“There aren’t enough incentives from the council to help existing businesses to survive”

In 2010 I photographed Muhammad and some of his friends and family members in Halal Butcher’s where he worked for 35 years. It was a project designed to meet my local shopkeepers, learn about Deptford’s history and find out what people thought of the proposed changes to the area. I had recently moved to Deptford and wanted to understand its political and social complexities through people’s experiences and perceptions. I went back to see Muhammad at the beginning of 2019 but this time I didn’t find him in Halal Butcher’s but next door in Roots Fruit & Veg, which I also photographed in 2010. Muhammad cannot do the hard work of a butcher anymore and so he runs Roots. Muhammad is actually of retirement age, but he says it makes him too tired to just sit at home. Instead, he comes every day to work a few hours over the morning. “I like coming here. It’s nice to see people I know, have a chat, be in the shop and have work to do. At home I would just sleep and feel tired of life”, he tells me. Although he also feels tired after a few hours of work, it is a different kind of tiredness – a satisfied tiredness, satisfied with having been in work, having served customers and having had interesting conversations.

DSC_247Muhammad under a picture I took of family friends in Roots Fruity & Veg in 2010.

We start chatting about Deptford, how it’s changed and whether the changes have had any impact on how business is going. I asked Muhammad what it’s like to be a trader on the High Street these days. “It’s not what it used to be”, he says, and as Muhammad says this, a customer comments: “Yeah, Deadford!” Muhammad explains that in times when trade was good, many people used to come up from Kent to do their shopping on Deptford High Street. Due to the busy market in the past, traders used to have fairly high takings and could therefore charge lower prices, which made the area attractive for shoppers. But today, even if prices are still fairly low on the High Street, Muhammad says that people go to Lewisham or Peckham because it’s even cheaper there. Muhammad blames the lack of (free) parking spaces in the area, meaning that people who drive up from Kent to do their shopping go elsewhere because they cannot park here. “What is the point of doing up the road and the pavement if people can’t come here?”, he asks. “The council are saying they are improving the area but for whom? The new people coming into the area don’t do their shopping in our shops. And the people that come from elsewhere, even if they spend £100 on shopping, they still don’t want to spend £2 on parking so they go elsewhere and we’re missing all the passing trade. If only parking was free on Saturdays, for example, it would make a huge difference to the takings of local businesses.”

According to Muhammad, the majority of traders on the High Street are struggling. “Business isn’t going well and the rents in this area are going up and up. With the little trade we’ve got now, we’re not even covering our costs and we’re lucky to get any wages. I recently had to take out a loan to cover the rent and all the costs and I am not able to pay it back because we’re barely surviving here. In the butcher’s next door, we used to have 10 people working there, now even 1 is too many. Deptford High Street isn’t even expensive but we just don’t have enough turnover.” On the day I spoke to Muhammad he needed to go to a meeting to discuss the rent with the landlord. “If the rent increases again, I won’t be able to continue, I simply cannot pay it anymore!”

I ask Muhammad what the best times were on the High Street and without hesitation he says: “The 90s. People were working hard, they were happy and smiley, there was good trade and good earnings. I miss that!” Overall, Muhammad feels that the council aren’t doing enough to support existing businesses. The Halal Butcher’s has been on the High Street since 1975. “There aren’t enough incentives from the council to help existing businesses to survive”, he says.

butcher's iMuhammad in Halal Butcher next door to Roots Fruit & Veg in 2010.

All Muhammad would like to do is carry on working – carry on coming to the shop as long as possible. “I like the contact with the people, like you coming in today to talk to me and other people. It’s nice and you feel good at the end of the day. If only I can come here a couple of hours a day.”

As I was leaving, Muhammad’s grandkids came in to say Hello – it was the twins I photographed in 2010 on the same day as Muhammad in the butcher’s next door. How they’ve grown!