On 6 August 2011, the London riots began, and many London shops were ravaged. We hear their stories
The fires are out, the helicopters gone and the roads no longer littered with broken glass and debris. But for many businesses, the five nights of riots that began a year ago today and shocked the world have left scars far deeper than the cracks in shop window panes.
What started as a peaceful protest against a police shooting in Tottenham turned into a deluge of looting and destruction. In London alone, the rioters caused an estimated £370m damage across 22 boroughs.
One year on, while some London businesses may have put the unrest behind them, balance sheets of others remain haunted by the mayhem.
Aaron Biber, owner, Gentleman’s Hairdressing, Tottenham: “Customers I’ve had for over four decades are now afraid to come to the area.”
A year on, 90-year-old Aaron Biber’s barber shop is struggling to keep its head above water. Despite Boris Johnson and Spurs footballer Peter Crouch turning up for a haircut to help restore public faith in the area, Biber says his customers have dwindled.
On 7 August last year, Biber made his daily commute from Chingford to the shop he’s run for 40 years, only to find it in ruins: the windows smashed and the hairdryers looted – even the kettle was gone.
“I can never forgive the ruthless rioters, they completely destroyed my business. Everything was gone, it was unbelievable. My wife had passed away not too long ago and the shop was the only thing that kept me going at this age. But after the looting, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even have insurance,” Biber says.
Seeing the old man’s plight, advertising agency BBH set up a blog called ‘Keep Aaron Cutting’ to raise funds to help get his business up to speed.
“We were really horrified to read about Aaron’s shop being in tatters and really wanted to do something for him,” says Mareka Carter, art director, BBH. “Back then, social media and the internet was getting a kicking for spreading the riots, so we set up the blog to challenge that notion as well.
“Before we knew it, the blog was snowballing and we raised £35,000 within 72 hours. Aaron became an internet celebrity, he was blown away. At first he wouldn’t take the money, but we convinced him.”
The fund helped refurbish the shop, but business remains slow.
“I am really grateful that people could be so kind and large-hearted to donate money to rebuild my shop. They are the sole reason that I am still working, or I would’ve shut down.
“But business is bad. I see more journalists knocking on my doors than customers. Customers I’ve had for over four decades are now afraid to come to the area. Before the riots, I would make at least £100 a week – now I take only about £40 a week. Some weeks I take nothing.”
Kevin Smith, spokesperson, Carpetright , Tottenham: “We’re really looking forward to Tottenham getting its iconic landmark back”
Housed in an iconic art-deco building, the Carpetright building was once a famous Tottenham landmark. When it caught fire amid last summer’s riots, the local authorities were left with no choice but to demolish the building.
Today, the construction site has “I love Tottenham” posters plastered all over it, and the building will stand tall once again. Planning permission to reconstruct the building has been granted and work is due to be completed late next year.
“We’re really looking forward to Tottenham getting its iconic landmark back,” said Kevin Smith, spokesperson, Carpetright. “It just goes on to show that an area blighted by last year’s unrest will be back with a bang.”
However, the lull in business in Tottenham is quite evident. According to Kay Horne, a business connector for the charity Business in the Community, trade in Tottenham is still 40% down compared to before the riots.
“It is really tough out there. Due to Aldi, Carpetright, the post office and the job centre being burnt down, the footfall at north Tottenham has massively reduced. Many customers started visiting Wood Green and Enfield after the riots and have not returned since.”
Trevor Reeves, co-owner, House of Reeves, Croydon: “The despair caused to us is inestimable.”
Among the many photographs depicting the riots, there are perhaps none more striking than the fireball that engulfed 144-year-old furniture store House of Reeves in Croydon. The Reeves family helplessly watched their business burn down and lost an estimated £3m. But that didn’t put a stop to the Reeves’ family business – they “keep calm and carry on”.
“The last year has gone by in a flash. It was really difficult to see our family business being burnt to death in front of our eyes, but what was most endearing was that the community came out to support us. There were people crying with us yet encouraging us to pick up the pieces of the business and start over,” says Trevor Reeves, co-owner, House of Reeves.
The very next day of the mishap, the Reeves carried on trading. They had stock in their other shop round the corner and they sent out deliveries to as many customers as they could.
Today, the old site remains razed to the ground. The hoardings surrounding it feature photos of the store’s history. Every now and then, vandals try to destroy the photos, but that doesn’t deter the family.
“The business is in its fifth generation and it’s so emblematic of the area that it’s called Reeves Corner,” says Reeves. “I want to carry on the legacy and pass it on to my future generations. I wouldn’t let anyone bog us down.”
Back in April, Gordon Thompson was handed a 11.5-year jail sentence for setting a sofa on fire in House of Reeves. But Reeves cannot forgive and forget: “No punishment can ever make up for the trauma me and my family went through. We’ve taken this on our chin and are concentrating all our energy on growing the business, but the despair caused to us is inestimable.”
As for business, it’s slowly picking up and Reeves remains optimistic for the future. “We might be operating as a smaller business than before the riots, and we might not have as many customers as we used to, but we’ll keep going.”
Adrian Mills, owner, Fat Boys, a Thai restaurant in Ealing: “The revenue lost can never be made up for.”
“They were burning cars and buildings and looting away anything they could get their hands on,” says Adrian Mills, owner of Fat Boys, recalling the night a group of eight rioters rampaged his restaurant. “Scars from the night of complete lawlessness, mob-rule and meaningless destruction will always remain. It will never be a forgotten episode.”
On 8 August last year, Mills got a call from one of the waitresses working at his Ealing restaurant. A gang of about 200 people was rampaging the area. Before long, a group entered the restaurant, smashed the windows and raided the till and all the alcohol in the restaurant. Staff locked them
selves in the kitchen.
The following day, Mills shut all 12 branches of his restaurant in fear that they might too get looted.
But life moved on. Mills got £4,000 from his insurance company to replace stock and glass in the restaurant and the business was soon up and running again.
“We were back on our feet within days, but obviously we’d still lost quite a lot. The revenue lost can never be made up for and we lost one of our employees, who went back to Bangkok because he was so traumatised by the riots.”
In June this year, a 16-year-old boy admitted he entered the restaurant with the intention of stealing and received a 12-month referral order at Hammersmith Youth Court. Another youth who was prosecuted sent a letter of apology to Mills.
As for now: “We’re back on track, customer count is good and revenue looks up,” says Mills. “I hope I never have to go through another terrifying experience like that.”
Yusuf Solmus, owner, Merdan Supermarket: “I am going to shut my doors and look at shops elsewhere.”
The rioters didn’t touch Yusuf Solmus’s supermarket on Tottenham High Road, but he has still been forced to wind up his business by the end of this year because of them.
“The first six months after the riots, I didn’t see many customers coming in. There were days my till would be empty and I had to take a loan to just pay my rent and electricity bills.”
According to Solmus, profits for 2011 dipped by at least £20,000 compared to the year before. “I am going to shut my doors and look at shops elsewhere in London. People don’t come to Tottenham anymore.”
Steven Levitt, owner, Visage Hairdressers, Ealing: “People are strong, they wouldn’t let the riots change their life.”
For some, the riots weren’t nearly so traumatic. Rioters smashed Steven Levitt’s hairdressers shop front but thankfully couldn’t get into the building. Levitt got £4,500 in an insurance claim and soon got the shop shipshape again.
“It was business as usual within a day and that’s all thanks to the community really. So many people reached out to help each other and I think that really helped us put the disaster behind us,” says Levitt.
And what about business and customers?
“I see all my regular customers still coming back to the shop. People are strong, they wouldn’t let the riots change their life.”
Before-and-after images of the riots
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