Life at a corner shop in Camden

Open All Hours: A Conversation With Camden’s Cornershops

Cornershops remain a cornerstone of neighbourhood life; the place to grab a packet of this or a bottle of that late into the night. So, what’s it like working on Camden’s retail frontline?

In today’s atomised and digitised society, the cheery real world beacon of a local convenience store still shines brightly at the end of the street for millions of us. Throughout the darkest days of the Covid lockdowns and while other UK high street staples are buffeted by waves of existential change, these little shops seem resilient to it all by virtue of their sheer usefulness. 

But with a real challenge in busy urban boroughs like Camden now coming from the flood of new 24/7-groceries to-your door-in-minutes apps, will the bright lights, teetering boxes of snacks, wonky shelves of essentials, and community chit chat over a scratch card soon be threatened by an even more convenient digital model?

For many of these local shopkeepers and their staff, business remains largely as it always has done.  The magazine racks might have conceded space to fridges of oat milk and pots of hummus, but the realities of offering people the things they need on their nearest corner haven’t really changed. By staying open late, they are the natural stop-off for the full spectrum of society.

We spoke to some of the unsung retail heroes about a life behind the counter after dark, and while they were guarded about recounting the more dramatic late night moments in their history to avoid negative press, they reveal the vital role these shops have provided in the community for many decades

Tell us a bit about your shop and how you’ve managed over the last couple of years dealing with Covid.

Huseyin, Natura Fresh, Pratt Street [pictured above]: “This is a family-owned business – we’ve been around for 18 years. We have gradually grown with the area and the demand for healthier eating, and established a better layout. At the start of Covid, business was really good because people were rushing out and just buying and buying, and pretty much everywhere else was closed. Then it started to die down and ultimately it went down quite a bit, so we closed for three months as that seemed the best time to renovate. Now business is growing again.”

Mahmed, Leverton Stores, Kentish Town: “I’ve been open for about 35 years. I used to come around Camden a lot, and then a friend introduced me to this area and I settled on Kentish Town. It’s been a rocky two years and hopefully it’s going to get better now, but with new variants we still don’t know what’s going to happen. Lots of local businesses are shutting down and landlords are getting very greedy trying to recover their own losses. The rent is always high: I’ve got to work all the God-given hours in the shop to pay my rent.”

Prashant, Fabs Food, Belsize Park [pictured below]: “The shop has been here for over 10 years, but the last year was a different story because of the pandemic. It got very busy because we are next to Primrose Hill park so we had queues going outside and around the block. I had to stand at the door and stop the people all trying to come in at once. We also had so many stock items that were just not getting delivered, with customers wanting to buy more. That was tough, as the products often just weren’t arriving.”

Amit, Princess News, Primrose Hill [main image]: “The business is very old. It’s been here for nearly 35 years. We were a small shop once, just behind the store room but then the boss changed, and the place was renovated and made a lot bigger. I’ve been working here for the last three years. Over Covid business was ok, it went up really. We’re in the middle of a residential area so people need everything at all hours of the day.”

What is it like working in the shop at night and how does it differ to the daytime?

Huseyin: “Camden Town is really lively, especially on the weekends. After midnight it can feel more lively than pretty much anywhere else, but we’re alright with that. It’s mainly because of the all the Greek restaurants around us, and a lot of people come in from places like Essex or Leicester for a big night out. You get a lot of bubbly customers, man. You can joke around with them, and I’ve found the more open you are, the more you can have a nice dialogue with people. Ultimately from working in the shop I’ve got a lot more confidence. Camden’s great for getting to know all sorts of different people, and we like to let customers enjoy their time in the store. It’s not like any other store where you go and buy and leave, we’ll have a laugh at night, and it gives it that different atmosphere.”

Mahmed: “Ours is a quiet neighbourhood really, so later in the evenings its very calm in here. Unlike other places, there’s not much difference between the customers in the daytime compared to the evenings. We get quite sociable people, good natured, not any trouble-makers or anything like that. Our local MP is Mr Keir Starmer and he lives in the neighbourhood. It’s good to see him more or less everyday. He’s the kind of nice person we get in really.”

Prashant: “Evenings are always busy for us. “In the summertime at night it is because of the park so we get all sorts of different types of customers coming in, but right now it’s more our local regulars. Some people can be aggressive sometimes, but mostly there are good people around here. Having said that, over the last month on this road at night I think five or six of our customers have had their phones snatched by people on bikes. They always come into the shop asking if they can call the police.”

Amit: “Lots of kids come in here after school until around 6.30pm, which means it’s always lively, and we get construction workers who finish on their sites as there’s always a lot of building work going on nearby. The daytime is usually busier for us though, with the tourists passing on their way to London Zoo.”

How are things changing for the shop and the neighbourhood?

Huseyin: “There’s are a lot more students now, so people live round here for a year or two, but end up moving out. There are a lot more Airbnb properties too. When we first started there was more people who’d lived here 15-odd years having little kids. Obviously due to Covid we’ve had a lot less tourists and office staff. When we first opened, we had more street drinkers which was always causing us problems, but since we’ve stopped selling heavy alcohol there’s been a massive reduction in those type of customers coming into our store.

Camden is a lot dearer than other areas due to rent and rates, but because were off the main High Street we can be competitive in terms of the price of cigarettes, drinks and stuff like that. Ultimately with our move into organic, vegan and the healthy option side, we tend to provide much fairer prices than elsewhere. Up at Wholefoods it’s just too expensive so you can’t shop there every day, but with us we try to give a fair price on a broad range of products, so it gives people the chance to actually eat healthy. We’re hoping to open up a juice bar and a salad bar soon, and lots of people like what we’ve done updating the store for a whole new era.”


Find this article in our latest print magazine: Camdenist Presents… The Night, out now across the borough and Central London.


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