Mary Portas, The Queen of Shops, is working her retail magic in Blackheath with the opening of her latest Living & Giving Shop. Discover what she has to say about the area and take a peek inside…
Words by Nikki Spencer
Mary Portas has become a household name through her popular television shows, Mary Queen of Shops and, most recently Mary Portas: Secret Shopper. And now the retail guru and consumer champion, who started out as a Saturday girl in John Lewis and is credited with turning Harvey Nichols from a staid department store into a modern fashion powerhouse, has turned her attention to Blackheath, where she has just opened her 17th Living & Giving Shop for Save the Children.
The arrival of Mary’s new shop has certainly created a buzz locally. When it opened on Saturday 25 April, crowds gathered outside on Montpelier Vale waiting for the official cutting of the ribbon at noon (the honour fell to five-year-old Sophia Frazer) and the store was packed with shoppers eager to purchase everything from Diane von Furstenberg dresses to Grenson shoes, while doing their bit for charity. There was also a steady stream of people bringing in donations who were rewarded with goody bags of chocolates from Paul A Young and products from ila spa and Vogue.
‘Blackheath is a fabulous location and the sense of community here is second to none and we are looking forward to getting to know our neighbours,’ says Mary, adding that the shop is a ‘unique space where locals can get together and shop in an exciting new environment’.
Mary is Global Retail Ambassador for Save the Children and her Living & Giving Shops, which she first launched in 2009, have now spread all across the capital and the UK. A Londoner herself (Mary grew up in a large Irish family in a small Watford semi and now lives in Maida Vale), she knows the value of community spirit in a big city. On opening a Living & Giving Shop in Primrose Hill, near her home, she said: ‘I’m so excited to be setting up shop in Primrose Hill – there is a brilliant community already and I want local artists, craftspeople, designers, cake bakers and shoppers to come and be a part of Living & Giving.’
Mary’s love affair with shops began at an early age as she accompanied her dad Sam on his rounds as a salesman for tea company Brooke Bond. In her book Shop Girl: A Memoir (Doubleday, £16.99), she recounts her early memories of the ‘corner shop’: ‘As my father talks to the shopkeepers, I gaze at the shelves full of neat repetition and colour: bright yellow labels on Chappie dog food and bright red on Heinz soups; the green, yellow and white and red Kellogg’s Corn Flakes packets standing next to little baker men etched black against the crisp white of Homepride flour bags. These shops are places where people chat and collect news, exchange gossip and advice, meet, greet and love, or even hate, their neighbours. Even as a six-year-old, I know there is a world enclosed in the four tiny letters of the word “shop”.’
Mary has now redefined the charity shop experience by offering customers the chance to buy designer clothes donated by premium and luxury brands, as well as high quality items given by the public, in beautiful surroundings more akin to an upmarket independent store.
Every Living & Giving Shop is different and the Blackheath branch has been designed by Rosie Haine, who has taken inspiration from the ‘elegancy’ of the nearby heath and combined it with ‘regal England glamour’. Handmade kites – a reference to Blackheath’s popularity with kite fliers young and old – are dotted around, decorated with thank you messages to all the brands and retailers who have donated products, skills or time to the shop.
The store, previously the 2nd Impressions toy shop, has retained the historic feel of the building, but Rosie has enhanced it further by uncovering an original fireplace, restoring it to its former glory. She has also added a till, created using an old wooden counter from former haberdashery store, Pollards.
The shop design also celebrates some of the area’s famous residents past and present, with a collection of watercolour portraits including Blackheath-born TV cook Fanny Craddock, suffragette Emily Davison and entrepreneur Richard Branson, as well as former resident Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.
But this isn’t the first time Mary has worked her retail magic in south east London. As well as the East Dulwich branch of Living & Giving, her Portas Pilot funding scheme – the result of her nationwide High Street Review – saw Forest Hill, Sydenham and Kirkdale’s retail communities work together to win a £100,000 from the Greater London Authority for town centre improvements. The grant was bolstered by a further £115,000 from Lewisham Council and the area is now buzzier than ever.
During the first week of trading at the new store, collectable books, designer womenswear and some limited-edition menswear from footballer Edgar Davids’ Monta Heritage collection were donated.
‘It never ceases to surprise me how generous people are,’ says Shop Manager Jonathan Sinclair. ‘The community has responded incredibly to our shop and our neighbours have been on hand to share their local knowledge. We really do feel like part of the Blackheath family already.’