Shamil Joomun is something of a local legend. As well as running a successful audio repair/ coffee shop, he was one of Creative Works’ first ever members. We caught up with Shamil over a cup of freshly brewed coffee to find out more about his plans for the shop and what Blackhorse Road used to be like…
Hi Shamil! Armstrong Audio is a local institution – can you tell us a bit about its history?
Armstrong Audio was founded in 1932 and was a British manufacturer of audio equipment. It was originally based in Camden and made public wireless radios for public addresses during the war effort (this was before people could afford to have audio in their homes).
After WW2 the company carried on producing a wide variety of audio equipment – including a limited range of televisions. But Armstrong Audio really came into its own in the ‘60s and ‘70s when it produced a critically acclaimed series of amplifiers and radio receiver that was affordable, technically innovative and aesthetically pleasing.
You can actually see some of these units and more in the shop today!
My father started working for the company in the 1970s. Then, in the early ‘80s a lot of products from the Far East started hitting the market and Armstrong just couldn’t compete. It was then that Armstrong moved to Blackhorse Lane and using their expertise in audio equipment, restructured itself into a repair shop.
Back then there was a lot of demand for repair work and there were eight engineers who carried out repairs for the likes of John Lewis and Currys. The Blackhorse Lane area was also very different back then, as the industrial site whilst starting to decline were still thriving with thousands of people still working in the area.
So how did you get involved in the business?
I got involved a couple of years ago when my dad turned 70 and was considering selling up. At that time I was looking for a new opportunity having worked in the City for 16 years. I came down to the shop one day to help figure out what we were going to do as a family and that’s when I had my lightbulb moment – I’ll never forget it!
I was standing outside the shop and there was a young guy walking across the road with a beard pushing a pram. I grew up in this area and that’s not what you saw prior to about five years ago. He looked more like a Hackney resident – a place I’d lived in for 18 years as an adult. I turned the corner and there was another guy who looked exactly the same!
I then became aware of the planned development in the area and quickly realised that I’d been presented with a huge opportunity.
I’d always aspired to have a coffee shop and already had plans to open one, so as a family we decided to keep the company going with the addition of a coffee shop. I’m a huge coffee fan and the opportunity to put vintage audio and coffee together seemed like it could work.
I was aware of a really cool venue called Spiritland who had combined audio and the coffee culture to great success and was an inspiration from the outset. Plus I’ve also got old friends at Allpress – a Kiwi based coffee roastery in Dalston and our coffee supplier – and pitched them the idea to them.
They were impressed, so we started the process of restructuring and rebranding the business, giving it a new aesthetic and adding the coffee shop.
How has business been so far?
Past two years have been nothing short of amazing. My dad’s reputation really does precede him – he’s a bit of an audio repair celebrity and already had a customer base that we have retained. Whilst the coffee shop and the rebrand means we’ve managed to get younger people interested in vintage audio.
We specialise in audio repair and restoration of audio equipment – fixing the things that people genuinely love rather than because it’s cheaper than buying brand new. Ultimately, we repair things that you can’t buy them anymore. When it comes to old audio in particular, there’s always a story behind it.
Do you have any standout stories of customers being emotionally attached to their audio?
But the one that stands out is from when we first opened following the rebrand. One of our new customers was a guy whose father had recently passed away. During the process of clearing out his possessions he came across an old B&O music centre in the loft that he remembered from his childhood.
We differentiate our offering from all other audio repair shops by taking in vintage equipment, so he bought it in. It required a lot of work, it had a lot of “dry joints” which meant all of the solder needed stripping and relaying amongst other things. We were able to do the work and get it back to “spec” as if it were new. I was the only one in the shop when he came back to collect it.
So we turned it on and played an Aretha Franklin record he’d bought along with him. There was a moment of silence and then he proceeded to press every single button in turn. As he was pressing them he started crying, looked at me and said: “I can’t tell you how happy I am – my dad never let me touch this when I was growing up!” It’s amazing how audio, especially experiences from your childhood can be so emotive and it’s a pleasure helping customers connect with those memories.
Why do you think analogue audio is becoming more popular?
It reminds people of their past and a time when audio was more tactile and considered.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a digital setup at home but it’s all very instantaneous – there’s no reward in the playing process. But the idea of having a button that clicks and being able to physically see your device playing music is very rewarding and soothing.
It’s about the aesthetic too – some of these items are design classics. We mainly repair things that look great and that people want on show. We don’t repair much from, say, the ‘90s when items were designed to be heard and not seen and just went inside a cupboard.
We repair things from the ‘60s,‘70s and 80s that look nice on the shelf. It is a joy to give something back to someone that they actually cherish. There’s a recyclable element to it too – when audio equipment breaks, it could be 1% of the components are actually broken or faulty.
There’s a lot of skill in working out that 1%, but why would you throw it away when 99% is in a good and working condition?
Do you have any expansion plans in the pipeline?
Yes! We’re currently waiting for planning permission but we’ll be having more space in the shop soon, fingers crossed. We hope to extend the coffee shop and provide more seating and a food offering. Whilst also retaining the audio side of things and promoting that.
I’d love to transform it into venue in the evening that hosts small gigs, open mic nights, jazz sessions, etc. Hopefully we’ll start building before the year is out and open early next year. It’ll be a very welcoming space; somewhere you can experience something a bit different.
What do you like about working in Creative Works’ coworking space?
It’s a very productive work environment. I don’t really have space to “think” over at Armstrong Audio – there’s too much going on and a lot of demand for my time. Creative Works is a convenient space where I get the time and space to think through the plans and developments.
Also the people are amazing; it’s great to be able to get to know the people who have moved to the area. Creative Works is one of only a few places in the Blackhorse Road zone at the moment where you can get a real feel for where the area is heading.
Speaking of which, I’m a big believer in the direction the area is going in. One of the best compliments that I’ve ever received was from a local guy who’s lived here many years and loved what I did with the shop. He said: “Nobody else can come in below you.”
I like to think the shop acts as a kind of barometer for the new places opening up.
My family has been here since 1980 and Blackhorse Lane has been a fixture in my life forever, so I’m really invested. I knew what the area was like before and loved it then but I see where it’s going and love it even more.
I remember when Creative Works was a lift factory; believe it or not the guy who ran it would arrive by helicopter and land on the roof! There was a perfume factory near my primary school too – we’d come out and be hit with these crazy smells.
I also remember when Mannequin House was a factory owned by Peter who’s still a family friend of ours. He actually used to mannequins there and he once showed me the room where they were stored. It really freaked me out seeing all them standing in line, row after row and not moving. It gave me nightmares for weeks!
But in all seriousness, I am amazed to see how this area is evolving and I am so proud to be a part of it.