As a piece of Brixton’s rich tapestry prepares to move on, Stephanie Harvey meets the son of the Hanif family – owners of one of Brixton’s oldest fabric stores.
Since the late eighties, Atlantic Silk Fabrics has remained steadfast through Brixton’s vibrant history. Nestled away on Electric Avenue, it has been supplying Brixton and its neighbouring areas with fabrics for nearly two and a half decades. Sadly, on January 4th, it will be closing down permanently.
Originally based on Atlantic Road, as its name suggests, the Hanifs needed to expand due to its popularity. So after three years of trading, they moved to No.28 Electric Avenue in 1991, taking the name with them.
The new place was an old arcade and gambling shop which backed onto their previous store. So, as an unusual contrast to the shop’s elegant Indian silks, the back-room floor is still decorated with the Sonic Hedgehog carpet, as a memoir to the store’s previous life. That’s where I’m stood, chatting to the son.
Business has always been good for the Hanifs. He explains: “People have been coming to us from far away, often outside London and as far afield as Wales. We never knew how they found out about us. It’s amazing because my dad never advertised. He just relied on word of mouth.”
Most regular customers have been tailors and students who used their materials for projects, or people buying fabric for weddings and special events.
The shop has been so successful, according to Mr Hanif, because nowhere else offers such a wide variety of haberdasheries.
“The nearest store which is similar to ours is in Balham, and the lady who owns that was an old customer of ours who used to visit all the time,” he says.
I examined the endless ribbons, exotic buttons and luxurious cloths. In fact, the shop is surprisingly large, stretching back and opening into a large room where glittering materials adorn the walls. Islands of fabric divide the room. But, for the first time, a few of the shelves are becoming bare.
Mr and Mrs Hanif have always worked full-time at the store, employing just one other person to help them out. They opened the shop after retiring from their jobs at Scotland Yard and London Transport respectively. That was 22 years ago.
Now in their late sixties, they feel it’s time to move on – they are preparing to retire. The shop requires a lot of work. And sadly, their two children who both work full-time are unable to carry on the responsibility of the store. The Hanifs didn’t want to simply hand the business over to someone they don’t know.
“We once tried employing a manager to run the store but he wasn’t reliable – prices would be inconsistent which would upset our customers, and items put on sale without our consultation. So we decided it was keep it in the family or not at all,’’ said the son.
Alongside the shop, they also owned the basement flat and the two apartments above the store. They have always been vacant though. They believed no one could live there as the only means of entering is through the shop.
They have not met the person who has bought the shop from them, and are uncertain of what will happen to the building once they leave. However, there is a rumour that it could become a large fish and chip restaurant.
“We have seen Brixton and the market here develop a great deal over the years; it used to be a lot rougher,” the son tells me. “Now it’s booming – tourists from all over the world come to see Brixton. Whereas in other areas you see shops closing down, there is nothing left empty here. It’s a good time for businesses.”
The shop is still stocked, but it’s all going fast.
“Everything is half-price,” he says. ” This is not just to clear stock, but as a gesture to show how much we have appreciated our customers and their loyalty – to say thank you. Many of them are sad we are shutting down.”
The 4th of January is the day that Atlantic Silk Fabrics will close its doors for the last time.