Anne Fairbrother is a Brixton Village pioneer whose grandmother also worked in Brixton retail. She talks to Jessica Whitham about why her project Cornercopia has had to leave Brixton after a decade of operation and about plans for the future
Cornercopia, which had been a fixture of Brixton Village for more than 10 years, recently closed its doors.
The Streatham branch, at 63 Streatham Hill, is still in operation.
“We were one of the first new businesses to open up as part of the empty shops project,” says Anne Fairbrother, who began the business with her partner Ian Riley.
Eleven years ago, the market was in serious decline.
“More than 50% of units were closed,” Anne recalls.
After [then owners] London & Associated Properties’ planning application for mixed use of Brixton Village was denied, the Spacemakers Agency group came up with an idea of inviting the local community to come through with proposals to bring the market back to life.
Other pop-ups at the time included the sweetshop Sweet Tooth and the now hugely successful Okido.
“Initially it wasn’t only about trade, they wanted artists and community groups to get involved, and to see the market really as like a hub,” says Anne.
“I got really excited by this idea of collaboratively helping to re-energise the market.”
This initial re-development of Brixton Village was imagined by Douglas Hine, who started the Spacemakers Agency, to benefit the existing traders by bringing in long-term tenants as well as more customers.
“We applied for one of the units with an idea that was about creating a local food hub,” Anne says.
“At that particular point, all that was on offer was a very, very empty unit with a few electrical sockets.
“We had two weeks to get ready to open.
“Over time it evolved into a neighbourhood restaurant with a focus on sustainability.”
The Village was not such a foodie destination at this time. With Rosie’s Deli Café, which closed several yerars ago, Cornercopia began to change that.
Cornercopia paid for the necessary night security guards themselves and, once other restaurants followed, the night-time economy of Brixton Village really took off.
International media, including the New York Times, covered developments.
“In two years, it went from being half empty to being voted the best place to eat in London by Time Out,” Anne recalls.
The Blog has extensively covered how the Village acted as a hub for the community over the years.
“Change is not necessarily a bad thing,” Anne says. “It’s all about how it is managed, how does it benefit the community?
“That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about Brixton, I’ve always thought that there’s been a core of really interesting thinkers, or people that are very interested in community, and innovative.”
Cornercopia moved out of Brixton Village after a long battle with the current owners – the giant US finance firm Angelo Gordon and its partner Hondo Enterprises, which runs the market on a day-to-day basis via a number of agencies.
After their unit leases came to an end, Cornercopia were given “tenancy at will” status. This can be ended by tenant or landlord at any time and comes without a contract or any security of tenure.
Initially it seemed a temporary measure while waiting for a new rent figure.
However, Anne stresses: “We were not a casualty of the pandemic. They were asking for a rent increase that was over 40% more.
“Like many other businesses, we’d had to take out bounce-back loans, other loans, just to keep going, and our turnover had been massively reduced.”
To cut costs, Cornercopia let one unit go, and continued negotiations on the space it used as a plant shop.
“Once we actually received the new contract, there were so many things that we couldn’t actually agree to,” Anne says.
“We understand that rents have to increase, but we want them to increase incrementally and to be at a market rate which is appropriate for the footfall.”
Cornercopia also launched an online operation during lockdown, offering plant deliveries by cargo bike.
With the closing of the Brixton store, Cornercopia have switched their focus to the remaining shop in Streatham.
“We never really intended to have a shop, we started off with an idea of how we could make connections between traders in the market and bring people back,” Anne says.
“You have to think about what really makes you unique, and how you can have an ongoing relationship with the community.”
With the extra space on Streatham Hill, there will be an increased focus on workshops again.
This move away from traditional retail could include sessions on life drawing, clothes mending and plant care.
Despite the plans, Cornercopia will leave a big hole in Brixton Village.
“I feel very sad that we’ve had to leave Brixton,” says Anne, for whom retail in Brixton is something of a family tradition. Her grandmother many years ago worked in the umbrella section of the Bon Marché department store (now T K Maxx).
Cornercopia is open daily from 10.30am to 6pm.