Words Jason Holmes
“I think Soho is different, neither for better nor worse…”
As you drift up from the neon of Theatreland to encounter the landmarks of Kettner’s and Norman’s, Greek Street becomes a portal to the past, offering you a glimpse behind the arras of modernity. Here, the old and the new intertwine to form one of Soho’s many tableaux, and Greek Street possesses a sort of telescopic quality that sucks the visitor up to its northern end where, at No 3, sits one of the last great independents: Milroy’s of Soho.
As a shop founded in 1964 – and which today stocks approximately 500 whiskies alongside spirits, wine and beer – it’s a one-off establishment in a corner of Soho that evokes the forgotten embraces and vanished yearnings of a distant era. But with the area’s ongoing transformation providing cause for concern among the remaining independent traders, can such historic businesses as Milroy’s survive the changes?
“I don’t see why not,” says Angus Martin, the retail manager. “As long as independent traders are willing to adapt, that is. Things change and, if necessary, so must businesses. The key thing for me is preserving Soho’s character and sense of community, which I think is crucial in attracting people to the area.”
Martin is equally upbeat about the potential effects wrought by the nearby Crossrail project, which he hopes will make Soho a busier place. “The more people, the better. Plus, I’ll be able to get home faster!” Despite doom-laden proclamations in the national press about the permanent transformation, even loss, of Soho’s quintessential character, footfall throughout this historic quarter is increasing as the area becomes a prime location for residential real estate and leisure. The revival, for which Soho has long waited, is underway as restaurants and cafés have begun to appear on street corners that once languished in twilight.
But how has Soho changed over the years since Milroy’s was founded in 1964? “I think Soho is different, neither for better nor worse. Soho still has a strong community feel which should be celebrated, and if a facelift brings more people into the area, then that’s great.” Martin adds that the charm of Soho is its hedonistic history: “Watering that down too much would be a shame, as I think it still lures people in.”
When Soho habitué Francis Bacon declared, “Real pain for your sham friends, champagne from your real friends,” he knew whereof he spoke. But the era of the hard-drinking artist is receding, as a 21st century Soho becomes a place where financial acumen supersedes the struggles of the starving bohemian. Things change, and Martin attributes the enduring success of Milroy’s to “never being afraid to embrace change”. He says he has been proactive in utilising the “knowledge, passion and approachability” that have been what he calls “the secrets of Milroy’s 50 years of success in the business”.
“Over our history, we have been a wine shop, sherry mart, whisky shop and a wholesaler, often flipping between different priorities depending on demand. We’ve recently put the [whisky] bars back in, which we had in the 1970s; that, I believe, has added another string to our bow. Plus we increasingly sell online.” Martin believes that Milroy’s appeal has been maintained by being a tourist destination. “The key is not to stagnate and to constantly innovate, whilst celebrating our heritage. We’ve always sold whisky. However, in our history we have often sold more wine than whisky. Due to our location, shelf space will always be a challenge, so we try to adapt to what our customers want. Currently, that’s whisky – and lots of it.” So small is beautiful? “People go out of their way to visit us to try some whisky, share some knowledge and buy a bottle. I think that is part of our appeal. Being independent is very important to us.”
What does he think of the capital’s currenmt cocktail boom? “I’m not sure that the cocktail boom is pervasive or gimmicky: tastes change with each generation. Personally, if mixology is introducing people to new spirits, then I’m all for it. In fact, the cocktail boom has done wonders for American whiskey and Scotch whisky alike. But I’m not sure the closing down of pubs, however sad, is related to the enduring appeal of whisky.” Perhaps, then, it’s a question of taste, no more, no less: the drink, the shop and the area, all contribute to the appeal of a London many are fearful will be lost in the march of time.
No doubt the loyalty of Milroy’s large overseas clientele is attributable to this sense of continuity; loyalty, says Martin, comes high on his list of priorities. “Customer loyalty is very much at the heart of what we do. It is absolutely mandatory, and we love the fact that we get to know our customers very well over the years. Many have become firm friends.” Milroy’s and Greek Street – perhaps the most characterful of all Soho’s streets – shall be forever linked, the thoroughfare graven and worn with time, the shoulders of its buildings sloping with the weight of years. Moving from here would be a wrench. “We’ve been here for 51 years,” says Martin, “although we used to have a shop on Beak Street too. But we aren’t considering moving any time soon. Back in 1964, I don’t know what the motivation was to open a shop on Greek Street over busier streets such as Old Compton or Wardour. Jack Milroy worked in Kettner’s before opening Milroy’s, so maybe that’s the reason. “We love our location and we would never want to leave Soho. Greek Street has had many new openings over the past couple of years, and now it feels like an exciting time to be here.”