There’s something bewitching – and deeply melancholic – about old shop signs disinterred during refitting and renovation. After decades hidden away, they are often in the light just for a few hours or days before being again entombed under plastic fascia. A fleeting memento of a past era.
I spotted the sign above – ‘Tobacconist – S.E. DEVENISH – Confectioner’ – on Junction Road in north London. From the top deck of a bus. By the time I returned a couple of hours later, the sign – earlier pristine and freshly uncovered – had been drilled into in preparation for the new nameboard.
And now, just a couple of days on (as the photo on the right illustrates), the old sign has again been laid to rest.
Small businesses such as this have left next-to-no digital footprint. Search as you may, they simply aren’t there. For S.E. Devenish, I have untraced just one internet reference – suggesting that in the 1960s or ’70s this business printed postcards, historical maps of London localities. I seem to think I remember these. Yet it’s through the internet, and a blog, that I heard from Ken – brought up nearby but long since moved away – who has memories of popping into this shop to buy sweets half-a-century and more ago.
Less than a mile away, a still older shop sign has enjoyed a very different fate. Last year, Cafe Brassino on Kentish Town Road – a greasy spoon type of place as far as I can make out – closed down.
As the building was being refitted as a kebab shop, an elegant handpainted shop sign, probably from the 1920s, came to light. I photographed it, and others did too, and lamented that this evocative sign would soon again be obliterated.
‘E. Mono / For Value’ – painted with a flourish. A business without any digital record whatsoever, not even in the 1911 census. Kentish Town Library just across the road, has a local history section so denuded that if offers no clue about the store’s line of business.
There will no doubt be information to be retrieved from street directories. The 1915 Post Office Directory, which is online, declares this shop to have been a branch of Boots the Chemists. The Mono business seems to have moved in later – certainly the Mono family are listed from this address in a phone directory from the late 1920s.
This story, though, has a happy ending. Although the owners of the new business knew nothing of E. Mono, and certainly didn’t share the surname, they decided to make a virtue of the signboard. They incorporated it into the new shop front, and chose it as the name of their kebab shop.
It was a smart marketing move – not only gaining the approval of local bloggers but also the attention of food critic Giles Coren. In the Christmas Eve edition of The Times, he gave Mono’s kebabs 8 out of 10 – ‘the best kebab I’d had in years’, he declared, describing the kebab shop as (and this is a bit of a stretch) ‘the hippest place to be seen at the moment’.
The Times article is hidden behind a pay wall, but a local paper reported how the review catapulted E. Mono and its kebabs to ‘superstar’ status. (I’ve been there myself – the kebabs are not at all bad).
And all this from the serendipitous decision to save an old shop sign.