Celebrating 25 years trading in Sydney Street

Photo:Eric Danot in his garden

Eric Danot in his garden

Being my own boss

By Eric Danot, North Laine resident and trader

Well, to be honest, opening a bonsai shop had never crossed my mind. Two years earlier I had retired from theatre work as I realised I was never going to become the star I thought I should be, so another way to earn a living had to be found....

Work in Covent Garden

That’s why I ended up in Covent Garden, first as an assistant in Clifton Nurseries, and later as manager of Flowersmith.

I wanted to be my own boss

Nice though these jobs were though, I did hanker to be my own boss. All that was stopping me was finding what to be boss of! Friends of mine had moved to Brighton (Ladysmith Road) and asked me if I would house sit for them while they were away, which I jumped at. I’d been to Brighton several times with various shows and loved the town, as it was then, so spending more time looking around would be a bonus.

A unit up for rent

Then one fateful weekend an ex colleague arrived to hunt round the antique shops and came back with the news that a unit was up for rent in the North Laine. I was a little bemused as to why he would think that this would be of any interest to me. I lived in London and had a job. Why would I want to pursue this? That’s when, dear reader, he hit me with it: "...the only thing you have ever done really well is bonsai. Open it as a bonsai shop ."

Opened in September 1990

How impractical was that for an idea? But to humour him I just went through the motions of making enquiries - after all I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. But something strange happened. The more I looked into it, the more I wanted it to happen! And yet the problems seemed impossible to get round. I had nowhere to live in Brighton and commuting from Shepherds Bush was never going to be an option. Where would I get the trees from and if I managed that, who would buy them? Well, my friends rallied round, providing me with spare room accommodation, designed my logo, built the fittings and a supplier I’d used at the Flowersmith became my source for the trees. And that is how, six weeks after being
told about the outlet, on 1st September 1990, Bonsai-Ko opened in Kensington Gardens Arcade (now Bert’s).

No running water

Tucked in at the back with a clairvoyant and a leather goods shop (of the kind to be worn by a certain sector of the community) it was certainly interesting! However, with no plumbing or water, satisfying the needs of the stock and its owner were proving to be a bit of a problem.

Then a Sydney Street shop became available

Then in the summer of 1993 a shop in Sydney Street that sold leather goods (yes, leather again!) came on the market. It was a nice shop, good location with a butcher, baker and round the corner a candle maker (honest - no kidding!), greengrocer, and even more enticing was the large window looking out into the street. I would be able to see live people going past! And there was room upstairs, as well as a basement, and the real clincher - a small enclosed back yard.

Preparing for Christmas

It took several months before I was able to arrange tenancy, so it was October before I moved in. Obviously the fittings had to be removed and the decor improved. The place was like a jail, with heavy bars on the windows, alarms everywhere, so I set to trying to get it ready for Christmas.

Removing some unconnected wiring

The first incident to occur took place one evening when I was trying to remove some wiring that seemed not to be connected to anything at all but was proving very difficult to remove. Now me and inanimate objects don’t always get on and these wires were no exception, so I took an axe to them. To this day, underneath the new cladding on the ceiling are visible the marks that my head and hands made when that sodding burglar alarm went off and I shot about 8 ft into the air - quite a feat when you consider the ceiling is only about 7ft up.

Then the police arrived

I then had to endure the horrendous racket until the police arrived to apprehend the intruder. I had tried to switch the thing off, but no matter how many wires and cables I cut, nothing seemed to work. It then transpired that the alarm could be switched off by the police, which thankfully they did....once they’d questioned me about who I was and what I was doing with the axe.

Welcomed by the North Laine Traders Association

Shortly afterwards, later that week, I received a visit from the chairman of the North Laine Traders Association to welcome me to the street and enquire as to what the shop would be selling. On being told that it would be selling bonsai, he gave me a very bemused look...to be fair, it could even have been described as a double take, and with more than a doubt in his voice, he wished me good luck. As he left the shop I’m sure I saw his shoulders shaking as if something had suddenly amused him.

They got the giggles

I found out later that at the following meeting of the association (and it was heard from the horse’s mouth!) when it was announced that No 45 was going to sell bonsai trees, the whole room got the giggles and the general consensus was that if it lasted 6 weeks it would have exceeded all expectations... Mind you, looking back I think I only gave it a month myself, so I suppose it was quite flattering .

I've seen many shops come and go

So, here we are now, 25 years on, and whilst not quite the father of the street I have certainly seen many shops disappear: the greengrocer, butcher, candle maker, Stagedoor Cafe (that fed me in those first few years) have all gone, to be replaced with second hand clothes, falafels, tapas, musical instruments and all things eco friendly and recycled.

Constantly changing

But that is the wonderful thing about this area, it is constantly changing and that keeps it vibrant. The annual influx of new students brings new life blood too and stops everyone becoming too complacent and stuck in the mud.

A compliment

The other day I received a double edged compliment, I think. A customer came in, looked around and said "Blimey, I didn’t think you would still be here. I used to come in here when I was a kid!" and then he explained to his son what bonsai was.

Getting the hang of it

It should perhaps end there, with me saying that after that comment my work here is now done, but no, I am already onto my second generation customer and I think I might get another one or two in before I stop. I mean I’m only now beginning to get the hang of being my own boss!


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 230, September/October 2014]


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