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The Overton Window: ‘Flip it and Sell it’ – The Threat to Shepherd’s Bush Market

As a community book seller loses her unique shop in Shepherd’s Bush Market, Iain Overton looks at the broader struggles facing London’s historic markets, facing the juggernaut of modern development.

Meron Gwiggner’s book shop in Shepherd’s Bush Market. Photos: Iain Overton

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The shelves of Hone Books are filled with promise. The promise of reading; of exciting careers; of childhood dreams actualised. “Today’s a reader, tomorrow’s a leader” says a sign that hangs above an owl standing resplendent in Elizabethan costume. There, a soft-toy hedgehog nestles; a children’s history of Bonnie Prince Charlie peaks beneath its paws; a book to the side promises 1001 Pirate Things To Spot. A haven of childish wonder in West London.

Piracy, though, feels too close a theme to the bookshop’s owner – Meron Gwiggner. A 39-year-old Ethiopian refugee, she risks being kicked out of her little refuge here in the heart of Shepherd’s Bush Market. A raid on her sanctuary by what she sees as the big, venture capitalist guns. 

Her bookstore seems today a cornerstone of the community – a new heart of a market whose stalls have stood here for 109 years. The traders have faced many threats. In February 1944, a German doodlebug hit the market, destroying six shops. You once “could buy second-hand paperbacks at the bookseller, and sell them back at half-price when you’d finished reading them”, says the market website. Perhaps not for much longer.

Today her shop, and many others along this busy road in West London, risks closure. This street filled with North African fruit and veg traders, Halal butchers, a pet shop, Chinese takeaways and cheap lingerie stalls, faces a radical overhaul. A contentious redevelopment plan, approved by Hammersmith and Fulham Council in December 2023, needs just Mayor Sadiq Khan’s signature to go ahead. In a vote of 3 to 2, the council gave the development proposed by a company called Yoo Capital the green light. Over a thousand people have petitioned Khan to halt the change. 

Among the signatories is Meron. She faces eviction today (Friday 9 Feb) unless she agrees to sign a new lease agreement which includes allowing the landlord unfettered access to her shop and imposing liability on her for any structural damage. She can’t afford the risk, she says. 

Last year she made £1,500 in sales. The shop cost her £2,000 to run. It’s a labour of love, not a commercial one. But this space means a great deal to her. “People see me and they come in,” she says. “The thing is, it’s not their space if they see a white person. My main aim was to reach out to people who would never go to a library. People say representation does not matter – but it does matter. People get inspired… I wanted to bring books to the community.” 

Hers is a mission of inclusion and knowledge.  The money is secondary.

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Yoo Capital Group, by comparison, made a post-tax profit of £5m in 2022, up 25% from the year before. Now, having acquired the majority of the market site in 2020, they propose a 9-storey commercial building atop existing market shops, alongside the refurbishment of some stalls and the construction of 40 new council-managed homes. 

Critics argue that such developments will lead to increased rents, push out long-standing traders and alter the market’s character. 

Meron Gwiggner has sleepless nights over all of this. The lease agreement she was sent by them is hard to read, and hard to swallow. She was only given five days to respond. And there’s a phrase that worries her in the legalese. It’s a ‘Tenancy At Will’ agreement which, her own pro bono lawyer advises her, offers her little in terms of stability or autonomy. Could Yoo Capital’s contract effectively restrict her operational hours? Does signing this dense contract end some of her rights? As she told Yoo Capital “I will not, nor should not have to, tolerate rudeness, discrimination, or racism.”

She objects to Yoo Capital using images of her shop in their marketing campaigns, showing the Instagram-friendly snaps of her books and her homely shop online. She objects to the way she has been called a ‘prototype’ for the sort of community-building activities Yoo Capital promises. She objects to those cold Terms and Conditions, to the endless stress, to the bullying she claims she has received.

“There’s a saying in Ethiopian,” she says, “there’s art to being ugly. These people don’t even have that.”

As we finish talking, a Yoo Capital manager starts showing around a prospective investor. They object to having their photographs taken. A few minutes later, security guards appear with a site manager, hovering there, awkward at my elbow. A trader mouths the word ‘w***ers’ as the management shuffles to the side.

It’s not just the legal letters, the claimed bullying, the accusations of intimidation. The project has raised concerns over inadequate carbon offsetting measures on the commercial building, falling far short of both local and Greater London Authority targets. Yoo Capital has committed to £1.8m in carbon offset payments. They have also told the local traders they will not have their rent increased until five years after the completion of the refurbishment.

But there’s still the question of the intent lurking at the heart of this plan.

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Byline Times has seen a 2019 briefing for Yoo Capital that is ‘strictly confidential’, an investment strategy centred on transforming real estate assets in the UK, specifically in the Greater London area, with a focus on opportunistic investments. In it, the company proposes a strategy with an “exit envisaged in 8-10 years through sale of the assets”. It is understood this is an old strategy and does not reflect plans for the market. But, in the absence of seeing a new ‘confidential’ strategy, the company still stands accused of investing in the market in order to flip it and sell it on. 

Protect Shepherd’s Bush Market, an opposition group to the development, warns such a threatened future will mark “the end of Shepherd’s Bush Market as an affordable and diverse market serving the local community.”  Some traders in the row agree, but won’t go on record. They are worried about what might happen if they kick up a fuss.

But not all are sceptical. Paul Bardini, a 69-year-old trader whose grandfather started working in the market in 1919 running an auction house, believes the investment will give the market a face-lift and bring in new customers. 

“Why shouldn’t Yoo Capital make a profit?”, he says, a man born and bred in the Bush, today standing in for his son in front of the shop. It’s a haberdashery his family owns outright and is not slated for redevelopment. “Unless you change with the times like a chameleon,” he said, “you’ll get crushed in the rush.” He’s not alone – other traders have also voiced their support for the development.

Yoo Capital themselves reject the concerns of traders such as Meron and emphasise their commitment to the Shepherd’s Bush Market community through extensive consultation, financial and practical support for traders, and efforts to exceed operational carbon reduction targets, underscoring – they claim – a nuanced approach to the redevelopment.

In the end, there are two sides to the argument – modernise or preserve. The saga of Shepherd’s Bush Market is emblematic of the broader struggles facing London’s and other British city’s historic markets, caught between the pressures of modern development and the need to maintain unique identities and serve their communities. The outcome in Shepherd’s Bush Market will not only determine the future of Hone Books Galore but also set a precedent for the preservation of community spaces in the face of seemingly relentless urban development and the endless promise of profit.

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