Ironmongery Returns

Upper Street Hardware
Today we start a new occasional series on shopping, shops and shopkeeping.

I have unreasonably sentimental feelings about ironmongery. Or at least I thought they were unreasonable.

As kids in South Wales my brother and I used to collect small, pearl-handled penknives, the sort you might use to scrape out a pipe (the perfect thing to keep young boys amused, though probably now illegal). Gem-like little things, in a variety of colours, but quite cheap, and affordable on a pocket-money budget.

We bought them from an ironmongers, a place that seems now to have been the platonic ideal of a village ironmongers, a treasure house of interesting but obscure bits of metal, as well as much else. I remember the ironmonger being a friendly old chap. But it couldn’t have been that special, could it? Just the usual nostalgia.

Wondering whether there were any photos of the place online, I idly googled ‘Taff’s Well ironmonger’ and immediately turned up a documentary piece on YouTube, Arthur the Ironmonger, described as:

The first part of the completed documentary on Arthur Bickerton: Ironmonger of Taffs Well. He kept a wonderful ironmongery shop in the village – it was a veritable Aladdin’s Cave.

Well, knock me down with a feather.

The documentary has something of an elegiac tone, as one might expect – I mean, local ironmongers have gone the way of the blacksmith and corner dairy, haven’t they? But no, not quite. I bring you news from Islington’s Upper Street: ironmongery is still alive and may actually be on the mend.

The newly-opened Upper Street Hardware (top) is packed with product but very smart and well-organised. Not only is it open all hours, it also offer a handyman service, a useful bit of added value. They look as if they’re doing well – certainly, whenever I’ve passed they’ve always boasted a modest queue.

It replaced a woman’s clothing shop, a rather chi-chi boutique, one of a great many that has infested this part of town in recent years.

From boutique fashion to ironmongery – might this be an indication of the future of the high street? Perhaps we’re entering a period in which mundane but useful products will return, but only so long as they are offered with service and convenience at a premium. And we’re not just talking in-store service – I suspect the handyman offer is a very important part of Upper Street Hardware’s formula.

I think it’s those high street businesses that have the flair and commitment to provide a bundle of goods and services that will be able to compete with the online and out-of-town giants. As Mr Arthur Bickerton, ironmonger of Taff’s Well, says, “I live to satisfy my customers. My life depends on making people happy, solving their difficulties and one thing and another.” A simple mission in some ways but one that, at least as far as the high street retailer is concerned, needs constant re-thinking.

***

When contemplating the devastation of the high street – and, increasingly, out-of-town retail parks – it’s only too easy to see nothing more than the demand-sucking depredations of online, price-driven monsters like Amazon. However, thriving in the shadow of these great beasts are as big a range of niche retailers as there’s ever been. The ironmongery sector is no exception.

Here’s a business that it’s difficult to imagine existing without the window on the world that the web provides: Labour and Wait. Whilst they have a shop in Shoreditch I imagine they do a lot of their business online.

This is ironmongery – along with quite a bit more – with a mission. The shop’s name is inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s exhortation to ‘Learn to Labour and to Wait’, but it’s no accident that there’s something of a Ruskinian ring to it. This is anti-fashion fashion. Artisanal ironmongery, if you like.

***

Readers sensitive to the use of language (and I imagine The Dabbler has few who aren’t) will probably have noted how rare it is nowadays to come across the word ‘ironmongery’.

It’s been more or less replaced at some point in the recent past by the far less interesting ‘hardware’: it’s Upper Street Hardware, for instance; an Americanism, I believe. It’s a shame we lost the original term, and words with the suffix ‘monger’ more generally. I guess ‘fishmonger’ is all we have left in regular usage.

The loss of ‘ironmongery’ is something that the French – with their equally magnificent quincaillerie – would not have tolerated. Language must develop, of course. But it’s worth making an effort to hold onto its more characterful elements.

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10 thoughts on “Ironmongery Returns

  1. tobyash@hotmail.com'
    Toby
    April 30, 2013 at 09:47

    An ironmonger on Upper Street in Islington? Oh please. Sounds like just another north London boutique to me – a boutique for movers and shakers searching for the inner hunter gatherer they have lost in the creative jungle of Shoreditch or the dollar paved corridors of the City. I can just see the notes on N1 fridges: Things to do on Saturday morning: Buy that gorgeous hand made wooden handled screw driver + sushi + book plumber for next week.

    • Gaw
      April 30, 2013 at 10:53

      That’s Labour and Wait you’re describing. The Upper Street one sells drain unblocker and other unglamorus items.

  2. Worm
    April 30, 2013 at 10:30

    For those of you who have yet to discover the joys of Labour & Wait as linked to above, I recommend you have a look – it’s the perfect place to buy ‘man presents’

    As for ironmongers, I’m often in our local one buying odd things like mousetraps and fencing staples, actually they are great for screws and nails which are a total rip off at the DIY megastores

  3. markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
    Recusant
    April 30, 2013 at 11:47

    If it’s anything like the rest of London’s new generation of ironmongers, they will be specialising in garish washing-up bowls, those large plaid nylon bags that Chinese factory workers use as baggage and mops that lose their heads after thirty seconds.

    In my experience, ironmongers only give you the real deal when the proprietor wears one of those brown cotton coats with the rubber buttons, a floor of plain wooden planking and the stock consists of stange items that one is unlikely to require more than once in a lifetime.

    • Worm
      April 30, 2013 at 12:57

      also, a true ironmonger should have all the walls covered in that holey fibreboard stuff, preferrably painted a grubby sky blue or battleship grey colour.

  4. philipwilk@googlemail.com'
    April 30, 2013 at 12:26

    I’ve posted about ironmongers’ shops in the past and Dabblers might like my piece about Rickards of Ludlow (here: http://englishbuildings.blogspot.com/2012/11/ludlow-shropshire_20.html), who have been monging iron for well over 100 years. Their men in brown coats were very helpful, when I visited, even though I only wanted a bar of beeswax and a ball of string.

    In my parallel universe of Southern Bohemia (aka the Czech Republic), the trend still seems to be for ironmongers to close and be replaced by boutiques. I’m glad we bought a supply of mousetraps before ours bit the dust.

    • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
      Recusant
      April 30, 2013 at 17:00

      Not sure about the ‘stud front fastening’ though. Whatever will those boys in R&D think up next?

      • Gaw
        May 1, 2013 at 17:38

        Yes, there is a certain je ne sais quoi about a rubber-covered button.

  5. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    April 30, 2013 at 13:47

    A Proustian moment here: there was a great Aladdin’s Cave-style ironmonger’s called (I think) Cooper’s on Eastney Road, just round the corner from my grandma’s house in Portsmouth. Sold absolutely everything, and different stuff every time you went in.

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