Mrs Sau Li: DIY supremo at Mix

30 Nov

Everyone has a story on the Islington Faces Blog.  DIY shops are an Aladdin’s Cave of gizmos and gadgets, though many now suffer from big store competition.Despite this, the shining light of DIY stores has to be Mix at Finsbury Park. Actually the shop is on the Hackney side of Blackstock Road, but the wonderful lady who has run it since 1979, Mrs Li, lives close by on the Islington side. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Mrs Li: “How do I choose my stock? If someone asks for it I say wait. If another demands it, then I get it.”

“When we first started Mix, Blackstock Road was a red light district. Every single woman walking down the street was asked if she had the time. And then there were the lovely ladies working in our doorway.”  Here Mrs Sau Li, the force behind Mix, pulls a grimace.

Mrs Li: “My husband put up the shelves. My children are better at DIY.”

“This was a hairdressers, later we bought 51c which used to be a dry cleaner,” says a warmly-dressed Mrs Li, 64, surveying her empire –an old fashioned ironmonger and general store selling  everything including vases, rawl plugs (red and brown), pans, coffee machines, chicken wire, brooms, nails for cement and nails for wood, vacuum cleaner bags, hacksaws (cheap ones for 60p, good ones for £2.50), mugs, potato peelers, birthday cake candles, etc in what seems like a chaotic jumble, but Mrs Li knows where everything is. Everything.

Best selling items – mouse traps (£1), plant pots and compost. “Hackney has a lot of mice, rats and cockroaches.”

Strangest request – ‘Packet of cigarettes and a pint of milk please,’ We couldn’t help.

Unique 1980s problem – glue theft. Mix staff locked it away or hid it.

Mrs Li was born in Hong Kong but came to London aged 20 in 1968 to train as a nurse. “I was too young to notice the Swinging ‘60s,” she says, “I was concentrating on working, a career and having a family. Maybe in Leicester Square there were more colourful clothes and too many people collapsed from drugs, but I was too young and didn’t have money so missed all the fun. Now I’m older you have more time and find out about it from the telly.”

She didn’t miss out on football though: during the ‘70s she’d go to Arsenal matches at Highbury. “It wasn’t expensive, we didn’t have a season ticket just a day out.”

Mrs Li was married at 23, and went on to have four children though none seem keen to take over this unique business – the eldest is a scientist working at University College London.  So she still runs Mix with her husband, despite the pair no longer living together. “After 30 years love changes,” says Mrs Li. “When we were young we worked hard to build up the business and I thought when we retired we could have a quiet life, travel and see our grandchildren in America. But he wanted to do something different, and got a new partner. It’s water under the bridge now. I didn’t do anything wrong. I feel the way to get over a failure of a marriage is to live better, do the things you want.” So that’s why she sometimes takes a holiday from her shop and joins coach tours – with trips so far to Cornwall, Lincoln and York.  “I want to see America and the Grand Canyon, but I haven’t finished England yet. I liked York with its little streets, little shops and Tudor-beamed buildings. It hasn’t lost old-fashioned charm. When I first came to London is still had the charm but so much has been demolished, or is just one colour or owned by one multiple. In Leicester Square and Tottenham Court Road there were such interesting little shops, there was a specialist in canvas and paint, nuts and bolts, odd bits, electronics and spare parts.”

The crowded shelves of Mix, and the colourful red sign on the opposite side of the road from the college and pink-lit library, are all evidence that this is a DIY shop you can trust – skills she learnt by asking, trying things out and looking at catalogues. “I can’t compete with volume and price of Wickes or B&Q,” she says. “But here you can buy a single item, not a whole packet. And we do give a personal service.” She’s true to her word – during this interview Mrs Li repeatedly helped a customer find exactly what they wanted, including giving suggestions of what shops in Archway might stock something a plumber was desperate to source.

Competition: can you count how many items are on sale at Mix from this small selection? Small prize for the entrant who wins with the near-as-dammit answer by 10 December 2012 and lives in the UK.

“We moved to Finsbury Park in 1971 when there were three or four butchers nearby selling ham, bacon, pickled pig tails, trotters and beef; two bakers (one German); two ironmongers and three or four greengrocers all on Blackstock Road. It was a very busy shopping area, but it takes 10 years for English people to recognise you are harmless and then they are friendly and say ‘hello’. It was different when I went on holiday to Cork in the 1970s, Irish people were very friendly to strangers, different from people in London. And now I like the little parks round here, and Finsbury Park and people on Blackstock Road are friendly. It’s easy to go anywhere you want on bus or train from here.”

Over the past 40 years Mrs Li has watched many people come and go from this corner of Islington. “The Twelve Pins and The Blackstock pubs* were very popular. There were lots of black people, Irish and Greeks, not many Chinese or Asian. But as the houses became more expensive the black people went to Walthamstow and Leytonstone, the Jews to Stamford Hill, the Greeks to Wood Green and the Irish to Mill Hill. But we’ve still got a few Chinese families nearby*.”

The good news for Finsbury Park shoppers in need of just about anything (except food and cigarettes) is that Mrs Li has no plans to retire or change anything about Mix. Now we just have to persuade her kids to take it on.

Mix, 51b-51c Blackstock Road, London, N4 2JF, tel: 020 7226 6415. Open Monday – Saturday.

Words

  • The Blackstock pub, on Blackstock Road/Seven Sisters Road, London N4; Twelve Pins pub is opposite at 263 Seven Sisters Road, London, N4 2DE
  • Finsbury Park butchers are more likely to sell halal meat now, not pork products.
  • Islington Chinese Association – was founded in 1986; around 2 per cent of Islington’s population are Chinese heritage.

Over to you
What do you think of this fantastic DIY treasure trove? By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. And yes, this islington people blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

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One Response to “Mrs Sau Li: DIY supremo at Mix”

  1. Nicolette Jones November 30, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    I think the shop is a work of art. Mix is one of the gems of the Blackstock Road. And Mrs Li’s expertise has never failed me.

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