Words Jason Holmes
Photography Manu Zafra
“The shop is usually buzzing with the chatter of Italian accents. Decades ago Italians would have lived and worked in Soho…”
Businesses have come and gone in Soho down the ages, but one has managed to survive for more than seventy years. Behind Lina Stores’ green door lies a gourmand’s bounty. This is the bel paese in microcosm, and one of the last of the original Italian delicatessens to survive the countless makeovers that have scarred the bohemian quarter’s noble face.
As a mecca for homesick Italians in search of a taste of home – where a coffee machine sweats steam in a quiet corner of the shop as customers come and go – Lina Stores has never disappointed. Hidden in plain sight at 18 Brewer Street, the shop was founded in the 1940s by a lady from Genova, Lina, who remains something of an enigma. “I suppose it was quite unusual for a woman to go into business alone back then, but the nature of Lina’s business was fairly commonplace among Italian immigrants at the time,” says Helen Lenarduzzi, Lina Stores’ buyer. “A combination of the large Italian community in Soho, a desire to hold on to Italian gastronomic traditions and perhaps a mediocre grasp of English that would have made other forms of employment more difficult will have made opening an Italian delicatessen an obvious decision.”
Today’s decision is to keep the business safely within the family. Massimo Perdoni serves as the shop manager and has said in the past that Soho has changed tenfold since Lina Stores was founded 70 years ago, yet it’s to an establishment like Lina Stores that people come to glimpse something of the old Soho. Lenarduzzi agrees: “Lina Stores has always had an iconic look, so it would have been a travesty to abandon it. There would have been an outcry from customers if we had. There’s something about our white and green stripes that seems to appeal to customers.” The deli’s staff are all Italian, and there’s a constant footfall of Italians popping in for a quick coffee. “The shop is usually buzzing with the chatter of Italian accents. Decades ago Italians would have lived and worked in Soho, but now the majority commute in.”
“Back in the early days, most of the customers would have been homesick Italians, due to the large number of Italians that migrated to the UK in the post-war years. But in more recent times there has been another wave of immigration of young Italians looking for opportunities that are sadly unavailable in their home country.”
London, as it has done over the centuries, still stands resolute as a beacon for those seeking to better themselves, the city’s very culture woven from the cultures of those who serve it. “Back in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s Lina Stores was one of many Italian delis in Soho, but over the years almost all of them have disappeared,” adds Lenarduzzi. “There was also a new threat from supermarkets stocking similar items that were available in the small independents. So the key to our survival has been our willingness to move with the times. We are more focused on representing smaller, more artisan producers and there’s something infinitely more reassuring about being able to discuss the history and nature of a product with the grandson of a small company’s founder than having emails passed from pillar to post in a multinational organisation.”
Business has thrived because of the commitment of Perdoni and Lenarduzzi. “We import from all over Italy. Italian food is so diverse it would be hard to justify not doing so. The way people in Italy eat varies enormously from region to region and we pride ourselves on having a selection of products from all over the country.” But Lina Stores also sets itself apart from other delis by having more than one string to its bow. “A lot of homemade food is made on site which forms the backbone of our services. It’s lovely to hear customers telling the shop staff about their childhood memories of the ravioli they bought from us.”
But should an independent like Lina Stores be worried about the effect the Crossrail project will have on the area? Lenarduzzi is chagrined: “It’s heart-wrenching to hear about all of these special buildings and institutions that are under threat. London as a whole seems to be facing a wave of demolition that values so-called modernisation over heritage.”
“I have a horrible feeling that there will be cries of ‘What did we do!’ emanating from all corners of London within the next 20 to 30 years. If something is torn down and replaced by something that in the long run is a poor substitute, there’s no going back. The trouble with buildings is that it’s an irreversible gamble. And the argument that more people will be able to visit Soho thanks to Crossrail doesn’t hold much weight if the heart and soul that has driven visitors to the area in the past has been ripped out.”
With this in mind, Soho as the cultural heart of London has skipped a few beats of late, but it remains business and usual for this independent. “The secret to running a modern business in 21st century London to achieve a balance between forward-thinking without losing a sense of where you came from and how you got to where you are,” says Lenarduzzi. “We’re acutely aware that one of the things customers enjoy most about our shop is the interaction they have with the staff.”
With actors like John Hurt, celebrity chefs, restaurateurs and politicians stopping by to stock up, Lina Stores succeeds in selling traditional merchandise to a city that finds itself in the grip of change. When Lenarduzzi says that “nothing can come close to visiting an establishment that has stood the test of time,” one comes to understand precisely what all Londoners are in danger of losing forever if we allow ourselves to get used to the kiss of the wrecking ball. History, lest we forget, has shown that London and its immigrant communities have made Soho. What grows together goes together.