North London's Cultural Guide

Sarah Park meets: Debra Knowles, Soho Hip

Why is Tufnell Park's much-loved gift shop about to close down?

Debra Knowles: "I'm not drawn to the things you see everyday, they need to be unusual." Photo: SP
Debra Knowles: “I’m not drawn to the things you see everyday, they need to be unusual.” Photo: SP

Sarah Park
Sarah Park
Debra Knowles suspects her love affair with Soho Hip is finally over, and that in just a couple of months this little independent will be another one that bites the dust. Her unfailing positivity and fight leads me to believe she’ll be OK – but do we want to lose such a Fortess Road character? I mean, she used to iron her hair for god’s sake.

Why a career in gifts and trinkets?
I wouldn’t call it a life-long ambition; I actually loved my sales job 15 years ago but a generous redundancy package gives you a feeling of wanting to do something very different – and being able to do it. I moved back to my Norfolk hometown and one night drinking wine with a friend we debated shops we could run and got excited by the idea of selling gorgeous, lovely things that you just don’t need. And that’s where the redundancy package went. Soho Hip was born.

Have you always been into shiny, sparkly things?
No, not at all. I love clothes but I hate fashion, I’ve always been a bit rebellious as I don’t like being dictated to about what to wear. So I’m not a girly girl and never have been. At school I would adapt my uniform, sneaking out of the house in thrown-on old waistcoats and I’d iron my hair to take out the curl; I was quite independent and sparkly stuff was never what interested me. But look at the shop – who wouldn’t want to come to work and be surrounded by lovely things?

What brought you back to London?
I loved the Norfolk shop but was climbing the walls. It was too quiet. I missed my friends and social life and I visited London every couple of weeks. The business wasn’t earning enough for both me and my friend so I bought her out and moved to here to run Soho Hip on my own. It was scary but wildly exciting.


Why Fortess Road?
A friend had just moved from Queenstown Rd to the area, I came to visit and we both loved the sense of community that felt strong and safe and had a real vibrancy. I remember walking past The Star on Chester Road with its great big windows and the place was buzzing with these tiny tables and candles. I thought there was nowhere else in London like this.

A few days later I walked past this shop and the builders were doing it up but only for the landlord to rent out. I fell in love with it there and then and opened Soho Hip in February 2012.
What type of presents do locals like to give then?
People buy candles, jewellery and homeware and cards but just not enough of them! I sell cards from Petra Boase, which are handcrafted with beautiful embroidery. The busiest day last year was Christmas Eve: I was open until 9-10pm and loved it, so many people came in but I just wished they would do that every month and not just Christmas.

'People come into the shop to browse and chat and then leave without buying anything." Photo: SP
‘People come into the shop to browse and chat and then leave without buying anything.” Photo: SP
How do you choose what to sell?
I’m not drawn to the things you see every day, they need to be unusual. People do say I have a good eye but I can’t focus solely on what I like; I think about my customers, the type of people who come into the shop and on Fortess Road it tends to be a bit more family than it was in Norfolk. Dare I say it, a bit more Yummy Mummy.

So what has been the problem?
People say things like, “I’ve come in for my weekly fix”, but then they browse and chat and leave without buying anything. I want customers to feel comfortable and not feel pressured to buy anything, but Soho Hip seems to be one of those shops that people adore, but then when they need a card or a present go to the bigger chains. Even Sainsbury’s!

The independent restaurants and cafes are thriving round here; I see the queues outside them and I think it is wonderful because people need to support us, but I think because I’m not a service shop people do come to browse rather than buy. It’s a shame.

So are you really leaving us?
Every day I feel like I am living the dream, but in reality it has been too quiet and the money isn’t there. The busiest time is when people walk home from work and so I stay open late. Ironically, the closure of the tube has been a blessing because it’s brought people from the other side of the area here. A lot of people didn’t even know I was here.

When do you have to go?
The landlord has been brilliant but I have to be out by January 5. He is rooting for me. I want to stay open until Christmas.

What can we do?
Come in and buy things!

What is your biggest fear?
Well, I’ve not had a job interview for 20 years. I’m just hoping I can use what I’ve learnt from running Soho Hip. I am a people person and need a job where I can meet new people regularly, but it’s definitely not the right time to open another shop.

It feels like a sad place to leave this interview.
I’ve had some absolutely wonderful times and customers. I love them so much and really want to thank them because I’ve enjoyed being part of the community. But this is a new chapter and it will be positive. You never know, maybe you’ll find me at a pop-up market somewhere near you.

Find Soho Hip at 148 Fortess Rd NW5

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