On a quiet corner of a not-so-quiet part of central London, a strange event is taking place: there is a queue outside of Arthur Beale. Men in caps and comfortable shoes shuffle from foot to foot and peer through the shop's window, which is crowded with mannequins, clocks, buoys, hooks and walkie talkies. 'CLEARANCE SALE 20% OFF EVERYTHING IN STORE', reads a sign printed in bold letters on the glass. "Isn't that the funny boat shop?" a woman says to her partner as they walk by. "Yes," he replies flatly.
"It's a bit ironic," says Hugh Taylor, the shop's co-owner, with a shrug and a resigned smile as we squeeze past the queue and through the entrance, "since people found out that we're closing down, we've never been busier!" Taylor predicts that his business has increased tenfold since the news of its closure last week. "The problem is people spending £4.5o on a clip just isn't quite enough, is it?"
Arthur Beale, off Shaftesbury Avenue, is so old that no one knows exactly when it first opened, but records suggest it was around the 1500 era. A chandler - a business that supplies equipment for boats - it was originally known as John Buckingham, Hemp & Flax Dresser, Two-dealer & Rope-maker, before being renamed to the slightly more manageable Arthur Beale, after the man who succeeded Buckingham. Despite a few location changes (always in central London) It has survived plague, war and recession, supplying rope and gear for Ernest Shackleton's Arctic expeditions; Tenzing Norgay and Eric Shipton's summits of Everest and countless sailors' and seafarers' journeys into the mist and brine.
"We've supplied rope to the Royal Opera house and Central Saint Martins students for their projects too," says Taylor, who has cropped brown hair, a friendly face and is wearing an earthy fisherman's knit and dark jeans, leading me down into the shop's cellar, which is piled high with colourful lengths of rope and clocks and mirrors and dusty old ledgers. "It's a bit messy." Along with the aforementioned high quality rope, Arthur Beale sells British-made submariner knits, yellow fisherman coats, varnish, paint and innumerable tools and bits of kit. It's a sea dog emporium and a quirky specialist, two things that seem increasingly untenable in a cutthroat capital. One old, niche shop closes and then another, and before you know it everything is a TK Maxx and a ramen bar started by a guy called Ben who just got, like, totally burned out from making loads of money in the city. Inevitable? Yes. A bit depressing? Also yes.
A long-time sailor and Arthur Beale customer, Taylor only took on the business in April of last year, inheriting it from its former owner, Alasdair Flint. Before that he was in the wine business. "There are two things I love," he says, "boats and wine. Although I wouldn't recommend combining the two!" After giving the ancient brick a pat, Taylor appears briefly melancholy. "Things were sped up by Covid, but we just couldn't afford the rates. The landlord wants to refurbish the whole building, which will probably end up as flats. It was out of our hands really."
According to a recent article in the Financial Times about London's struggling old businesses, footfall in the capital is, despite restrictions lifting, down almost two-thirds on pre-pandemic levels, with craft and heritage businesses like jewellers, tailors, umbrella makers and, yes, sea dog emporiums, taking an especially hard hit. Climbing the rickety stairs of the six-storey building, it is not difficult to see why an ambitious developer might want to turn a struggling chandler into a shiny new block of flats. I can hear the polished estate agent pitch in my mind: "A lovely, recently-refurbished 10sqm space that comes with its own toilet and a shared 'chill out zone.' No, unfortunately you can't open the windows, but it does have a view of a very cool new ramen joint. The owner is asking for £3million, which really is a steal in this market."
"What I love about this place is the history that has grown around it," says Taylor as we pass a room stacked full of mannequins and enter into what looks like a captain's cabin, complete with old gas lamps and a framed receipt of a purchase made by Ernest Shackleton from 1921. "Right in this very building." I politely decline an invitation into the attic, terrified of both an ignominious fall from the narrow ladder and of awakening some dreadful seaman's curse that might lie in a dusty chest up there... or maybe just asbestos.
Though it might be leaving the site that it has called home for 150 years and the city where it began 500 years ago, Arthur Beale isn't gone yet. Taylor has managed to find financial backing and will continue the shop online. In June he will move the business into an industrial space in Buckinghamshire. It's not old London, but it's something. "The plan is a pop-up shop over Christmas and then to re-open permanently as soon as possible," he says. "I'm hoping all the goodwill from these few weeks might carry us forward. We'll have to see."
Back out on the street there's still a queue, despite what appears to be a grumbling black sky, fit to burst. If you were bobbing off the rocky shores of Polperro looking for lobster, rather than next to a Shake Shack and an estate agent, you might be a bit concerned. Two men are having an animated discussion about boats and moorings, before another man, apparently a few rums to the wind, stumbles into view. "It's a lovely old shop this one, isn't it?" he says, greeting the Boat Enjoyers. Then, to himself more than anyone, he repeats it, like a memory.
"It is a lovely old shop."
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