Robert Marco: T-Bird owner

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 at T-Bird, the family bar that used to be a shop where his mum took him to buy children’s clothes. “My parents are Italian. They met when mum lived on Liverpool Road with her aunt and my dad in Angel.Now everyone likes coffee, but my family always appreciated it. Here at T-Bird we make very good coffee.” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

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. It’s a curious place – as Tripadvisor points out – 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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“We’re quite known for the music on our juke box. There are more than 1,000 tracks and a lot of stuff is from my Dad’s era, ’70s and ’80s – The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin. I haven’t really updated the jute box, so the most modern music is early 2000s Indie. I’m quite particular about what we put on there,” says Robert who began managing the bar when he was 21 and has now been at T-Bird for 10 years.

“Shops used to have the owners’ 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 owner’s wife, who was also local, kept it going for a few years. Then in 2005 my family got it, and I’ve run it since 2008, more or less.

In fact, Robert’s connection with T-Bird goes way back. He even remembers his Mum taking him to T-Bird when it was a clothes shop selling children’s items, ladies underwear and hosiery.

Robert, the youngest of three boys, was born at Whittington Hospital, then raised on Gillespie Road.  “My 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.  Now everyone likes coffee, but my family always appreciated it. Even here at T-Bird we make very good coffee.”

Robert went to Gillespie Primary (Head: Jake Herbst) and then Highbury Grove (Head: Truda White). He’s an Arsenal supporter, explaining that, “My old bedroom window overlooked the North Bank stand so you’d see the fans walking up the staircase to the upper tier. Arsenal was the only team you could support!”

My close group of friends are locals – 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. “I didn’t know what to do, but I was good at English – reading four books a week for my degree I think university took the joy of reading out of me,” he says. He’s still a reader though and currently enjoying The Witcher (fantasy book), originally Polish but translated, “almost like the Game of Thrones.”

Robert Marco at T-Bird: “Islington has a definite feel of a village and community. You know people especially if you live and work in the same area.” (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

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5 places Robert Marco likes in Islington

  • I’ve always liked Highbury Fields. I used to play football there as it’s 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 can’t go wrong with any Turkish food. I go quite often to Cinnamon Village – I’ve been having jacket potato with chicken, avocado and bacon. It’s a nice loaded meal.
  • Recently I’ve been going to the Brewhouse & Kitchen at 2a Corsica Street, Highbury Corner. It’s 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 – I get my veg there. Now they do a bit more than fruit and veg it’s always good for a snack. I do love a mango.
  • My brothers own a garage around the corner, Mountgrove Garage next to Sage (café), on Mountgrove Road.

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T-Bird on Blackstock Road for music, dance, juke box, comedy, rentals and football. (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

“Growing up in Islington I didn’t think I’d run a bar here, but I sort of fell into it and have never looked back,” says Robert who lives just off Monsell Road. “It’s not a pub and never going to be one. The nature of it being a former shop means it has a unique charm,” he says listing the events run in T-Bird’s basement bar on Thursdays swing dance classes, Friday it’s 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.

“And Ed Sheeran used to perform here for an acoustic night on Thursdays. They were all quite good musicians, but he was stand out,” says Robert. “He used to perform You need me, I don’t need you(which has the bitter sweet lament of a singer-songwriter trying to make a living, ‘I’ve done around about 1,000 shows but I haven’t got a house, I live on the couch’).

“Being 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 – crisps and nuts – 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,” explains Robert. And on match days there are a lot of Arsenal fans.

Robert is keen to help bring more people into T-Bird. He’s 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. He’s also busy on Instagram calling it, “my favourite social media. I like the way I quickly snap something up on their story feature, that’s handy.”

Robert Marco at T-Bird which shows all the Sky football games but is also a cosy bar. (c) Kimi Gill for Islington Faces

“We did a film here with Transition Highbury, back in December 2017, a documentary called Cowspiracy (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 – we’ve got a load of plastic straws still, I’ve just got to run them down but I don’t bother putting them in the glass anymore,” he says pragmatically.

If you haven’t 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. It’s £1 for five songs, the only snag is that it takes old pound coins, so you’ll 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 – closed
  • Tues – Sky football on the screens
  • Wed – music event (check times)
  • Thursday – swing dance classes.
  • Fridays – comedy (starts 8pm)
  • Sat – quite often private hires
  • Sunday – sometimes afternoon music events (collective of female DJs).
  • T-Bird is often looking for casual bar staff.

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 dot green at gmail dot com. 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