Small businesses in the traditional East End came together to celebrate East End Independence Day at the weekend, a festival championing the diversity of independent enterprises.
Organised by the East End Trades Guild to coincide with Small Business Saturday, the day featured street performances, ukulele workshops, street tours, jellied eel sampling and even wooden spoon carving.
London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan also participated in events, tucking into some homemade bread pudding at Bethnal Green’s E. Pellicci café. Khan agreed to join local traders for breakfast at the historic, family-run café, following a video invitation and campaign by the Guild.
Bethnal Green business celebrating East End Independents Day. Pic: Aisha Majid.
Established four years ago, the East End Trades Guild brings together over two hundred local traders.
“With small businesses it’s very difficult to be operational and strategic at the same time,” said Lia Choi, Guild member and small business owner. “With the Guild it brings us together first of all, and also brings awareness about shopping local.
“There are some misunderstandings and stereotypes that small companies are really expensive to buy from, but it’s not like that at all. I really believe that small, independent companies are building blocks to local communities.”
Saturday’s events took place across several East London boroughs, and included many of the East End’s iconic markets and commercial areas such as Shoreditch, Spitalfields, Hackney’s Well Street Market and Columbia Road.
Since coming to the area twenty years ago, the pair have seen the area change significantly, including a decline in the numbers of local shoppers compared to tourists, as prices have risen. They still believe however, that Brick Lane remains an important hub for local creativity.
“When we moved here, there were just so many different cultures and types of people and creatives,” said Wolfenden. “There was just such a sense of anything goes. You can pull inspiration from anywhere. It’s changed a lot over the years but there’s still very much that sense of vibrancy that we really engage with.”
Being based in the East End has been important in fostering collaborations for Wolfenden and Vine, including with renowned local artists Gilbert and George. Tatty Devine worked with Gilbert and George’s studio to design several pieces of jewellery commissioned by the De Young Gallery in San Francisco to coincide with the 2007 Gilbert and George retrospective. Vine said: “These markets were such key places for people to meet each other as you couldn’t just find someone on Instagram, no one had any social media as such so it was really about people meeting people.”
Small businesses are an important part of the UK economy. According to the National Federation of Self Employed & Small Businesses, small and medium enterprises employ 15.7 million people in the UK, and have a combined annual turnover of £1.8 trillion, – almost half (47 per cent) of all private sector turnover in the UK.
However, the operating environment for small businesses is getting harder as a result of rising rent and costs- including recent government increases in business rates.
Guild member Desmond, (who asked for his second name not to be used), has been running Des and Lorraine’s Junk Shop for the past thirty years or so, an eclectic second hand store on Shoreditch’s Bacon Street. “We don’t know how long we are going to be here”, said Desmond. “They are building all around us. They are closing in and we are just getting outpriced. ”
Nevio Pellicci Jr. who works at the E. Pellicci café counts his family as among the few lucky members of the Guild who own their own premises “We’re lucky because we own our business. Our grandparents were smart- they bought the property. But I talk to some of the other shops, and if we had to pay rent we would be really worried.”
Anna Pellicci serves up coffee with Tony Pellicci. Pic: Aisha Majid.
However, even for a bustling business like E Pellicci “there is more and more competition” from chains such as Costa and Starbucks opening in the area, said his sister, Anna Pellicci. The Pelliccis have also been affected by higher costs in utilities.
In light of the pressures facing many small businesses in the capital, Choi believes East End Independents Day was important in giving greater visibility and voice to small business owners. “It’s really important that we come together and have that voice together and this day is a good vehicle for that,” said Choi.
Choi is hopeful that the Guild will find support for its aims from the Mayor: “He says he is pro-business and we want to know whether he’s going to be part of the whole movement. The fact that he did say yes to coming to breakfast at Pellici’s is so encouraging. That’s definitely boosted our morale that he is serious about what he says he’s going to do so there’s hope and promise there. So we’ll see.”
The Pelliccis were also inspired by Khan’s visit to their café: “I like the fact that he is like us, a working class immigrant boy,” said Nevio. “You don’t get people like us… we’re proud of him.”
Follow Aisha Majid on Twitter