You encounter them regularly — to top up your Oyster, grab a snack, drink, or pick up a newspaper — but who's behind the till at your local newsagent? Who's the person who makes sure the shop is open when you need a pint of milk and a paper? We wanted to find out, so nipped into Jack's Newsagent on Clerkenwell Road.
Among the soft drinks, sweets, chocolate bars and stationery we find Dipen Patel, who took on the shop just over five years ago after a career in IT. He'd decided it was time to be his own boss and, as his family has a shop in Sutton, he knew what he was getting himself info.
"The time you spend at work is more rewarding when you know the money you're making is for yourself, not for someone else," he says. "To be honest, I wish I'd done it sooner."
Apart from the financial motivation, what does he get out of being a newsagent? "I get to meet lots of different people, and because we're in the City it's more dynamic here.
"We have a mixture of customers. I'm in an area with a lot of offices and very little residential buildings so most of my business is from the office workers; there's also a lot of building work going on here, with the imminent arrival of Crossrail, so there's lots of builders too.
"We have some regulars with whom I have a relationship, but as we're in the City people are always rushing so you don't get much chance to stand and chat — there's always someone behind them needing to be served and no-one has time. My dad's shop is in a residential area so they have more time to talk."
Making the change from an office job was something of a culture shock at the start, Patel says — especially the early morning starts.
"I open at 6am, although on Mondays I get here half an hour earlier, because we do paper deliveries and the offices need the weekend papers. Getting up that early was difficult when I first started, but I've got used to it."
He's also seen first-hand the shift in the changing media landscape, as readers get more and more of their information online rather than in publications — for so long the mainstay of a newsagents' stock.
The impact is clear, as about 20% of the shelf space is dedicated to print – the remaining 80% is packed with drinks, snacks, sandwiches, folders, notebooks and envelopes.
"I've really noticed a big drop in newspaper and magazine sales, even in the last few years," he says. "Magazines seem to have taken the biggest hit – they're down about 30% — although it depends on the specialism the magazine is about. There's a lot of fashion companies around here and they get those publications.
"Because of falling sales, I cut back on the number of magazines and newspapers I stock. I've replaced them with a stationery section, which is very popular, especially since the stationery shop nearby closed."
However, the modest-sized shop only has limited space and as Patel admits, he can't stock everything. So it's through a combination of market knowledge, intelligent guesswork and trial and error that he works out what else to sell. Fortunately, he has a trick up his sleeve to take some of the risk out of those experiments: "If things don't work I won't stock them again. Because my dad owns a shop if I have leftover stock I can usually pass it to him to try to sell, and vice versa."
His dad is not just a source of help when it comes to working out stock. "I talk to Dad quite a lot about business. We help each other out – it's nice having another shop in the family."
Jacks Newsagent is on a major road, and Patel's work clearly keeps him busy. The imminent arrival of Crossrail means not only more builder customers, but challenges too, as rents rise and rise.
Patel says he'd like to expand his business and add more shops, but right now that's not practical.
"The rents are going up and up. I'm just having to sit it out until it opens and the new offices here open. Then I'll be able to afford to grow.
"I'm optimistic about the future, especially being located where I am, as there's so many news offices being built. But at the moment it's a transition period."
As print sales fall, we're left wondering whether it won't be long before the term 'newsagent' becomes an anachronism. What's clear is the resourcefulness of the newsagent will ensure these little shops remain open — and there just when you need them.