A revisit to the Last Jewish Trader on Brick Lane, with some thoughts and feelings related to work, family, ambition and history.
By Simmy Richman. Photography: Jean Goldsmith
He is not a man given to easy laughter, but there's one joke Leo Epstein never tires of telling. He'll have it at the ready every time a customer comes into his shop asking to see the upmarket stock: "This is Brick Lane, not Park Lane."
Should they probe further, Epstein might reveal that the word "shmatte", the trade he has been involved in for more than 50 years, roughly translates as "a rag" or "anything shabby". There's nothing shabby about a business that has looked after Epstein and his family nicely and finds him now, proudly telling anyone interested in the history of the East End, that he is the last Jewish trader in a street that was once the epicentre of London Jewry.
Epra Fabrics opened on Brick Lane in 1956. Then, there was a Jewish haberdasher on one side, a Jewish bookshop on the other, a kosher butcher here, a Yiddish theatre there, and everywhere rolls of cloth that could be measured and cut to length for anyone interested in a nice bit of shmatte to take home and turn into clothes.
These days, Epra is surrounded by curry houses and sari sellers, and the Brick Lane synagogue has become a mosque. But Epstein still comes here day after day (closed Saturdays) to remove the grill and open for business. Ask how trade is going, and he'll look you in the eye and tell you it's azoy (so-so); but then he would have given you the same answer when trade was booming in the 1970s. At any rate, booming or not, it's impossible to say why Epstein still drives here each day from the north London suburbs, except for the fact that 76 is no age to change the habits of a lifetime.
In 1986 when I was in my early twenties, my dad, who was feeling the lure of retirement around the corner, offered each of his four sons in turn the chance to take over his business. The annual cash reward was, even back then, by some way more than I have ever earned. I had just embarked on a career in music and the timing could not have been worse for me. I wanted to forge my own way in the world and I looked down my nose at all the kids I knew who had gone IDB (into daddy's business). I was a strong, independent young man about to sign a recording contract with Virgin Records. I turned down the first and only chance I would ever have in my life of earning six figures.
One of my older brothers wasn't so lucky. He jumped at the chance to go IDB and, within a few short years, paid the price in the form of a nervous breakdown. My dad's business was lucrative, but hardly glamorous. Back in the 1950s, he went into partnership with the son of one of his father's friends. Our name at that time was Raichmann and my dad's partner was Leo Epstein. The business amalgamated their surnames: Epra Fabrics.
In my early teens, I would often accompany my dad to work on Sundays. He got someone to shlep rolls of fabric while I got a bit of pocket money and an unspoken lesson in the Jewish work ethic. It was filthy and depressing work. The shop basement stank of mould and a thick layer of dust covered everything, from the plastic covering on the rolls of fabric to the "office" that my dad and Leo would sit in whenever there were no punters. Pocket money aside, the only thing that made those Sunday-morning sessions bearable was the staff my dad employed to do the dirty work when a spare son couldn't be found.
The guys who worked for my dad were invariably black. They used to walk around with combs sticking out of their afros and the latest disco tunes on their lips (KC & the Sunshine Band's "That's The Way I Like It" was a particular favourite). Their tales of casual sex and drug-taking, clubbing and partying, were - for a kid who'd grown up in Hendon, north London - both revealing and inspiring. Sure, they knew I was the boss's son, but I was 13, in awe, and they treated me like a friend. When they slacked off, I slacked off. When they took a sly toke in the basement, they offered me one, even if I had little idea then what it was they were smoking.
Natural and easygoing camaraderie like that only made it more upsetting when back home my father would routinely refer to his staff with the collective noun "schwarzers" (blacks). Like many of his generation, my dad would reject any accusation that he was a racist. But such casual stereotypes were deeply ingrained in a man who had escaped from Nazi Germany in the nick of time. This was the atmosphere I grew up in, and the world I have spent my life trying to escape.
My dad died on the 29th of October 2004. As the fifth anniversary of his death approached, I went back to Brick Lane to see if any vestige of his life's work could still be found at Epra Fabrics. Leo greeted me warmly even as he struggled to recognise the balding, middle-aged me. He was happy, too, to take a few minutes out to talk about old times. "These days, every Jewish kid wants to go into the city or law. But those choices didn't exist when me and your dad started this. When we started out, going into the shmatte trade was just what you did."
Retirement isn't on his radar. "I work here six days a week, I go to shul on my day off. I don't play golf, I don't paint like your dad. This is my hobby. I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I retired. And beside that, my wife would go mad." Did he miss my dad? "People thought we were brothers," he said kindly, before adding, "though your dad always used to say we were related only by money."
When he popped out to serve a customer, I found myself alone in the tiny office in the corner my dad sat in every day. I looked around for anything that would remind me of him. Was that his handwriting on a faded Post-It? His labels on the front of the filing cabinet?
I have no idea what I was expecting to find and, seeing and feeling nothing, stepped out into the new full-of-life Brick Lane where weekending Hoxtonites rub shoulders with the latest in a long line of minorities. This is a part of London is steeped in history, but time has moved on and Epra is already an anachronism - a shop out of time, owned by a man from another age.
It's his retirement years that I remember when I think of my dad now. It was only then, when he didn't have to go day after day to a job he got money but no pleasure from, that he became something like the man he might have been. So while the last Jewish trader on Brick Lane is something to be, I'm glad it's not my dad and even gladder it's not me.
Epra Fabrics is at 52-55 Brick Lane, London E1.