John Lennon, Michael X and Ralph Lauren – the story of an Islington shopfitter
- Credit: Archant
“Yoko Ono hasn’t been back, but if you asked her she would remember the place all right,” insists David Binder, discussing a black and white photo he has pinned to his counter.
The picture, taken in February 1970, shows John Lennon, Yoko Ono and British civil rights activist Michael X standing on the roof of the former cultural centre known as the Black House in Holloway Road.
Lennon and Ono were donating locks of their recently cut hair to Michael X to help his cause, while he gave them a pair of Muhammad Ali’s bloodied boxing shorts.
Darkest London, a blog for off-beat history and which charts the biography Michael X: A Life in Black & White by John Williams, lists the Black House address as 95 to 101 Holloway Road.
Currently flats occupy 95 to 97, the House of Hammerton pub 99, with specialist shopfitters D&A Binder in 101.
READ MORE: ‘Use us or lose us’ say struggling independent Islington tradersSpeaking to the Gazette just before the start of lockdown two, David Binder, who opened the shop in 1981, recalled the site’s intriguing past.
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“It was a cultural centre for the Black community in the ‘60s,” David, 66, says. “I still get people coming in and saying they used to come here as a kid.”
However, despite its possible honourable intentions as a centre for disaffected youth, the Black House had a seedier side.
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John Williams wrote: “As 1969 turned into 1970, it was becoming obvious that whatever the Black House was, it was not an inspiring oasis of peace and love in the midst of grimy north London.
“Instead, it was an intimidating establishment used as a base for various kinds of illegal activity.”
Michael X himself, who took the X from American civil rights activist Malcolm X, was born Michael de Freitas in Trinidad in 1933.
He returned to the Caribbean island in 1971, and a year later was convicted of the murder of Joseph Skerritt and sentenced to death. He was hanged in Trinidad in May 1975.
Shopfitter David, who lives in Finchley, learned more about the Michael X story when he came across the vacant Holloway Road premises back in 1981.
“I bought it from the caretaker, who was looking after the place after its Black House era,” father-of-six David said.
“He told me bits of the story. There’s a big wall at the back of the shop, he said whatever you do, do not knock down the wall.
“And it’s still there. The last thing I need is to phone the police and tell them I’ve found some bodies.”
The shop itself, in its current form with back wall intact, is packed full of custom-made, reproduced units, shelving, mannequins and busts, among an array of eye-catching items.
David tells the Gazette that he started out in markets, selling “bits and pieces”, before moving into antiques and opening a shop in Portobello Road in 1974.
“We had a good time there and the antiques business was booming, you could sell anything on the Portobello Road at that time,” he said.
“We sold furniture to Ralph Lauren, and they wanted shop fittings, so we said, ‘Right, we’ll get you some’.” And so the shopfitting business took off.
As the shop approaches its 40th anniversary in Holloway Road, David now takes more of a back seat with son Josh running the business.
“I just do what I’m told,” David said.
Around 30 to 40 per cent of customers are private, David said, with the rest commercial retail premises such as menswear and jewellery shops.
On the eve of the second coronavirus lockdown, on November 4, David was upbeat.
“I feel good, during the last lockdown we had quite a few web enquiries and sales,” David said. “The shop will be closed but we’ve got a good website, so that keeps us ticking over.
“There’s only the four of us here so we don’t need a large amount of money to keep going, and we own the shop. We couldn’t afford to be here if we had to pay rent.”
Hopefully this second lockdown will be kind to D&A Binder, and customers can continue to enjoy its quirkiness for many years to come.
Perhaps even Yoko Ono will pop back one day.
Find out more about D&A Binder online at https://www.dandabinder.co.uk/