It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for small business to stay afloat. As lockdowns and closures have swept the globe over the past year, many retail shops, restaurants, and speciality goods stores across the globe have suffered. As a result, there are countless places that will likely never reopen again, all casualties of the coronavirus.
One such place is an iconic gear shop located in London. Last week, the owners of Arthur Beale Ltd announced that they would be closing their doors for good on June 24. This has become an all-too-common story of late of course, but int his case the store had been open for nearly 500 years in business.
Origins of a Legend
The exact date the store opened has been lost to history, but we do know that it dates back to the 16th century. The shop was originally owned by a man named John Buckinghams, who started the business sometime around 1500. He was primarily a rope maker by trade, but also offered other items mainly designed for sailors.
When it first opened, the shop was located at 12 Middle Row in the St. Giles area. As the BBC points out, at the time that area of London was known or its large number of flax fields. Those plants were harvested for their fibers, which were used in making numerous products, including the ropes that Buckinghams weaved and sails for use on tall ships.
Later, the business would relocate to 33 Broad Street in London and continue offering nautical supplies. In 1890 a young man named Arthur Beale joined the company to serve as an office boy. At the time, he was just 15-years old but eventually he would rise through the ranks and take over the store, which was renamed in his honor in the early 1900s.
Gear for Sailors, Explorers, and Climbers
Early on, the store earned a reputation for being a place for sailors to obtain the gear they needed for their journeys. Buckinghams ropes were considered top notch, with outstanding craftsmanship and that level of quality continued for the decades—and even centuries—that followed.
But the clientele didn’t remain exclusively sailors either. The shop is said to have been the exclusive provider of ropes to the Alpine Club, which ExWeb points out was the world’s first mountaineering organization. Later, it would supply ice axes for Ernest Shackleton to use on his Antarctic expeditions and ropes for Eric Shipton’s attempt to climb Mt. Everest in 1935.
London Institutions Under Siege
Arthur Beale isn’t the only historical outlet that is feeling the squeeze of the pandemic. James Smith and Sons has been selling umbrellas in London since 1830 and it too has struggled over the past year. It is only now reopening and the staff indicates that it should survive, but only just barely.
Hatchards—a book store in Piccadilly—has been open since 1797 and faced similar challenges over the past 14 months. The shop claims to be the oldest book seller in the U.K. and traffic in and out of its doors is directly tied to the hotels and theaters found on the West End. With those locations closed down for the past year, walk-in traffic slowed to a trickle. For now though, it seems that the shop has weathered the COVID storm, with business prospects starting to improve.
Down But Not Out
The owners of the Arthur Beale shop say that is an increase in rent that is forcing them to shutter the outlet—a location they’ve had for 150 years. Currently that amounts to roughly £100,000 (about $140,000) per year, with taxes and local fees on top of that. With income currently at a trickle, it has become increasingly difficult to justify the costs.
For now, the gear shop will continue to operate online while it it looks to make a comeback. The hope is to find a new location in London that is more affordable, potentially reopening once the world has started to return to normal. That’s little solace for loyal patrons, many of whom have been stoping by to pay their respects since the news of the closure broke. They know it won’t be easy to replace such the store, which has been an institution in London for five centuries.
Small businesses are obviously still struggling and any closure of a store or restaurant is tragic. But when you lose one with this much history, it’s difficult to reconcile. Hopefully the shop will find success online and return to a brick and mortar business soon.
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