Snooping around the antique side of the shop, as Rob makes tea and coffee, his excellent and eclectic taste is unmissable. The café itself is decked out in a homely, comfy, close way that makes you feel warm as soon as you step in. 20th C Quarters is the perfect specimen of a retro-boutique café, with coffee-drinkers nestled as mannequins among, clothing, apparel or, in this case, furniture. This multi-purpose shop model has slowly, but surely, seen a rise in big cities around Europe, marrying the café and shopping experience in one setting.
So, was 20th C Quarters’ unique set up a business initiative to avoid becoming engulfed in the ever-expanding world of independent cafés? ‘No’, Rob denies ever having such an idea, but simply wished to start a ‘nice little business’ combining two of his passions: coffee and furniture. It’s safe to say, judging by the cheerful clientelle, that Rob’s barista and business skills hit the spot.
Rob himself had worked in design and residential interiors; having lived in the neighborhood for 20 years (on and off, with a brief stint in New Zealand: home of the flat white) a local antique business seems like a logical step for Rob, but an independent café too?
‘It’s fashionable,’ Rob explains, ‘and the nearest chain café is ten to fifteen minutes walk away. People around here now have somewhere to hang out.’ Animated and smiling, the cheerful proprietor clearly loves his simple and unique business: but what if a Starbucks opened next door?, I dare to ask. ‘I wouldn’t be worried. Starbucks is a different business. Just because both stores sell coffee it doesn’t mean that a chain coffee store opening nearby would bankrupt an independent café.’
Independent shops and cafés open ‘because they want to – and large businesses, like Starbucks are just in it to create revenue,’ Rob states.
Starbucks is of course a huge name in the coffee industry, owning 20,366 stores in 61 countries. The UK alone houses 793 Starbucks outlets, nearly 200 of these are in London, making the UK the fourth largest in terms of number of Starbucks cafés.
Even Tesco has jumped on the coffee bandwagon. Tesco owns 49% of the Harris and Hoole, a family-run café chain. Their latest addition to their portfolio has been the acquisition of restaurant chain Giraffe, a UK restaurant name with 47 sites across the UK and one in Dubai. Seeing an opportunity in the expanding market, Tesco would be foolish not to take a pinch of the new fashion of coffee shops. Teenagers, mums, artists, everyone who didn’t have a place to go outside of the house now have a home away from home.
The traditional coffeehouses, the first of which was set up in London in 1652, came to represent a prolific and popular meeting place for debate and political dissent. Nowadays, friends, freelancers and lovers can be seen in deep conversation over frothy lattes in these meeting hubs.
Yet, nothing feels as intimate as your local coffee joint, especially if it is run by an independent owner.
To small business owners like Rob, the ‘big’ world of Tesco and Starbucks seems a long way away. With worries like council charges, window-washing chores and seven-day work weeks, owners like Rob have no time to think about the prospect of being taken over by big names in the industry.
20th C Quarters’ regulars or first-time visitors become part of this North London community, whether they like it or not. But they should, because these concept cafés and their charm can only get them so far in the recession. The looming prospect of big multinationals pushing them out of the market is sadly, and literally, a street corner away. If you appreciate makers of great coffee who thrive on bringing soul to their community, the choice between a Frappuccino and local latte should not be hard to make. Without the soul, your street corner would just look like any other.