Mr Chotai: watch repairs

Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 40 seconds

Everyone has a story. For 30 years Bachulal Chotai has been mending watches and repairing jewellery at his unique shop on Holloway Road, just opposite Cycle Surgery and Central Library. He plans to retire soon – so this might be his very last interview as a shopkeeper. Interview by Nicola Baird

Bachulal Chotai from ABC Jewellery on Holloway Road: "I've made so many friends." (c) Islington Faces

Mr Chotai from ABC Jewellery on Holloway Road: “I’ve made so many friends.” (c) Islington Faces

In April 2016 there was a news story in Islington Tribune saying that Bachulal Chotai was soon to shut the doors for the last time at ABC Jewellers, which he’s run since around 1982. The sale fell through but since then customers keep popping by with goodbye gifts for Mr Chotai and his wife Anila.

It’s not just Mr Chotai’s skill repairing broken watches and jewellery that will be missed. There’s also his extraordinary shop, which is unchanged, except for the stock, since he bought it from the jeweller “Mr Mystery. He was an Indian man who was so frightened. Then when I came here I started being frightened as well. There were so many people that came to threaten me because of my colour. Some came with a knife to rob you,” saysMr Chotai who had to have 13 stitches in his head after one attack. Wisely Mr Chotai installed a buzzer entry and took comfort in seeing the area change for the better.

“The area has completely changed. It’s better, but business was better – there was a market on the pavement and no parking restrictions, so people used to come in to the shop more.” But after 30 plus years Mr Chotai has many loyal customers, he says: “So many people know me, and I’ve made so many friends. People don’t want me to go, they say ‘Stay’!”

ABC Jewellers at 139 Holloway Road - between Holloway tube and Highbury & Islington station. (c) Islington Faces

ABC Jewellers at 139 Holloway Road – between Holloway tube and Highbury & Islington station. (c) Islington Faces

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If you are lucky enough to have been inside ABC Jewellers you will know the comfy sofa and chair where customers wait while Mr Chotai gets to work with his spy glass and tools.

There’s a big photo of him behind the old glass-top wooden cabinet counter, which was created by Rowan Arts for their book Holloway Life. In the old cabinets are all sorts of watches and watch straps (starting at £9.99), Zippo lighters and jewellery. There are also black and white ads for Casio, Citizen and Seiko watches. The floor is vinyl – so old it’s now trendy, and the ceiling is of painted white boards. A friend is using the shop to store a few antiques including grand carriage clocks, some old leather-strapped luggage and an eye-catching stool made from an elephant’s foot. It feels as if you are in a time warp until you notice the crackly mix of Hindi and English coming from a radio tuned to a local Southall station, and the modern cars and cycling hipsters rushing past on Holloway Road.

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Holloway Road shops between Sainsbury's Local and Greggs, near the Drayton Park junction. (c) Islington Faces

Holloway Road shops between Sainsbury’s Local and Greggs, near the Drayton Park junction. (c) Islington Faces

Places Mr Chotai likes on Holloway Road

  • “I’m a vegetarian. I like the cheese and onion pasties at Greggs. Or I make a sandwich in the shop.”
  • “The people at the supermarket by the chemist are very nice.”
  • “I never go further down Holloway Road. I used to go to my accountant who was just past the bridge. But he’s gone to Barnet. I always go the other way to the tube. But the overground is too slow.”

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Bachulal Chotai repairing a bracelet at ABC Jewellers. (c) Islington Faces

Mr Chotai repairing a bracelet at ABC Jewellers. (c) Islington Faces

Mr Chotai, who was 73 in August and speaks Swahili, English, Gujarati and Hindi, was born at the mission hospital in Jinja in Uganda not far from the source of the River Nile. Then it was a small town with a sugar factory, “much smaller than Holloway Road,” he says. “My father had a shop selling watches, clothes and gramophones. I was always very keen to know what was inside the gramophone and who was singing inside. So when my father wasn’t there I would open it up. He was never cross: he knew I’d learn something!” he says.

It would have been idyllic, but for the rise of Idi Amin who singled out Ugandans of Asian heritage for persecution: 300,000 people were killed during his presidency (1971-79). With the rest of his family – parents, siblings and wife – he was obliged to flee the country to find safety in the UK.

It was the early 1970s when he arrived at Plasterdown Camp in Tavistock and then went to Leicester where his mother and father settled. But Mr Chotai couldn’t find work, so he headed to London, basing himself in Wembley.

Bachulal Chotai uses the same cabinets and counters that he found in his shop when he moved in 30+ years ago. (c) Islington Faces

Mr Chotai uses the same cabinets and counters that he found in his shop when he moved in 30+ years ago. (c) Islington Faces

“It’s a big story how I got this shop. I was unemployed and looking for a place. I had got my skill, watch mending, and I’d tried so many places, but nobody employed me. So I started looking for a place. I read in a newspaper about the Manpower Commission (a government scheme), which helped people to do business. I applied and at the interview I said I had a place in Africa mending watches and that no one wanted to employ me so I wanted my own place. I was looking in Brent but the advisers suggested I look in Regents Street, Victoria or Oxford Street. But they were so big. I was frightened to go down there and rents and rates were very high. Then I saw an ad in the Retail Jeweller for this place for sale on Holloway Road for £10,000. I had nothing and £10,000 is a lot of money. But the Manpower Commission agreed to help [with a loan] for a year – but I had to show them £1,000 in the bank. I had to borrow from my parents and brothers,” says Mr Chotai.

Jewellery and watch repair tools. (c) islington faces

Jewellery and watch repair tools. (c) islington faces

It’s a wonderful tale of turn around luck. And the result is the ABC Jewellery. Here he’s mended hundreds of local people’s stuff and over the years also employed a watchmaker and a jewellery repairer.

“I like mending watches, though I can’t see them well now. And I like clocks – I have one in every room at home,” says Mr Chotai smiling. But he’s looking forward to retirement too. “I want to take my daughter to see my birthplace. She keeps saying ‘Yes Daddy, when are we going to go?”

On the afternoon I interview Mr Chotai, who wears a watch on each wrist, there’s a slow stream of customers. Everyone seems to need a new watch strap – one lady’s strap is worn out, another too tight and a teenager needs a revamp for the splendid watch his granny has left him in her will. All leave delighted. What will we do without such a useful shop?

  • ABC Jewellers, 139 Holloway Road, N7. Tel: 020 7607 4685. Open Mon-Sat from 1-7pm until the doors close for the last time.

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. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola