Estimated reading time:7 minutes, 59 seconds
Everyone has a story. Meet Highbury local Robert Marco who runs the shabby-chic T-Bird bar on Blackstock Road, which is famous for its juke box and the times a less-well known Ed Sheeran did acoustic sessions in the downstairs bar. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill.
Robert Marco, 31, is in a dark Fred Perry top leaning on the long wooden bar at T-Bird, a cosy bar located on the corner of Monsell and Blackstock Road, N4. Itâs a curious place â as Tripadvisor points out â long and thin with two huge ceiling pipes decorated with fairy lights which Robert explains are an extractor and a fan installed to circulate the air back in the days when smoking was allowed indoors. Scattered around are an assortment of comfy chairs and sofas some facing towards a large screen, which shows all the Sky football games, but with a distinct preference for Arsenal. Opposite the staircase to the ground floor bar is the infamous juke box.
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âWeâre quite known for the music on our juke box. There are more than 1,000 tracks and a lot of stuff is from my Dadâs era, ’70s and ’80s â The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin. I havenât really updated the jute box, so the most modern music is early 2000s Indie. Iâm quite particular about what we put on there,â says Robert who began managing the bar when he was 21 and has now been at T-Bird for 10 years.
âShops used to have the ownersâ name so when it was converted into a bar about 1998 it just sort of stuck. My dad used to be best friends with the previous owner, John, (who passed in 2001). The former ownerâs wife, who was also local, kept it going for a few years. Then in 2005 my family got it, and Iâve run it since 2008, more or less.
In fact, Robertâs connection with T-Bird goes way back. He even remembers his Mum taking him to T-Bird when it was a clothes shop selling childrenâs items, ladies underwear and hosiery.
Robert, the youngest of three boys, was born at Whittington Hospital, then raised on Gillespie Road.Â Â âMy parents are Italian. They met when mum lived on Liverpool Road with her aunt and my dad in Angel. Mum was a dressmaker and dad a mechanical engineer/electrician who worked in Trocadero arcade. We used to go to the Italian church where my parents were married. I can get by in Italian and still go there all the time to see her family who live just outside Naples.Â Now everyone likes coffee, but my family always appreciated it. Even here at T-Bird we make very good coffee.â
Robert went to Gillespie Primary (Head: Jake Herbst) and then Highbury Grove (Head: Truda White). Heâs an Arsenal supporter, explaining that, âMy old bedroom window overlooked the North Bank stand so youâd see the fans walking up the staircase to the upper tier. Arsenal was the only team you could support!â
My close group of friends are locals â one I met at primary school and the rest are all from Highbury Grove which he left in 2003 to study an English Literature degree at the University of Hertfordshire. âI didnât know what to do, but I was good at English â reading four books a week for my degree I think university took the joy of reading out of me,â he says. Heâs still a reader though and currently enjoying The WitcherÂ (fantasy book), originally Polish but translated, âalmost like the Game of Thrones.â
5 places Robert Marco likes in Islington
- Iâve always liked Highbury Fields. I used to play football there as itâs one of closest bits of parkland round here, and I still do a kick about. On Tuesdays do a five a side tournament at Edmonton.
- Locally I like Yildiz, 163 Blackstock Road and go there quite a lot. I always get kofta, you canât go wrong with any Turkish food. I go quite often to Cinnamon Village â Iâve been having jacket potato with chicken, avocado and bacon. Itâs a nice loaded meal.
- Recently Iâve been going to the Brewhouse & Kitchen at 2a Corsica Street, Highbury Corner. Itâs a good location and they have a lot of craft beers. At T-Bird a lot of people say they walk past on the way to work everyday and finally come in.
- The greengrocer on Blackstock Road is always handy â I get my veg there. Now they do a bit more than fruit and veg itâs always good for a snack. I do love a mango.
- My brothers own a garage around the corner, Mountgrove Garage next to Sage (cafĂ©), on Mountgrove Road.
âGrowing up in Islington I didnât think Iâd run a bar here, but I sort of fell into it and have never looked back,â says Robert who lives just off Monsell Road. âItâs not a pub and never going to be one. The nature of it being a former shop means it has a unique charm,â he says listing the events run in T-Birdâs basement bar on Thursdays swing dance classes, Friday itâs free comedy, and occasional other events, often music. Recently 30 people packed in to join an Arts Council-funded experimental making music with anything that would not be considered an instrument but somehow turned it into an instrument, like tin cans.
âAnd Ed Sheeran used to perform here for an acoustic night on Thursdays. They were all quite good musicians, but he was stand out,â says Robert. âHe used to perform You need me, I donât need you(which has the bitter sweet lament of a singer-songwriter trying to make a living, âIâve done around about 1,000 shows but I havenât got a house, I live on the couchâ).
âBeing a barman is about being a bit sociable and trying to make people feel comfortable. The business part is just common sense. We do basic snacks â crisps and nuts â so people can bring food in from local business Yard sale pizza, the Turkish restaurant opposite, and Zing Zing up the road. Takes the burden off us from having to have a kitchen,â explains Robert. And on match days there are a lot of Arsenal fans.
Robert is keen to help bring more people into T-Bird. Heâs in the process of getting new taps so there will be 14 craft beers and some cask ale. Before the World Cup he installed new TV screens and got Sky Sports for new football season. Heâs also busy on Instagram calling it, âmy favourite social media. I like the way I quickly snap something up on their story feature, thatâs handy.â
âWe did a film here with Transition Highbury, back in December 2017, a documentary called CowspiracyÂ (about beef and dairy farming). They brought own projector and put up a screen. So I am aware of impact you have and what you can do to improve â weâve got a load of plastic straws still, Iâve just got to run them down but I donât bother putting them in the glass anymore,â he says pragmatically.
If you havenât yet been to T-Bird and are now tempted either to try out the often free events, for a quiet pint / cheeky Aperol or to hire a party space, be sure to have a go on the juke box. Itâs ÂŁ1 for five songs, the only snag is that it takes old pound coins, so youâll need to swap your good quid with a bad one from behind the bar.
- Find T-Bird at 132 Blackstock Road, N4, opens 5pm http://www.tbirdbar.co.uk Facebook https://www.facebook.com/tbirdbar/
- INSTAGRAM: @tbirdbar
- Mon â closed
- Tues â Sky football on the screens
- Wed â music event (check times)
- Thursday â swing dance classes.
- Fridays â comedy (starts 8pm)
- Sat â quite often private hires
- Sunday â sometimes afternoon music events (collective of female DJs).
- T-Bird is often looking for casual bar staff.
Over to you
If youâd like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com.Â If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at theÂ A-Z Â index, orÂ search by intervieweeâs roles orÂ Meet IslingtoniansÂ to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola