Photographer_ Gaëlle LaForest
‘Chinwag’ has been drawing in hoards of people every day. Having initially scathed the décor as custom-made vintage I’ve come to quite enjoy being in there. It’s hard to ignore the once functional decorations inside: the bicycle wheel and the shower head turned into lights, or the mismatched beams on the ceiling that almost definitely don’t support anything except Chinwag’s dream of being “homely but with an industrial vibe”. Yet, Chinwag does seem to have a genuine life and atmosphere that can’t come solely from its eclectic interior – its owners described the café as “us splurged into a building.” It’s this sense of hope and confidence in the success of a business in which so much personal investment has been made that gives the place its warmth and authenticity.
It might pose a threat to Goldsmiths Café by tempting the less loyal customers with bigger burgers and swirly coffees, but time will tell. At just under £7 for a burger, Chinwag might not exactly be the most sustainable choice in comparison with Goldsmiths Café’s tiny prices – that is unless they are hiked up in order to fund the installation of tractor wheel lights and rugs made out of the pages of War and Peace. Still, the genuine friendliness of the small cafés dotted around New Cross makes it hard to believe they have set up shop with solely competition in mind. In the face of chains like Sainsbury’s, it seems the initiative is now all about creating and sustaining thriving independent businesses, and developing exciting hubs to frame the heart of the area.
Chinwag pointed out that running an independent business is all about “setting yourself apart, since there’s always going to be big giants.” This goes to show the energy that new establishments, with a little community support and personal effort (Chinwag’s owners live on “about four hours of sleep a night”) can resist the threat of supermarket chains. Though the menace of big companies looms over the self-made, the arrival of Chinwag and its initial (and long may it last) success highlights the unabated enthusiasm for independent businesses which will surely resist the pressure of the big shots—at least for a while.
Cafés such as Café Crema and the London Particular are the places whose footsteps Chinwag can hope to follow—bustling, lively and far from the dark picture which is often painted of the failed cafés that were stubbed out by the expansion of the Sainsbury’s empire. These coffee shops are proof that the dream behind setting up business in New Cross is not yet a competitive one that makes way for heightened rivalry or for dehumanising advertising ploys.
Ellie Davis, cofounder of Chinwag said the café has turned out to be even better than what she imagined it would be, highlighting the fertility for emerging businesses achieving their dreams and aspirations in New Cross. In the end, it seems the squeaky floors and factory-made mood lighting of high street coffee shops might very well be defeated by authentic wooden tables spattered with flecks of paint flicked from the tip of Lucian Freud’s paintbrush.