Amidst a barrage of customer enquiries, Neil Sammonds taps into the local knowledge of Tony Benest of Brixton Wholefoods.
“Do you know what the ‘DG’ on the brickwork opposite stands for?” asks Tony as we stand at the door of the shop he has worked at for 30 years.
“It stands for David Greig, the Scotsman who established 220 self-service deli-type grocery shops across southern England from the 1870s. That was his HQ. He had a sausage-machine in the front window,” he continues.
Tony went on to explain that while David Greig was a revolutionary, the idea didn’t quite catch on. The middle-classes who came into his shops wanted to be served, rather than to serve themselves, and the chain went bust in the 1960s.
“The idea caught on though, thanks to a man called Jack Cohen who had a barrow in Brixton market. That grew into Tesco. One of his first shops was on Pope’s Road where the Sikh-run kitchenware shop is now, opposite the public toilets.”
This history is news to me. As a fan of Tony’s store, I’ve been coming here for my organic muesli, porridge, veggie burgers, lentils, Ecover washing-up liquid and Essex honey for 15 years. And, of course, to delve into those wonderful old sweetshop jars of herbs and spices.
I also confess to having been a tad daunted by the bearded man that I now interview. He had seemed a bit serious as he walked perpetually between the storerooms at the back, the shelves and downstairs, but in fact he is really quite chatty.
Tony peppers me with his mixture of local and global knowledge while carrying out a bundle of chores, and while fielding scattergun queries from customers.
“The Barrier Block”, he says suddenly, referring to the flats of Southwyck House around the corner on Coldharbour Lane, “has so few windows as it was expected to face the planned Inner Ring Road. The plans were shelved, however, due to the OPEC crisis.”
We are interrupted. ‘Do you have buckwheat flour?’ he is asked.
So he shows the customer where it is.
“Brixton Wholefoods all began in a squat across the road in the 1970s,” continues Tony jovially. “Then it was the Brixton Bangladesh Union, collecting food, furniture and second-hand clothes to sell to raise money to send to Bangladesh at the time of the famine.”
He tells me that after a while there were surpluses of food and it evolved into a wholefood shop.
“What is now the Knight Webb Gallery was the Rasta Barn and from there, past a thin wooden partition, ganja. The theological debate would drift into what is now Lounge, which was then the Grain Bar.” The ‘transatlantic’ reference on the shop-front is a wink to its history on both sides of Atlantic Road.
‘Do you have organic raspberry leaves?’ another customer asks him.
In the 1970s Tony was travelling from India to Australia and New Zealand. There he worked on a fruit farm and had learnt to love macrobiotic diets, loathe fluoridation of the water supply, and soar beyond the disappointing ‘meat and potato’ diet of the white population.
When he returned to London he shopped in the Brixton Bangladesh Union and fell into a personal and business relationship with Hilary who was working there. They had two children and are still housemates and business partners (if no longer romantic).
I shadow Tony as he spins round pots of bouillon. We pass the herbal teas and organic Fairtrade coffee grown by women, beyond the falafel mix and the fig and quinoa cookies, into the storeroom.
He nods towards a 1870s picture of Atlantic Road. There is a horse-drawn carriage in front of the aforementioned David Greig’s. It is on a road which Tony explains would have been made of elm-wood cobbles.
Then he points out the delights of Infinity Foods on the shelves, whose organic produce is just a little more costly than non-organic. He is not, by the way, a vegetarian and likes sardines – so the shop does sell canned fish and chicken-flavoured stock: a free-thinking progressive?
A dozen years back I had nervously asked Tony if he’d stop selling Israeli Tivali foods, as part of a consumer boycott. He answered with a question: “And keep selling Turkish nuts and U.S. raisins?”
Still, he agreed to sell copies of the pro-Palestine magazine that I edited and didn’t take a penny of the cover price, unlike others.
The secret to the shop’s cut-price herbs and spices, he explains, may owe a respectful tug of the beard to that man David Greig. Self Service.
“We empty in 1kg bags and people weigh and bag-up themselves. It can be a scrum for the scales sometimes,” Tony says.
‘How do you use valerian root? Is it heavier than sleep tea?’ another customer asks him.
Tony explains that he works a hefty 80-90 hours a week all year round. With 12-hour days of shelf filling, taking deliveries, paying bills, cashing up, Sunday is the only ‘day off’ in which he can focus on doing orders. And, he says, repair the damage done to the shop on Saturdays.
“I really used to be more sociable” he chuckles.
Brixton, I feel, owes Tony a huge thanks and a big mug of that valerian root tea.