Khan’s Bargain Ltd. is one of the most famous shops in Peckham. Occupying a prime spot bang in the middle of the main shopping street, Rye Lane, its vast frontage hints at the depths within. Sadly, they've now updated to a snazzy new shiny sign; the old one was much loved by the local population with its tagline inviting punters to "walk in and see the variety".
They weren't kidding. Khan's is a real emporium of fruit, vegetables, pulses, spices, dried fruits... even plastic animals, and it is a joke amongst locals that Narnia can be found at the very back, beyond the stacks of plastic tubs and just after the goblin city.
The shop used to be Holdron's, a swanky department store with a magnificent Art Deco frontage and ceiling, which is now being restored. The owner, Akbar Khan, is working with local architect Benedict O'Looney to rip away the false ceiling and reveal the original vaulted glass light well underneath.
Mr. Khan has constantly adapted the business since he took over, to serve the changing community of Peckham, so the shop stocks ingredients sought out by the African communities, those from the Middle East and also, increasingly, Europe. He founded the shop in 2000, after being forced to leave his native Afghanistan when the family business ran into difficulties:
We had a wholesale business in Kabul, supplying to other cities, but there [were] too many changes from 1988 to 1999... the Russians left the country, then other people came, there was fighting, we had to shift to another city, and then the next government came, the Taliban government, and we had even more difficulty running the business. My father was taken away, so I had to come out.
Akbar found himself wondering how to make a living in London, having arrived with few qualifications, “I couldn’t go and apply for the job because I couldn’t speak English, plus I wasn’t well educated,” he says. His only experience was working in business, so he set about finding a way to start over in Peckham, beginning with a small stall, “I started a small business here, right at the front of this store, and then slowly, slowly, I managed to extend my space out.” He was part of an indoor market, with many people running stalls, but his break came when the ownership of the building changed hands, and the new owner decided to choose one person to continue trading there. He chose Akbar Khan and the rest is history.
You’ll find vegetables at the front of the shop (although they do tend to move around, just to keep you on your toes), including all the usual stuff you find on Rye Lane like yams, pumpkins, onions etc., but there are also massive bunches of herbs, those lovely little Lebanese cucumbers, and a rotating selection of fruit. Pickle enthusiasts will be in clover as the pickle aisle is packed and the beany/grainy/pulse aisle is quite overwhelming. If you need 10kg of ground rice, you know where to go. They take a comprehensive approach to stocking an item. There’s a ramshackle charm too, though, and a sense that it’s all a bit frantic, which is why Khan’s always raises a smile.
Akbar attributes the success of Khan’s to “hard work, maybe a little luck” and also his ability to adapt:
That’s local business, you have to keep changing... if you just concentrate on one item, you stay behind. That’s the only way you can go because in the recession... everybody feels it, whether small businesses, big businesses, but I [felt it] less because I had many different products; if my electronics are not selling, the food is selling, if the food is not selling, toiletries are selling, I always had something to sell.
Many of the shops around Khan’s are more specialist, focusing on selling African ingredients and cosmetics. Akbar notes that “10 years ago Peckham was the African food centre, I had customers coming from East London, from North London, even from outside London, and when they come to see their relatives they had to come to Peckham, to buy their food and stuff.” Nowadays, the local population is changing, “We have customers who come from Europe, we have customers who move from another area here, they’re not looking for the same products… the demand is different.”
And what does Akbar Khan like to eat? “Traditional Afghan food. I don’t eat from the market…if I can get away for a couple of hours, I would rather go home and eat rather than anywhere else.” He likes to eat rice dishes, kebabs, and a special type of pasta called mantou. “At least, that is my favourite dish, but these days I try to focus more on vegetables – because of my belly!”
Khan's Bargain Ltd, 135 Rye Lane, SE15 4ST