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How your local coffee shop is building community

Independent retailer Ben Leask talks about his love of shops and their role in society

Ben Leask, SideStory Insider and owner of Ben’s House, talks to us about his love of independent retail, the role of stores in communities, and the little luxuries that help make life exquisite. 

We agree that small shops are absolutely intrinsic to everyday community life – why do you think that is the case?

It’s an odd thing to think about really. I first realized how fundamentally important shops are to communities on July 7 [the London bombings in 2005]. At the time I was the manager of a Sainsbury’s just behind Victoria and people were pouring into the store to feel safe. I suppose given that there aren’t as many churches at the centre of communities like there once were, people were using their local shops in the same way: they knew they’d be able to see their friends and family and find refuge there.

It’s strange to think that a Sainsbury’s is a centre of a community – a kind of ‘third space’, but on that day events proved that shops really have become just that. In everyday life your coffee shop, the place you get your lunch or some groceries are all places where you meet people, share gossip and unload a little.

I read something recently about how the only things that are going to survive the internet are hairdressers and coffee shops – the only things you can’t order online. How we’re shopping is evolving, but shops are still of vital importance to our communities.

Ben's House

What’s changing, then? Certainly anecdotally we seem to be seeing a great many more independent and artisanal shops and producers.

I think with the homogenisation of the high street, people are reevaluating their relationship with shopping in general. They hear stories about their parents or grandparents having a butcher and a greengrocer or a candlestick maker on their high street and they’re starting to see that it’s a shame that high streets don’t have those kinds of independent shops as well.

It’s not a new phenomenon: thirty or so years ago people would traverse London to buy olive oil and parmesan in Soho, but obviously what people travel for changes over the years.

At the moment it seems to be craft beer and gin…

Yes – somewhere like Highwayman Gin only makes something like 20 bottles a day, so if you want to get it, you can really only come to me, and that’s worth traveling for.

Ben's House

What do independent shops do differently?

By and large, people who own independent shops do it because they love it and because they feel passionately about it. We’re aware of how important shops are in communities and we nurture that: we deliver things for little old ladies when they can’t get out, or take in parcels for neighbours. We’re only as strong as our communities after all, so we’d be fools not to do those things. If someone’s having something gift wrapped we often tell them to sit down and have a little hot chocolate – it’s all about perfect service, really – it’s making people feel welcome in a city that’s quite fast paced and alien.

Shops are the link between producers and the public, but is their appeal down to convenience or the fact that shops offer a kind of curation?

I’ve got something like 160 suppliers and every single one of them is from London, and I know as much about the products they sell as it’s possible to know. Other specialist shops would probably say the same.

La Fromagerie supplies cheese to just about all the best restaurants in London and if you go there you’ll find the best examples of cheese on earth. Patricia (the owner) knows each of the suppliers by name. That kind of curation and knowledge is priceless.

Somewhere along the line I think customers started asking more questions about provenance. In the early 2000s and late 90s, the larger supermarkets started selling organic and fair trade lines as a way of reassuring customers about their products. It’s slightly different in the independent retail world because it’s not so faceless: if you want to know something about a product, you ask the shopkeeper.

Ben Leask SideStory

Is it something that’s just for a certain, monied clientele?

Absolutely not. I get everyone in. I get customers in who come in for a single item once a week, folks who stop by for their coffee on the way to work as well as people buying more.

During the recession this idea of the ‘lipstick economy’ really seemed to take hold – a little £5 jar of jam is your luxury in life. Fifteen years ago everyone would have gone out for dinner once a week and spent 35 quid. Now, they’ll have a little pot of homemade jam. Everyone has to have luxury in their life.

Join Ben on his food retail Experience and explore the West End independent shopping scene like you never have before. Tuck into the local gems that offer the best nibbles and meet the makers in the company of a true local.