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VM Choice: London's Calvert Avenue

We start our new weekly VM Choice with a slight cheat: not one store window, but many.

Calvert Avenue, in London’s trendy East End, is well worth a visit. Virtually derelict until a few years ago, this quiet plane tree-lined street is a sanctuary of fashionable independent retailers, such as Wonderound (top) and Soboye (above) each tucked behind a beautifully painted and restored late-Victorian façade.

Part of the Boundary estate - on the boundary between Bethnal Green and Shoreditch - the red-brick buildings with ground floor storefronts were constructed between 1890 and 1900, part of the world’s first council housing. Running southeast from Shoreditch High Street, a block from St Leonard’s church, Calvert Avenue terminates with Shiplake House and Marlow House at the mound of Arnold’s Circus. Built from the remains of a former demolished slum, Friar’s Mount, this is topped with a classic Victorian bandstand.

The entire estate was formally opened by Edward VII, and recorded in a barely fictionalized account of the old slum, A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison.

The storefronts retain their original, sectioned glass and wood facades and fascias, each carefully painted in mid-grey or black, with self-coloured fabric awnings, and surrounded by glazed red brick. Each store has a central door with glass panels dividing two open-backed carriage windows in the larger stores, or inset to the side of a single window in the smaller stores – real old-fashioned store fronts.

The retail parade is quaintly interrupted by the un-restored doors to the tenement apartments above, with their peeling paint.

At the entrance to the street is Syds, one of the few original coffee stalls left in London. After Syd Tothill, a WW1 veteran, was gassed he used his disability pension to purchase the mahogany stall in 1919. It is still family owned, operates five days a week, and is now fitted with a mains water supply and electricity via the nearby lamppost. Although called coffee stalls, these stalls mostly served tea, chocolate, and a poor man’s Bovril-equivalent, Bovex. The stall stayed open continuously throughout WW2 when it served fire and ambulance crews. When the street was resurfaced in the 1960s, the stall could not be moved, so kerb-stones were placed around it, and the old cobbles are still visible underneath the cart.

On a quiet day mid-week, Calvert Avenue didn’t look bustling. In fact, the newsagents and Lennie’s Snack Bar, the only two store-fronts not renovated, probably do rather better, but I’m sure they are all very successful at weekends. Definitely worth a look!

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