The impact of World War II is deeply etched into the patchwork fabric of today’s London. The post-War years saw environmental and cultural changes that still echo all around us. And this amazing photo of J Sainsbury’s brand spanking new Kentish Town ‘self-service’ concept store, taken in 1955, neatly captures the essence of those times. As soon as we saw it in the excellent Camden Town & Kentish Town Then & Now book, it demanded a write-up.
The building on the corner of Islip Street had just been completely rebuilt, filling a large bomb site. The sweeping glass frontage was bold and modern. In fact it looks far more modern than the current drab security shutter aesthetic of the Co-Operative in residence there today. In ’55, the shop boasted the alien idea of picking up one’s groceries from aisles rather than having them individually wrapped by an overalled gentleman behind a counter, juggling scales, scoops, knives and paper bags for one customer at a time.
And my, how busy it looks in there! People were clearly attracted by the prospect of avoiding the hours of weekly queuing they previously had little option but to participate in. We particularly like all the perambulators parked up out front – with the children left sitting in them. It was, indeed, another era.
Also observe the reflection of the Marks & Spencer signage from across Kentish Town Road (where Iceland is currently located). They upped sticks from the area in the 80s, to be replaced by a huge shoe shop where the sales staff roller skated around the aisles to fetch footwear in one of history’s less successful retail service concept experiments.
Expansion was swift, with three Sainsbury shops on the Crescent by 1881. There was also the firm’s first ever wholesale depot just around the corner on Allcroft Road. The distinctive early brand identity, long before the utilitarian orange lettering of the ‘good food costs less’ era, was developed here too. Mosaic floors, green and cream wall tiles, marble-topped counters.Yet more Sainsbury innovation took place here in the ‘hood when the Camden Town superstore was completed in the early 90s. It replaced the huge but redundant Aerated Bread Company (ABC) bakery. As tea rooms went out of fashion for good, the scale of this bread and cake operation could not be sustained. The imposing historic red brick factory structure was not preserved despite a campaign, so up rose the new Sainsbury’s, a shop that was praised in the Guardian at the time as the “most extraordinary piece of take-no-prisoners architecture since the Lloyd’s building.” The radical design, by Waterloo’s one-time Eurostar terminal designer Nicholas Grimshaw, has not proved quite as popular with everyone. Some find the dominance of the cantilevered steel girders which hold up the giant overarching roof too brutal, although their shape is also meant to mirror the form of the Georgian terraces opposite. Still, in investing in such a ruthlessly functional retail space, Sainsbury’s had broken new ground yet again.
And having moved out of Kentish Town Road with the coming of said controversial superstore, they are now back, as ‘Local’ branches prove the latest wheeze for ongoing expansion of the grocery giants. Next time you scan your own bag of spuds at the computerised till, take a moment to reflect on 140 years of relentless development in buying and selling food, much of it pioneered right here on our doorstep.