“Most people who come here buy prayer candles, and I’ve been told that they do work”, says Jenny, proprietor of one of Brixton Market’s most fascinating shops.
“I have had people who bought prayer candles for steady work come back and tell me that they now have a job,“ she explains matter-of-factly, whilst gesturing to a colourful array of candles catering to a multitude of purposes including work, love, faith, loss and birth. “I strongly believe in candle-burning, I always get one for my birth sign that I burn near my birthday. Based on the faith people have, they can work.”
I am standing in the intriguingly named ‘Original Products, Religious Artefacts: Herbs’ store surrounded by a bewildering display of life-sized Jesus statues, black Orishas, candelabras, handmade Haitian sequined flags and rosary beads in every colour imaginable. “People who are religious come here – people who want to have their prayers answered, “Jenny explains. “For those who believe, prayers can do magic.”
The air is pleasantly perfumed by incense and the stereo behind the counter plays a prayer song by a priest and a nun. In the background I hear another sound, something decidedly less ethereal – a bird? “Yes,” nods Jenny,” I have a large green Amazonian parrot, called Cindy, upstairs, she can talk but she is very noisy.” Finding a parrot on the premises should perhaps not be that surprising, considering that the previous occupant some 17 years ago was in fact a pet shop. “For the first few months, I was allocated number 14E on the corner over there,” Jenny points to a nearby shop. “Then the pet shop closed down and I moved in.”
“I’ve been here almost 20 years now – that’s a long time!” she exclaims. “When I retire, I will never open another shop. I don’t want to work my entire life, do you? Maybe in another five years I will be out of here and retire to the Caribbean. My Haitian husband will make the decision what to do, but perhaps I will get one of my friends to take over the shop.”
She sings along to the prayer on the stereo. “I was brought up a Catholic, so I know the complete Mass of course, because I had to learn it as a child.”
Jenny was born in the Caribbean but relocated to Connecticut, USA, as a young girl. Whilst there, she trained and practised as a nurse. From the tropical heat, she now found herself surrounded by cold temperatures and heavy snowfall. As a nurse, she often worked the late shift from 11pm to 7am, something that proved very difficult in the tough winter months when slippery roads became treacherous. “I often had to call the cops so they could help me get to work, as even with winter tyres and chains on I often ended up spinning around with my four-wheel drive car on the slippery roads, “ she reminisces. “And once, the roof of our house fell down because there was too much snow on it.”
After some time, she left the USA and settled in east London, commuting each day to her Brixton shop. “Why Brixton?” I ask. “Why not?” she replies softly. Jenny is warm and chatty, yet adamant that not everything we speak about should make the published
interview. “Can I take a picture of you in the shop?” I enquire. Jenny declines. “That’s too personal – take some of the shop instead.”
A suited man enters the shop. “Do you have, or did you stock, any Christian advent calendars? I have looked everywhere but it’s really hard to find Christian ones, I have only found Santa ones,” he laments. Jenny shakes her head: “No sorry, I don’t have any; you can try the internet?” The man looks dejected, “I did already – I found nothing.” The man leaves empty-handed.
“The best thing about having been in Brixton Market so long is that we are established and people know about us”, says Jenny as she eats her lunch at the counter. “Our location here means people walk through every day.” Many of those walking past cannot resist the temptation to pop in and have a look at the many religious objectsfor sale, Jenny says. A large number have been brought over from Haiti, every time her husband goes back to see his family. “The earthquake in Haiti about five years ago was horrible, I knew people who died in it. It’s still so sad there, lots of people still have nowhere to live,” Jenny’s voice is tinged with sadness. “Haiti is still a mess; all the leaders, all the funds… nobody knows where the money is. So, every time I get money in the wishing well (she points to a large dusty plastic well filled with water, situated in front of a life-sized Jesus statue) I send it directly to the people in Haiti so I know that it gets straight to those who need it.”
As I leave the shop, I notice a shelf with five dusty, old-fashioned glass jars with type-written labels: ‘Jinxremoving’, ‘Success’, ‘High John the Conqueror’, ‘Commanding’, ‘Fast luck’. I instantly feel a little like Alice must have felt whilst visiting Wonderland. These are bath salts, explains Jenny. “Do they actually work? Can you remove a jinx? Is there such as thing as fast luck?” I ask. Jenny shoots me a bemused look. “If you have faith as small as the mustard seed, it can move mountains.”