“It literally was a case of ‘Save The Waiting Room’ as we had been on the verge of closing for good.”

This post was written with Alec Snelling & Kevin Greenham from the Waiting Room, a vegan café on 134 Deptford High Street.

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When the Waiting Room announced its relocation in spring 2018, they did it with a Kickstarter campaign to raise £12,500 to help them cover the relocation costs. They’d been in the tiny premises of 142 Deptford High Street for 7 years, experiencing difficult working conditions (mainly heat and lack of space), leaks and structural issues, and difficulties with the landlord. They had seriously considered packing it in but when Nightingale Pharmacy moved to the former HSBC building and offered the premises at 134 Deptford High Street for a reasonable price, the guys at the Waiting Room saw an opportunity to move to bigger and better premises, only 3 doors down from their former shop. This was important as the Waiting Room isn’t just a coffee shop but is part of the community on this bit of the High Street with close connections to Kids Love Ink, Rag ‘n Bone and SWAG CITY. However, they could not afford the move without financial help which is why they started the Kickstarter campaign. The link to the campaign was shared all over social media and their plight even made it into Time Out Magazine, and within no time, they raised more than they had asked for. Information about the campaign spread like wildfire, with locals very keen to save the much-loved Waiting Room. Interestingly, when the link to the campaign was shared on Facebook, I noticed one comment: “Why don’t they just take out a bank loan?” one woman asked. Little did she know about the Waiting Room, its origins and the people who run it. Alec and Kevin were aware that the history of the Waiting Room wasn’t commonly known when they wrote on top of the campaign page: “Many of our hardcore regulars don’t even know the history of how the Waiting Room came to be in existence.” They tell the story of what happened:

“Back in November 2010 we found ourselves with the keys to a fully stocked Off Licence. We had been looking for someone to take over the lease of what had been Kids Love Ink Tattoo Studio, which moved to bigger premises next door. The Newsagent, which used to be located at the old station building, was happy to take over the lease but shortly after they had set up and stocked the place, they decided at the final hour before signing that they didn’t want to commit. The guy handed us back the keys and waved goodbye. The shop was fully kitted out with racks on the walls full of sweets and household stuff and fridges full of beers. They took the cigarettes and high-end liquor but left all the other booze behind. It was crazy.

First a Tattoo Studio, then a fully stocked Off Licence, and finally the cafe. Photos: Courtesy of the Waiting Room

We had a choice. We either had to try and find someone else to take over the lease or do something ourselves with the space. After much deliberating and looking at what the High Street was lacking, we realised it desperately needed a place that served good coffee and a veggie/vegan menu so we decided to set up just that. Vegan food was not really in the public conscience then as it is now and after some research, we’re pretty sure we were one of the first vegan place in south-east London.”

Neither of them had ever served coffee or food before – Kevin was working as an assistant in operating theatres handing surgical instruments to surgeons, and Alec was the piercer in Kids Love Ink next door. But something had to be done – they couldn’t afford to pay the rent and as leaving the shop empty and not paying rent would have meant going to court, they decided to give a coffee shop a go. Both left their previous jobs and got lots of advice and training on how to make good coffee. They simply took the plunge. But first, they had to get rid of all the booze and make the shop fit for purpose. They explain how they did this:

“We had no money at all! Doing everything by ourselves was the only way to go. So we set about selling everything in the shop… and I mean EVERYTHING! Local hero Terry took the home goods, chocolates, crisps and what else he could sell. At Kids Love Ink we hosted an exhibition by Fos, founder of Heroin Skateboards and New Cross skating legend, where we offloaded most of the booze; the remainder of which went to a local punk venue in Battersea. Even the long gone Shital’s Off Licence took all the racking from the walls. The only money we had was the money we gained from selling the stuff.

Photos: Courtesy of the Waiting Room

After many long, tiresome days but few short weeks of renovations, the Waiting Room began to shape. Using near entire back catalogues of Scorpions, Rush, Iron Maiden and AC/DC as our musical motivation we got pallets from Resolution Way, stripped them down and used them for the counter, found paint and all sorts from Freecycle, and travelled to Southend for a sofa. At one point we had 2 sofas in the coffee shop but we soon ran out of space and replaced them with tables and chairs. For next to nothing we were lucky to get our hands on our first grinder and Espresso machine, our trusty old Rancillio Epoca. Much like your first car, it was terrible but you loved it unconditionally. We still can’t express enough thanks for the help that Camilla from Union Hand Roasted gave us from way before day 1; the training and support, helping us through choosing coffees and giving a serious MOT to the Rancillio. Splinters, blood, sweat and many beers, on April 1st 2011 we opened the doors, where we held a benefit for those who suffered and lost their lives in the 2011 Tsunami.”

Photos: Courtesy of the Waiting Room

The Waiting Room was well received from the outset, with many locals happy it wasn’t another bookie, but it was very quiet to start with. Alec recently found old till receipts, a reminder that on some days they made approximately £25. Some days it was so quiet, Kevin and Alec would watch a whole film at the back before another customer came in. The first time they made around £100 on a Saturday they felt ecstatic – they couldn’t believe it. Humble beginnings indeed. Actually, it could have all gone terribly wrong and it took some time to build up a customer base, but local artists, mainly from Utrophia, local squatters and property guardians soon became their regular customers. Kevin and Alec were working non-stop, 8am starts, 7pm finishes, 6 days a week then falling asleep over pints at the Birds Nest. Although friends came in to help out every now and then, in the end they needed a third person just to give them a day off. As time went on and it got busier, they started to take on more staff. “The list is long but for a coffee shop in London, the staff turnover is small and all members have been awesome (and mostly from Laban). It was these people who truly made the Waiting Room what it was and what it still is today.”

According to Kevin and Alec, Deptford has changed a lot since they set up in 2011. “Anyone who knows Deptford now no doubt heard about how much it’s changed from its shady past, but even back in 2011, it was a completely different place to what it is now. This is not to say that we don’t like the new changes – no-one wants to walk around a place that’s falling apart. We like the mix of the old and the new and there is still enough of the old that we still want to be here. We still love Deptford, it’s a great place to be and as long as this is the case, we’re happy to be here. But there is no denying that some things have changed. When we set up in 2011, there were lots of places with cheap rent, artist studios or buildings with property guardians, so there were a lot of skint artists and musicians around because it was still a very cheap place to live. A lot of them have gone now and there’s definitely a different clientele with all the new developments around – people with a bit more money and less time, and some people with that kind of busy lifestyle, who come in with a level of arrogance and expect a certain service they have grown accustomed to elsewhere. But we also get a lot of locals now who’ve lived here ages and probably wouldn’t have come into a place like this, people from housing estates, the Bird’s Nest or like the Millwall supporter who came in today and said: ‘It took me a while to take to your place and you guys but now I love it!’ A coffee shop with vegan food and bar staff tattooed all over is just not part of their lives, but over time, people starting coming in.”

How much local people have grown to love the Waiting Room became clear during the Kickstarter Campaign. Over the last 7 years, the people working at the Waiting Room have become an integral part of the community. As Alec says: “Deptford is our home, especially the High Street, and we were desperate to stay. It really would be a shame and break our hearts if the Waiting Room were to close. We really care about our community and there’s also a wonderful community among shopkeepers here.” Being a business owner, Alec is clear that he likes to see change in Deptford, that he is keen to see new people coming into the area as it’s good for his own business too but he’s also clear that it’s important to care for the area and the local community and that it’s important for businesses to integrate and communicate with others. “It’s important to show respect to each other and respect the local character of an area!” He is especially critical of big developers with big money who show little respect for the character of an area. An example of this is when Deptford Market Yard painted over the Lipton Ice Tea sign that had been there for decades. “At what point would anyone look at that and think ‘that’s a really annoying sign that’s been here for over a hundred years, we’re gonna put a massive thing over it to advertise our shops’? How they got planning permission for that I don’t know. It was just treated with no respect at all.”

DSC_0295Small individual businesses clearly have to save long and hard just to be able to do any renovation work and it is hard to keep up with big corporations that can pay huge rent prices. An all too common occurrence these days, the landlord of 142 Deptford High Street was not looking to renew the lease so he could develop the property and probably charge much higher rent in the future, Alec and Kevin tell me. Issues began when recurring leaks, unfixed damage and an uncooperative landlord, were making it difficult to run the coffee shop, causing frustration for the staff and customers. By 2017, they had been working without a new lease agreement for a year, risking the danger of being kicked out any time. The Airbnb run upstairs called Greenwich Park Apartments (the irony!), which was full of mould, some mice and dodgy plumbing that couldn’t deal with the constant stream of people, added to the frustrations. The lack of space also made it difficult for the staff to do their work – when more than 2 staff members were on, they were in each other’s way, the heat in the summer was unbearable, food and cups had to be stored in the tattoo shop for lack of storage space, and any time work needed to be done, the shop had to be shut, losing business. They had wanted to move for a while but couldn’t find suitable or affordable premises until 134 Deptford High Street suddenly came up. Kevin jokingly says that at some point they considered, not seriously, the empty flower shop next to the Funeral Parlour, calling the place ‘Coffee Mourning’. “I don’t think that would have gone down too well”, he laughs. “Then the people from the pharmacy just came in one day and said: ‘We’re moving, do you want to take over our premises?’ We went there, had a look and just grabbed the opportunity straight away. The fact that it’s just 3 doors down was a huge bonus as we didn’t feel we’d have to start all over again. Being anywhere else on the High Street wouldn’t feel the same. The imminent move took us by surprise though. We have had no way of saving up for this eventuality! Financially, we weren’t doing great – we managed to pay all bills and wages but that was it, so it literally was a case of ‘Save The Waiting Room’ as we had been on the verge of closing for good.”

After raising more than £15,500 and doing lots of work on the new coffee shop, they moved in autumn 2018. “The new landlords are incredibly helpful and kind – they seem to understand what we’re about – and the move was smooth.” The idea is to keep the original ‘image’ of the Waiting Room just in a larger form, and as in the premises before, the look and wall decoration will change all the time for a while, until they are settled in properly. They were excited at the prospect of having more space – more space for staff to move about, more space for cooking and preparing drinks and more space for customers. “Customers will hopefully be able to stay rather than having to go somewhere else because there is no space”, Kevin said when I interviewed them in summer 2018. In the meantime, with the Waiting Room being so popular, it has become difficult again to get a seat but having recently created a seating area in the back garden, this ‘problem’ should be solved.

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Pepys Resource Centre: an inclusive community space open to all

 

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I remember walking past Pepys Resource Centre many times, always standing in front of the locked doors wondering why this interesting-looking library was closed. And then, in October 2017, it suddenly came to life with regular opening times and people coming in and out. Today, the library is open every day (Mo – Fri) with activities throughout the week: English lessons for Syrian refugees twice a week, arts and crafts, reading, cinema and popcorn and outdoor activities for children, free Pilates classes on Tuesdays, a befriending club for the elderly on Wednesdays with quizzes, singing and other activities, and WE Women Circle on Fridays, where women share their talents and skills such as cooking, arts and crafts, dancing and other activities. WE Women – Women Empowering Women is the group that runs the library that volunteer every day of the week to keep the library open, to organise activities and to cook lunch every day, lunch that is eaten in the library space together with people that happen to be there (images below and above).

The building that houses the library is owned by Hyde (Housing Association) and is leased by Eco communities. Before the library was re-opened, it was used mostly as storage space, open to the public just 16 hours a week. Then members of WE Women, which was set up in March 2017, approached the leaseholder saying that they wanted to transform the space into a community space. Since October 2017, WE Women have been working hard to provide an inclusive community space open to all. Not long after opening, I met Luciana Duailibe and Joyce Jacca, the two women who volunteer at the library every day, running the day-to-day activities, cooking lunch and helping people to access the library. We have had many stimulating conversations over the months, in the library and at events in other places. In summer 2018, I had a long conversation with Luciana, about the library, her vision of the world and the work that she is engaged in. This is what she told me:

“I moved to Deptford 14 years ago and have stayed ever since. What I love most about Deptford is its diversity. When an area is diverse it is so rich because diversity creates opportunities, opportunities to learn and flourish. Some people are scared of diversity because they fear difference, they are so wrapped up inside of themselves that they forget about others, but for me, it’s the opposite. I love difference because it’s not me so I see it as an opportunity to expand myself, to learn and to transcend my own self. Deptford is a place where the world meets and so it has a lot of opportunities. My daughter for example, she always used to play with a Chinese boy and I used to ask him: ‘How do you say Good Morning in Chinese? How do you say How are you?’ And then my daughter started learning Mandarin when she was in Secondary School. Deptford for me means opportunities to learn, to become more sociable, and to be more tolerant. Many people are not even aware of all the opportunities out there because generally, our society is so rooted in prejudice; people don’t share, don’t collaborate, don’t cooperate. I think we are ONE in this whole world, we are ONE people, ONE human race, we are humans living in this world and we should get together and make the most of it. This is why I’m involved in lots of community projects; this is why I’m here all the time, opening the library, sharing this community space and helping people to get involved. The library is open for meetings, we exchange books, time, and talent. For example, there is a lady, a Flamenco dancer, and she rehearses here on Tuesdays, using the space for free. As an exchange she gives free Pilates classes. So it’s this kind of exchange!”

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Luciana’s nickname is Tinhanha. It’s a nickname she’s had since the age of 13 and was given to her by her cousin, who instead of calling her auntie Luciana, came out with Tinhanha. This nickname was to define Luciana’s future path as Tinhanha in Tupi-Guarani, the primitive Brazilian language, means exchange. “My whole life has been based on exchange, on giving and receiving, on sharing. I have a lot to give and a lot to learn, which is why I’m involved with so many activities to make our community a better place.” Indeed, Luciana not only volunteers at the library every day where she helps run the centre, she is also treasurer of Deptford Neighbourhood Action Group (DNA), a member of Voice4Deptford, treasurer of Kender Primary School where she raises money for school events and equipment, helps out at school events and acts as playmate for the children to help teachers. As well as this, she is Chair of Co-oPepys Community Arts Project, a charity that focuses on arts for mental health and well-being and where artists can access truly affordable studios. Luciana has been involved with Co-oPepys for more than 11 years and tells me of her remarkable journey: “When I first came here, I couldn’t speak any English but I didn’t want to go to English classes doing boring grammar exercises. Instead, I made handmade toys for local children and took them to places like Sure Start and 2000 Community Centre. Word got out about ‘the lovely things I was making’ and eventually I met Joyce, who was organising a carnival here on the estate. She loved what I was doing and introduced me to a friend so that we could do workshops together for children during the carnival. And that’s how I met Dalva, who was involved in Co-oPepys and in the carnival preparations we did there. I became a member and together with Dalva, who sadly passed away four years ago, we managed to clear the debt Co-oPepys had accumulated, got funding and got the place back on track. This encounter between Dalva and me changed both our lives as we both got heavily involved with communities in our local area.”

Sadly, Co-oPepys is under threat and Luciana is trying very hard to keep it open. Unsurprisingly, the council want to transform the space into flats. They had already received a one-month’s eviction notice on the pretence that the space lacked fire safety, but Luciana managed to fight against this. “They used fire risk – basically the tragedy of Grenfell – to get us out. They told me that if a fire happened, as manager of the space, it would be my responsibility. This made me really angry because over all those years, I had reported leaks, dodgy electrics, a dangerous roof and many other things – all of which got ignored. How was it that they were suddenly concerned about fire when they left leaks and the dangers of electricity and water getting together for years? So I said that we weren’t going to move until we’ve found another similar space and that we need to work together on this. I proposed the ground floor of Aragon Tower, the promised part of Section 106 money (money for the community) that never materialised, but with no luck. We’re now in the process of negotiating and I hope we can find another space.”

Despite all the things Luciana is involved in and the fact that she has a family with 2 children, she is at Pepys library most days, always helping people with what they need. I have been to the Resource Centre on a few occasions and have shared many beautiful moments with Luciana, Joyce and others. The loving energy that is put into this community space and which comes off the group and the people they work with is heart-warming and contagious. Luciana is an educator, but not the kind of educator that likes to put fixed ideas into people’s heads. She’s not the kind that views education as indoctrination. For her, education is an exchange of ideas, where she learns with her pupils more than she teaches them. “I’m not the one that has all the answers. Everyone has a talent, a skill, something they are good at. If you give people a chance to share their skill, they can flourish. I’m trying to build on this idea that community is based on exchanging, on giving and receiving, on respecting, trusting and tolerating. At the same time, I’m learning how not to do things or how to do things differently. It’s hard to explain. Imagine we live in communities without money, where we all exchange our talents and skills, where we share and teach each other. This is the basis of this library.”

Luciana has a very simple vision for the world – for people to be happy. “People, communities, are what really matter in this world. It is not about the individual but about living together – there has to be balance between individual needs and the needs of the commune, and when this balance is right, we can feel happy. It’s about humanity and whilst humanity is inherently good, there is a shadow. I once did a performance about this dichotomy of good and bad, which I wrote about the Cherokee myth of the two wolves. In this piece, the granddad said to his children: ‘There are two wolves inside all of us. One is full of greed, anger and vanity and other negative emotions; the other is full of compassion, kindness, empathy – all the good emotions. The two wolves are fighting a battle and the one that will win is the one we feed’. So, if we feed ourselves with negative things, we will be full of bad energy but if we feed ourselves with kindness, compassion and all the things that are good for our soul, then we’ll be happy and others around us will be happy too. Therefore, we need to promote peace and love”.

I ask Luciana how her vision of the world relates to what is happening in Deptford. She thinks that the council and the government in general are feeding their bad wolves with greed, money and profit, creating very bad energy in the area. “For them, many people, particularly those on the bottom of the social ladder, are simply invisible in their drive for profit. Those people are invisible to them – these people have no voice, no choice, no rights, no opportunities to be listened to and to be seen. I think that if Tidemill Garden or Reginald House were in Telegraph Hill, Blackheath or in Brockley, where many wealthy people reside, the demolition of the garden and the house would never happen because people with money are also the people with power, and the council would listen to them. But poor people have no voice, they are nobodies in the eyes of the council. Instead of equality it is all about quality, meaning those with more money and power are seen to be higher quality beings and so their wishes and desires are given priority. There is a huge lack of empathy in this world, a huge lack of love for others who have less. We are not important for the government, we are nothing, we are disposable to them, and we don’t have the same rights. We don’t have the right to keep our green spaces, our community spaces, the right to the river, even the right to our homes or the choice to take part in decisions about our homes. Instead of socially cleansing areas, people should be given a voice in what happens here, opportunities to share their talent, to improve their skills, and to make them a valued part of the community. We should work with the idea of becoming one, that we are one in this world, and not enforce segregation. I think the Age of Aquarius will come but before we enter an era of love, I fear there’s going to be a really painful moment, a really hard time where the big bad wolf, the devil of the government, will win the battle. That’s why we started WE Women – not because we don’t care about men or think they have no sensibilities, or that we want all the power for women, but because we need to find a balance between masculine and feminine energy. At present, the power of men is still oppressive. A lot is about money, control and power and less about caring and sharing. This energy needs balancing out with the female energy of love. We don’t want to turn the table, but we want feminine energy to surface more so we can eat together on the same table; where we both prepare the table and eat together.”

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