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Everyone has a story. Paul’s Emporium on York Way is the perfect Islington antique shop to find well-made, affordable and witty items for friends or to decorate your home. But do people still buy old things? Interview by Nicola Baird
Paul’s Emporium is a treasure trove of signs, records, masks, shop fittings, lights, furniture and mirrors spilling out on to the pavement. This short section of York Way at the Camden edge of Islington also boasts a beer shop, a butcher, a greengrocer, a Nesa and various independently-owned cafes/delis.
On this mild spring afternoon the shops are bustling with chatty customers. Outside Paul’s Emporium three locals with laden plastic bags are gossiping, while inside there’s a woman bargaining with Paul at the till; two men looking through boxes of vinyl and an American woman quietly giggling at the messages on a collection of cigarette cards. “A myth is a female moth,” she says aloud. All the pub quizzers take a mental note until she reads the next, “a pineapple is the fruit of a pine tree”. No one used to air freighted tropical fruit is going to fall for that…
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“There are a lot of things in here that make me smile. Or they are well-made by good craftsmen who were at the top of their game,” says Paul pointing to a sculpture of a lady leaning on a parian (white plaster) lion hiding a pair of Chinese bonze brush pots. In the background ska is playing on a record player.
“Nowadays you can’t buy a door handle that will last for 20 years, but you can buy a door handle from me that’s already 100 years old, and will last another 100 years. I think it’s criminal. Our generation will be held to account for using resources with no good reason,” adds Paul, 54, eyes-flashing. It’s clear he hadn’t expected to get on his high horse so quickly, but antique dealers are on the front line of taste and waste.
“I used to get a lot of young couples, who’d just bought their first flat and wanted to do it up in their own way. These days kids are living at home until they are 35. It’s a whole generation out of the market… and people in their 50s, 60s and 70s don’t need stuff like a chest of drawers because they’ve already got it. The housing crisis has had a terrible effect,” says Paul. What’s strange is that less than a mile away from his shop 67 acres around King’s Cross has been redeveloped. There are already 2,000 new homes but the plan is to offer 20,000 by 2030. “I’ve delivered nothing to any of those new houses. I wonder sometimes if anyone is living there,” he adds. I’m not sure who is going to dare tell Paul that these days you can buy a home ready-furnished.
Places Paul likes in Islington
- “The Deli Sandwich Bar at 159 York Way is great for lunch. She’s responsible for me being overweight…”
- “I get my hair cut at the Hair Machine in Digswell Street, Holloway. They’re fantastic.
- “I like D&A Binder’s shop at 101 Holloway Road which is full of old shop fittings.”
- “Cramers Butchers on 392 York Way, N7 is brilliant.”
At home in Islington
Paul opened this store about 13 years ago after running a warehouse in Fulham. “The people are much nicer here! And it’s a good area to buy as well, because in this business you’ve got to buy as well as sell.”
Paul’s shop is crowded with treasures and he admits that this spills into his home life too, but luckily no one minds.
“Sometimes my house is cluttered. We did have a fountain in the lounge for a while. I didn’t plumb it in, I’m not mad,” he says joking. “It was waiting to find a home. My wife really likes the things we’ve got. We’re working class people who get to live with beautiful stuff that most people don’t.”
Paul was brought up in Woolwich, though now lives in Victoria. “You couldn’t keep me in the classroom at school unless you’d tied me to a chair. As a kid I’d always collected stuff – conkers, newts, frogs, penny for guy, wood for bonfires… We weren’t educated to appreciate things, we were being educated to work in factories. I was never taught to look at the composition of a painting or think about the date of a building but this business has given me that. My grandfather was in charge of the council tip and he’d bring things home – I remember a three-legged tortoise and also pianos. None of us could play, so my Nan would get us to chop them up and put them on the fire. The careers advisor at school told me when I was 15 I’d be lucky to get a job drilling holes into buttons – but I was probably earning more than him at the time.”
Vintage or antique?
“Since the explosion of buying and selling on the internet, the term vintage is virtually meaningless. I see a lot of brand new stuff on ebay described as vintage, but it isn’t,” says Paul pointing out that people’s knowledge has changed. “I don’t have many conversations now about ‘Is it Victorian, or Georgian, or is it an Edwardian copy or period?’. It’s not that no one cares, but younger people like to put a name to it, even if it is Habitat or Ercol. They are very big on branding.”
That’s why if you enjoy old or well-made things, Paul is the man to go. His advice for anyone interested in antiques is to be ready to learn. “It’s trial and error,” he says, “every day you learn. What they told me was go to the big auction houses and make them take everything out of the cabinet and hold it in your hand. Christies won’t let you do that now! So, go to markets, antique fairs and shops and find an area that really floats your boat. Then read all about it. If you develop a good two-way relationship with a dealer then most of them will be happy to share a bit of knowledge with a valued customer.”
If you are lucky enough to have a little space, and a little money, then collecting can become one of the best obsessions. And it’s places like Paul’s Emporium, run by people like the lovely Paul with a lifetime’s experience of collectables, that you should head to. Thankfully Islington still has a few of these independent gems to enjoy.
- Paul’s Emporium is at 386 York Way, N7. Open tues, thurs, fri 12-6pm and sat 10.30am-5pm.
- Check the website islingtonantiques.co.uk
- Follow Paul on instagram @islingtonantiques
- In Islington you can also buy antiques at Camden Passage, N1 – market days are Wednesday and Saturday.
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com.