Behind the cashier desk in the Labour and Wait store on Dorset Street are two large sash windows. “They are one of the reasons we decided to rent this space,” explains Simon Watkins. “Most people would have frosted the glass, I imagine,” he says, “but we actually rather like that aesthetic.” Directly opposite, across a dim alleyway, are two identical windows that belong to Howarth of London, a woodwind specialist that has occupied the same premises on Chiltern Street since 1948. The windows give a glimpse into the unselfconscious world of the Howarth repair shop, where the workbenches are scattered with the tools specific to their craft.
Back of house, below stairs, back of drawer: this is Labour and Wait’s unchanging aesthetic. For over 20 years, co-founders Simon Watkins and Rachel Wythe-Moran have sourced a timeless collection of practical household, kitchen and garden goods and workwear from across the globe, selling them first from their “little shop” on Cheshire Street in London’s East End, before opening a larger store in a converted Victorian pub on Redchurch Street. Dorset Street in Marylebone is their second standalone store in the UK. They also have a concession on the top floor of Dover Street Market and a shop in a converted garage in Tokyo, as well as numerous concessions throughout Japan.
The shop takes its name from the final line of a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem: “Learn to labour and to wait”. It is a maxim that works on many levels. “The sentiment is about doing the work and waiting for the result,” explains Simon. “It’s not about instant gratification – and we think that fits with what we’re trying to promote.” He continues: “It’s an odd thing for a retailer to say, but there is just so much stuff out there. What we try to put forward is a range of the things which are going to stand you in good stead for years to come.”
The seemingly disparate selection of goods expertly packed into the premises are items that you might reasonably expect to use everyday for at least a decade. “A lot of our products are tools for the garden, or for baking, or for repairing clothes,” Rachel explains. “They are tools that are designed to help you do a job, then appreciate the results of your labour. They are also products that improve over time,” she says. “They eventually gain a personality of their own,” Simon adds.
Both Rachel and Simon worked in menswear before being introduced through mutual friends. Disillusioned by the constant clamour for change, they would meet up during their lunch hour and draw up a list of what they would sell in their “fantasy shop.” After two years, they went to the bank with a visual representation of what the store might look like. (“We weren’t very good on the figures side of things,” admits Rachel.) “We’ve still got that plan and it’s still relevant to our business,” says Rachel. “Every few years, we’ll be having a sort out and we’ll come across the plan,” says Simon. “It’s remarkable how much it looks just like Labour and Wait today.”
Casting their eyes around their fresh display of familiar products, Rachel and Simon list the items that have been in continuous supply since day one: “The Duralex glasses, the Moka Express cafetiere, the Breton tops, the toilet brush and bucket, the Riess enamelware, the Brown Betty teapot …” When an item falls out of stock, it is usually the result of a change in the original design, or a supplier going out of business. Rarely do they change their minds about a product once it has made it on to their shelves.
Despite the inevitable rise in the cost of raw materials and manufacturing, their price point remains resolutely accessible. Customers can walk away with an armful of brown paper packets without spending a small fortune. “We have always wanted the store to be accessible to everyone,” explains Rachel. “As a result we have always had a good mix of customers – male or female, old or young.” Simon gleefully recalls serving in their first shop and seeing an older woman and a young male customer both contemplating the purchase of a vintage workwear jacket. “I just thought: ‘That’s it! That is exactly what we want!’”
The couple go to great lengths to source their wares, rummaging through stationery shops and hardware stores in lesser-known European cities for the perfect bottle of roll-on glue, hardback notebook or S-hook. Bizarrely, one of the hardest items to source was the Brown Betty teapot. “It took years,” recalls Simon. “We found a company in America selling the original, but nobody seemed to know where this teapot came from.” Eventually, they traced the design back to a factory in Staffordshire who had “quietly been making the teapots for decades without really telling anybody.” Rotund, reliable and now reengineered, the Brown Betty has been stocked in Labour and Wait for 21 consecutive years, a glossy emblem of the company ethos.
Interview by Nell Card.
Photographs by Roo Lewis.