“Most days I make £30 or £50. These days if I get £80 I’m like a belly dancer. Some people bring just one item to keep me going until this black day is over,” says Tahir Karaoglan, who has owned Crofton Park’s Starlite Dry Cleaners since 1999.
The Brockley Road shopkeeper is trying to articulate how he has coped with his business being destroyed by the fallout from Covid-19 as his customers dwindle and clothes remain unclaimed.
Like similar high street shops the 54-year-old was forced to close on 23 March but for weeks previously he was already suffering a huge drop in takings as people remained indoors. When his shop was closed in lockdown he had to borrow money from his 25-year-old daughter so that he could feed his family and keep his business afloat.
He reopened six weeks later, on 2 May, but the first day back was no cause for celebration. Only one customer visited while hundreds of cleaned clothes remain on the racks, without having been paid for, as people lost their jobs or decided not to fetch unnecessary workwear.
“If it carries on like this it’s finished for us,” Tahir says. “I don’t want to get another loan because I’m 54 and can’t afford to borrow money to keep this shop for ever because we don’t know when it’s going back to normal. Nobody knows.”
The disruption this has caused Tahir is immense, and not least because he has spent all his working life working long hours in hot conditions.
The Turkish-Cypriot came to SE London in the 1980s pressing clothes and cleaning cafes for unscrupulous businessmen who took advantage of his status as an illegal immigrant.
“In Cyprus there was no life for us,” he says. There were jobs but you’d be paid £25 a week. I don’t care about the heat [of a dry cleaners]. As soon as I’m earning money to look after my family I’m fine. I’m a human being.
“I came here to work hard. I was working in busy shops, sometimes overnight. The boss would lock the shop up and give me the keys. I would work non-stop from 8.30am to 1.30am. I asked for extra money and they’d say, ‘You’re an illegal immigrant. You’re lucky I give you a job. Because if immigration get you I have to pay £2,000.’ They used me but I would just pay for a bus pass, snack and then save for the future.”
Tahir married his wife, Helen, in 1993, was eventually granted citizenship and later used these savings to open up his dry cleaners. It became a focal point of the Crofton Park area with many visiting for a friendly conversation especially now when cafes and pubs are only just re-opening.
“Some people come in for a chat because they have lost their wives and they are lonely,” he says. “Some stay for a few minutes. But some people stay for hours. I’ve never charged them full price because we are like a family. They don’t support my business. I support them. They can’t afford tea, coffee or toast in the café.”
Tahir is understanding of their loneliness – to a point. He is quick to dispel the notion that he is running a community service, as he firmly states that his dry cleaners is a business, especially as he can’t even afford to run the heating to keep some of his visitors warm.
However, Tahir can’t avoid being affected deeply by recent events. At least five of his customers died after their cancer treatment was stopped when health services were overrun at the height of the pandemic.
“One of them was only 59,” he adds. “One of them, his trousers are here. He brought it before lockdown and then he was gone. This one: ‘Mr Clancy’. I have so many elderly people who use me but I haven’t seen them. Maybe they died, but I don’t know.”
Tahir has also suffered the blow of not being able to see his daughter get married as they had to cancel her wedding in Cyprus on 21 May. He hasn’t visited his place of birth for four years. “We were ready for it but this virus came and destroyed everything.”
Instead Tahir sits in his shop, waiting for customers and even his wife is now not needed. He does, however, count himself as lucky. His rents are low, compared to central London, and he’s in a lot better position than a fellow businessman who owns the café opposite.
“He was in a coma after contracting Covid,” Tahir says. “He’ll never work again. I’m working. If the second wave comes it will finish everything – not just me. It will affect everyone.”
DAVID JESUDASON is a freelance journalist who has also written for The Guardian, BBC Culture, HuffPost, Kerrang!, Retro Gamer and TechRadar.