Old Compton Street, one of Soho’s jugulars, is alternately lined with shops selling underwear and coffee. The latter are a mix of the usual franchised suspects and the artisanal independents typical of London’s hipster boom. Standing in contrast, at Number 52, is Algerian Coffee Stores. Its post-box red façade and ‘Est. 1887’ signage proffering a curious outpost of North African culture. Inside, the fittings remain much the same as they always have. The old world Victorian counter, display case and ceiling-skimming shelves – heaving with over 60 different blends – are original and kept meticulously in tact. Fading sepia-tone photographs hang on the wall, charting the store through the ages, and the air is heavy with the perfume of coffee. For a brand with a fine reputation and over a century of such well-preserved heritage, one would think its Algerian roots would be firmly planted in Soho’s folklore.
But Soho legend is a circus of gritty decadence. Long the ‘enfant terrible’ of London, the area has always greeted its tenants with an embrace and a blind eye. As such, the story of an Algerian man setting up a coffee shop – although statistically unusual in 1887 – has long been usurped by much taller tales.
‘We only know that the store was opened by an Algerian man named Mr Hassan in 1887 – we know nothing of his descendants or what happened to him after he handed the shop over in 1926,’ says current owner Marisa Crocetta, in response to a question she must be tired of answering. ‘Algerian Coffee Stores has been in my family since 1948, when my granddad took over. My father, my sister and I are now here.’
Mr Hassan’s story is most likely the balance of a delicate social equation – one with perhaps exponential variables and rooted to only four flakes of fact. Eamonn Gearon, a Middle Eastern specialist and professorial lecturer at John Hopkins SAIS, muses over what might have lead Mr Hassan to England.
‘In 1881, Algeria was directly integrated into France and the new laws imposed common law penalties on the native population. In effect, tens of thousands of Algerians were dispossessed, and I would suggest that it was at this time that Mr Hassan, who must have had a little money squirrelled away, made the journey to London.’
By that time, London’s coffee drinking habits were already in full swing and were even undergoing something of a renaissance thanks to the encouragement of the temperance movement. This, coupled with a pre-established trade of coffee, tea, spices, silk and gold between London and Algiers, was what may have roused Mr Hassan’s inner entrepreneur. At that time, it was common for new arrivals to wind up with the artists, writers and bohemians of Soho, where rents were significantly cheaper and coffee houses were popular as places to drink and think.
The fact that Algerian Coffee Stores still operates in the same fashion is both testament and homage to Mr Hassan. Today, London’s Algerian community cluster around Blackstock Road in Finsbury Park – an area affectionately dubbed ‘Little Algiers’ – with many coffee shops of its own. Thanks to Mr Hassan and the efforts of the current owners, however, Algerian Coffee Stores is still one of the best places in the UK to pick up high quality Arabic blends: ‘We sell Yemeni coffee, and we also sell blends spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, anise, cassia and pepper,’ says Crocetta.
This article appears in the issue42 Buy Now