Danny Michelson: La Fromagerie owner

16 Apr

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.  In November 2014 specialist cheese shop La Fromagerie will have traded at Highbury Barn for 22 years. Owner Danny Michelson talks about life, cheese and campaigning.  Illustrations by Year 7 Highbury Fields School students. Interview by Nicola Baird

Danny Michelson drawn by Highbury Fields School student Asye Mewitt-Omer.

Danny Michelson drawn by Highbury Fields School student Asye Mewitt-Omer. Also see the gallery of illustrations below with work from Rae, Elif, Anisah and Eliz. Special thanks to teachers Ms Gursu and Ms Chin.

Londoner Danny Michelson, 70, truly is Highbury Barn’s big cheese. It’s not just the years clocked up running the shop with his wife Patricia (who now runs a second, bigger branch just off Marylebone High Street), the wholesale business at Kelvin Road, the 35 employees or his knowledge about the 200 different cheeses he sells. It’s also Danny’s campaigning streak that has kept Highbury Barn a successful place to trade and shop.

Londoner Danny Michelson has now run La Fromagerie at Highbury Barn for 21 years. “My brother-in-law’s aunt had a lingerie shop at Highbury Barn years ago. And another relation had a sweet shop.”

Londoner Danny Michelson has now run La Fromagerie at Highbury Barn for nearly 22 years. “My brother-in-law’s aunt had a lingerie shop at Highbury Barn years ago. And another relation had a sweet shop.”

Rewind a few years and Danny was selling men’s fashion during the 1970s and 1980s. “Flared trousers, they were awful,” he says laughing. The business went under, but “my wife had an idea to start La Fromagerie. It was by accident we came here to Highbury. First we ran the business from our house in Highgate and then we had to move to a different area. She saw an ad in the local paper for a shop where the snack bar, Dido, is now, and we decided to go for it. We were there for 10 months and then moved here. This was a chemist’s shop. It was in a bit of a mess and had been standing empty for four years.”

During the tidy up the Michelsons retrieved some of the old pharmaceutical jars left in the basement which are now displayed above the cheese shelves.

Since then La Fromagerie has gained what Danny calls “a hard-earned reputation” luring in cheese lovers and wholesale buyers. “Our customers love our shop,” says Danny gratefully – as a result there’s now a second La Fromagerie, in Marylebone, which hosts events and is run by Patricia.

Change
Over the years trading seven days a week in Highbury, Danny, with others, has helped tidy up the square between what is now Mrs Lovell’s (greengrocer) and the Highbury Barn pub (using funding from Transport for London to encourage people to shop locally). There’s now a community noticeboard, nice trees, paving stones and occasional outdoor events run by the Highbury Barn Traders, of which Danny says “is not very active, but I’m putative chair”. He also works with local Councillor Terry Stacy to ensure that the area gets flowers in the summer and Christmas lights in the winter.

“There’s a village feel to the parade,” Danny says with pride, knowing that Highbury Barn keeps on bucking the trend for independent high street shops to thrive. “What’s remarkable is there are no empty shops, no charity shops, no boarded up shops and just one betting shop, which is fine,” he adds. “It’s fully occupied and everyone is trading reasonably well: that’s quite an achievement.”

20140311_172437

Posters like this are in many shops at Highbury Barn in a bid to help locals say no to another supermarket opening further down the hill on Blackstock Road.

Highbury Barn is one of the jewels in Islington’s crown – the mix of 32 shops, including a butcher and fishmonger – means you don’t have to leave the area. But Danny points out that this happy situation cannot be taken for granted, not with Sainsbury’s and Tesco relentlessly opening smaller branches. That’s why there’s a Save Our Local shops poster in La Fromagerie’s window.

Another problem is the loss of local employers.

“One after another offices and other places of local employment have been converted into luxury flats for wealthy people. This includes the college, the children’s home, a garage, builder’s depot and the Aberdeen Centre workshops,” says Danny. “A lot are bought by foreign investors that won’t live here and won’t contribute locally. In consequence our weekday trade is down. We used to have lots of people that worked here and did a bit of shopping during the week. They’re all gone – so we have to rely on local residents, but many of whom, especially La Fromagerie customers, aren’t around here on weekdays.”

At La Fromagerie, Vacherin is the best seller when it’s in season (October to March). The rest of the year brie, cheddar and stilton vie for pole position. Going into the cold room with its shelves of cheese is a temptation many of us cannot resist – especially as tastings are provided.

At La Fromagerie, Vacherin is the best seller when it’s in season (October to March). The rest of the year brie, cheddar and stilton vie for pole position. Going into the cold room with its shelves of cheese is a temptation many of us cannot resist – especially as tastings are provided.

Gunners’ tales
Danny has been an Arsenal fan forever and says, “I’ve had a season ticket since they opened the new stadium”. But despite the proximity to both Highbury and the Emirates Danny can only remember one player coming into the shop.

“His name was Lee Dixon,” says Danny happily retelling a well-told story. “He came to buy some cheese about 10 years ago. I found out later that his family had a restaurant in Marlow, Buckinghamshire by the river, so they knew about La Fromagerie. He’s a bit of a foodie, since then he’s been into our Marylebone branch but said he didn’t remember coming to Highbury. But he signed an autograph for us!”

This love of the Gunners doesn’t stop Danny from speaking out about Arsenal’s battle with the council to hold more summer concerts at the Emirates stadium.

“I spoke at the planning appeal hearing, in January, pointing out that the parking arrangements on concert days are completely nonsensical and damaging to local businesses.  These concerts usually take place on weekends when the council imposes match day parking restrictions.  This means that you can’t park your car in the match day area between noon and 4pm on a day when a concert usually doesn’t start until 7pm – up to seven hours later!  It’s completely meaningless and just discourages people from coming to the local shops for fear of getting a parking ticket – and on the two busiest days of the week.  So with the situation as it is for the moment, holding more concerts would make things even worse for the Highbury Barn traders – and that wouldn’t be Arsenal’s fault.”

Danny’s time off in Islington
“I go jogging round Highbury Fields most mornings, or I run to the Emirates Stadium and do three or four circuits around it.  I enjoy it, and it makes me feel good for the rest of the day.”

“We like eating out. There are two interesting places on St Paul’s RoadTrullo (300-302) and the rotisserie, Le Coq (292-294). The Pig and Butcher on Liverpool road runs a vertical operation (which means meat is butchered [ie cut up] on the premises and then served).”

“I love the theatre but haven’t been to the Almedia for ages. The film Gravity is great, very realistic – you feel like you’re floating in space with the actors.

I go and sit in Highbury Fields in the sunshine, but I’m not mad about all the BBQs and the problems they create, or the litter that the picknickers leave behind on hot weekends.”

Illustrations – a gallery of work by Highbury Fields School students (Year 7)

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Danny’s willingness to speak up about problems has been a huge boon for Highbury Barn.  He can be a bit frank about things, but there’s not much he can do to turn around the loss of so many local employers. There’s plenty he is able to improve though – despite spending so much time working. For instance Danny’s a fiery contributor to the Tribune and Gazette newspapers’ letters pages, so maybe keep an eye out and see what he needs help with. It may be a common sense issue that you agree with. And if you happen to be buying cheese you’ll have something extra to talk about at the till too… 

  • La Fromagerie, 30 Highbury Park, N5 is open seven days a week from 9am-7pm (opens 10am on Sundays, and 10.30am on Monday mornings). See website http://www.lafromagerie.co.uk/highbury-shop/
  • Patricia Michelson’s The Cheese Room (£14.99) and Cheese: the world’s best artisan cheeses (£30), see here

Over to you

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z index of posts, or the A-Z of jobs to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. 

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. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right), @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

Thanks for stopping by. Nicola

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