Words Ezra Axelrod
Photography Manu Zafra
“If you ripped out the original fixtures, made it nice and shiny, you could say it’s from 1887, but where’s the charm in that?”
For the past 128 years, something has been brewing at 52 Old Compton Street. The seductive aroma drifts into the street and grabs creatives as they hurry to work. It stops wide-eyed tourists in their tracks. It shakes the upstairs neighbours awake. Its strength lures them through the small red door and into a temple devoted to a small brown bean. Welcome to the Algerian Coffee Stores.
On a street where institutions boldly mark their territory – and the fleeting and fashionable cling for survival – the Algerian Coffee Stores firmly stands its ground, with a flock of faithful customers and new converts cramming into the cosy shop to stock up on their favourite roasts. Originally opened in 1887 by an Algerian merchant named Mr Hassan, and passing through various hands over the decades, the shop has spent the past 43 years under owner, Paul Crocetta, and his family. The Crocettas have preserved much of the original décor, including hardwood counters and bright red shelves packed with hundreds of coffees (and teas) from every corner of the world. “If you ripped out the original fixtures, made it nice and shiny, you could say it’s from 1887, but where’s the charm in that?” Paul’s daughter Marisa, who helps run the shop, asks.
Marisa says that the shop takes its heritage very seriously, and their customers are equally serious in their relationship to the drink. “People are very into coffee: they want to know about what they’re buying and how to make it right.” Today, coffee is one of the world’s top three preferred beverages next to water and tea, powering our global quest for improved cognition and enhanced energy. Our love affair with the drink is ancient: the coffee tree is native to Ethiopia and Sufi mystics were spreading the miracle beans and their murky brew throughout the Middle East as early as the 13th century. If today coffee consumption feels like a religious rite, that’s probably because traditionally these mystics drank to achieve a heightened state of alertness while chanting prayers.
The Algerian Coffee Stores benefits from its prime location at the heart of London’s most influential neighbourhood, and it’s safe to say that the shop has been instrumental in fuelling Britain’s conversion to coffee. In the shop, the lively international staff are eager to instruct coffee enthusiasts on the ideal caffeine fix or the perfect flavour for a brew. “If you want the full effects of a high caffeine content,” explains Marisa, “it’s best to go with the Indonesian Sulawesi Kalossi, Brazilian Bourbon, or Bolivian High Roast.” But Marisa points out that the classic “jolt” associated with coffee can be psychological, a response to an intense flavour, and recommends customers experiment with their preferred roast, whether it be an earthy, edgy Costa Rican, a smooth Colombian, or something in-between.
Being surrounded by coffee all day, you might wonder if the staff have grown tired of drinking the beverage. “We still like coffee,” says Marisa, “and we’ll drink it throughout the day, maybe five or six cups, depends on the day.” And what about the aroma that entices so many passers-by, can the staff still feel it? “In the morning you smell it, but as the day goes on, you stop being aware of it. The other day, I had changed my clothes and was on the train home, but suddenly I smelled coffee everywhere. I realised it had worked its way into my skin!”
Some coffee drinkers might be looking for an alternative (it’s okay, we’ve all been there.) Priding itself on being au fait with global warm beverage traditions and cults, the Algerian Coffee Stores has a whole shelf devoted to the Argentinian tea and national pastime, yerba mate. Toted as having even more kick than coffee but without the jitters, yerba mate is intensely bitter and not for the faint hearted. It’s prepared by stuffing a gourd (simply called ‘the mate’ in Spanish) with the loose-leaf tea, pouring in hot water, and drinking through a metal straw called a bombilla. The tea comes with a cultural mandate to drink in a communal setting, passing the gourd around a circle of friends, new acquaintances or even strangers.
This is the charm of the Algerian Coffee Stores: browsing its shelves is an adventure into so many traditions and far-flung corners of the world, a reminder of places we’ve lived or visited, and the moments we shared over a cup of our favourite roast. Beyond the beans and the tea leaves, shelves are adorned with the most appropriate array of sweet accompaniments, from panforte to Turkish delights to marzipan biscuits. While many of the treats are provided by specialist vendors, Marisa says that sometimes it’s a sweet memory that brings an item into the shop: “I remember years ago in France, I had these amazing cognac-soaked, marzipan and chocolate-coated raisins, and I’ve been searching for them since. I finally found them, they are the François Doucet chocolates here,” she explains, pointing to the colourful packets next to the till. It is in this way that the Corcetta family has succeeded in carrying on the tradition of one of Soho’s treasures, while bringing to it a personal, familiar touch that inspires customers to be passionate coffee connoisseurs.
Over the centuries, from the Sufi mystics bringing coffee from Ethopia to Mr Hassan bringing it to the streets of Soho, this bitter bean has enchanted humans. And if the continued increase in business at the Algerian Coffee Stores is any indication, the temple to coffee on Old Compton Street is here to stay.