of a growl on his face – but they don’t realise that when you get to know me, I really am a pleasant person.” confessed scrap dealer Steve Dobkin yesterday, as we sought refuge together in the warmth of the makeshift cubicle that serves as his office, squeezed between the piles of second-hand kitchen equipment which are the source of his livelihood. Yet such an apology was entirely unnecessary because Steve has a reputation as the gentle giant on Bacon St.

Operating from an eighty foot shed at the western extremity of the street, Steve always has an intriguing array of steel furniture standing on the pavement and if you enter his premises you find yourself surrounded by towers of it, receding into the gloom and piled up to the ceiling. Outside, on the wall facing the car park, is a magnificent ever-changing gallery of street art of which Steve is the patron. “I don’t understand it, but when they ask, I say ‘Do what you want.'” he admitted to me with a shy smile.

Last winter, the cold became too much for Steve, standing around in the tin shed all day in all weathers, so he build a wooden shack to keep himself warm. “I always thought, ‘Don’t have an office, you can put catering equipment there,’ but you’ve got to take care of yourself because none of us is getting any younger.” Steve confided, as the dusk gathered and the temperatures fell outside.

“My dad Sam Dobkin used to sell furniture down here in Brick Lane in the seventies, you could sell any furniture then as long as it was cheap. He was a scrap dealer always looking for an outlet. The first time I came down here was when I was around six years old, in 1972. I worked for him at weekends and holidays. I began selling off the back of a truck but I knew that – rather than selling it all for scrap – you could get more money if you had somewhere to keep it and resell it.

Nowadays, our stuff is all cleaned up and guaranteed, but in those days what you saw was what you got – just stuff straight out of a skip. It’s a form of progress, I work with electricians, gas fitters and water fitters to get everything repaired. People buy this way because it’s cheaper and they can see it working here. People like that extra bit of service. I try to give the customer what they want, if we can modify it by cutting equipment down to size, we will. You can spend fifty grand fitting out a kitchen or you can do it here for five.

I love my job. I love being here. I like getting up in the morning and coming here. When someone pulls up outside and you jump into the truck to take a look and make deal, that’s a buzz. I’m always thinking – Who’s calling up? – What am I going to be getting? – What am I going to be selling it for? Sometimes, they ring you up to sell a lot of flooring but when you get there you’re buying a lot of catering equipment – that’s a real buzz. That’s the kind of excitement you get.

You’ve got communities that come in here, they’ve got different ways to speak and you have to learn it. English people, they don’t bid for it, but Chinese and Turkish people they like to make a bid, whereas Indians will grind you into the ground if you let them. It’s different cultures, you stand your ground and be patient. No one community spends more money than another. And I’ve got to be friends with Indian people, they bring me curries. I never had so many curries since I came here. I never even had curry before I came here! You work with the people that turn up, you can’t start shouting and screaming or you’ll never make any money. I always try to find the best in everyone.

I had my first premises in 1990 in Grimsby St in one of the railway arches, next a place on Cheshire St and then one on the far side of Bacon St before I came here in 1999. I don’t know where the time has gone, but it’s been very good.

As soon as I get the right amount of money, I’ll be off – except I don’t know what the right amount of money is! You want to sell up and you think about what you’d do with the money, but then you think of all the things you’d miss. I’d miss getting up the morning and coming down here.  I’m not interested in being rich, just happy with my little shop trickling along nice and easy. I have no website, no advertising and when I leave work, I switch my phone off. I don’t even like it when I get too many customers here. One day I’ll be the manager, the next day I’ll be out cleaning the cooker. I’ve got two people that work with me but I’m no better than anyone. My son Perry and daughter Louise work here with me too, but I wouldn’t take it on if I was them. They haven’t done it since six years old like I have, they don’t know the same love for it that I have.

I’ve come to like people more because of this job. I’ve no grudge against anyone. When I first came down here, it was hard – but as the years have gone by I have realised it is not personal. I’m trying to sell at the best price and they’re trying to get it as cheap as they can. All around this area, it’s a great place to work. The first three months you’re a newcomer – but after that, if your stall breaks everyone will come to help you. If you think you’re going to make fortune you won’t, instead you’ll discover a great sense of community.”

Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

You may also like to read these other Bacon St stories

Charlie Burns, King of Bacon St

Carol Burns, Dogsbody

Bob Barrance of Bacon St

Des & Lorraine’s Collection

7 Responses leave one →
  1. October 12, 2020

    Bacon Street…has such a lovely ring to it .I think I want to live there haha

  2. October 12, 2020

    A hard worker, do not find many of them now days. Have to admit that I would love to have seen photos of the inside of the shop.

  3. Pauline Taylor permalink
    October 12, 2020

    Well done Steve, I look around in my house and wonder what tales lots of my possessions could tell of their previous lives, it is all part of life’s rich pattern and I would hate to be surrounded by everything new. I had to laugh at his experience of British people not making a bid !! That is not my experience with secondhand books, I think they all watch too much of the Antiques Road Trip and think that they can ‘make an offer’ . We have never had such a problem with customers from other countries and we meet people from all over the world, and, although I used the term British, I should really have said English, our difficult customers are, almost without exception, English, especially when it comes to being downright rude. Most people are lovely I have to say but some can be real pains. French, Germans, Italians, Spanish, Irish are all polite and pleasant to talk to but some English ~~~ well the least said the better.

  4. Greta Kelly permalink
    October 12, 2020

    I am very impressed with Steve Dobkin’s philosophy of life. He seems so happy and content. Which is not a given in this day and age. He is doing what he loves which is very important. He understands and accepts the different ethnicities he encounters.
    Sadly I didn’t know of Steve and his Salvage Shop while living in nearby Wapping.
    Hopefully I will be able to get to London next year and if so I will definitely visit Steve in his Aladdin’s Cave in Bacon Street.

  5. Bob Bailey permalink
    October 12, 2020

    I truly hope that Steve is still able to continue trading. I’ve been in here a number of times over the years and it’s a great treasure trove of things and memories (prop and settings buying) but I was a little nervous of talking with Steve Dobkin which proves that I shouldn’t have judged the book by it’s cover!

  6. paul loften permalink
    October 12, 2020

    We give knightoods to rich philanthropists donating a few crumbs of their wealth toawrds good causes yet here is a service to society that remains invisible to the blinkered eyes of those who dish out honours. The detritus of kitchens and offices that are thrown out because they are no longer in fashion. They would accumilate to such an extent if were not for people like Steve who are experts at their diposal and recycling. Surely it is time to recognise the worth of such people in our society . Sir Steve Dobkin or perhaps even Lord Dobkin of Bacon .

  7. mlaiuppa permalink
    October 12, 2020

    Now that is where I would shop if I lived anywhere near by. I love vintage. My kitchen stove is from the 50s and still works great. All of my furniture is from the second hand store except for a few pieces. Even the light fixtures are vintage. My house was built in 1922 so I try to use items that the owners would have bought in the first few decades they lived in the house.

    Now I’m putting a Victory Garden in the front yard, just as it likely would have been in the 40s.

    I could spend hours in a place like that. And likely buy something just for the love of it, then making a place for it in my house.

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