We visit Henbury, where the pandemic hit local traders but new shops are now opening

‘We have a loyal customer base but it’s getting tough’

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From the window of his shop on Crow Lane, barber Carmelo Mercato has seen plenty of changes in Henbury since he opened Carms Cuts 20 years ago.

Although he lives in Horfield, Henbury has been Carmelo’s workplace since 2002 and his son, Lorenzo, now works alongside him in the barber shop. For decades, Carmelo’s late father ran a successful ice cream van in the area and was a well known local character.

But since the pandemic, and with the cost of living crisis biting hard in Henbury, business isn’t what it used to be.

The recent arrival of two new barber shops nearby hasn’t helped either, according to Sicilian-born Carmelo, whose shop is adorned with his hairdressing diplomas and certificates as well as Pacino and De Niro posters.

“We were doing alright until these two other barbers turned up but things have slowed down a bit. I don’t know why the council allow it to be honest. Because they’re open Sundays when I’m shut, people who desperately need a haircut try them out - but then a lot come back to me the next time!”

Carmelo Mercato opened his Carms Cuts barber shop on Crow Lane 20 years agoCarmelo Mercato opened his Carms Cuts barber shop on Crow Lane 20 years ago
Carmelo Mercato opened his Carms Cuts barber shop on Crow Lane 20 years ago

Carmelo says that the pandemic hit business hard because so many people bought clippers online and started cutting their own hair at home.

“People started saving their own heads during lockdown and now they’re thinking it saves them £12 so they might as well keep on doing it. There are a lot of DIY buzz cuts around now!”

At £12 for a haircut and £15 for a skin fade, prices at Carms Cuts are certainly lower than many barbers. On Mondays and Tuesdays, OAPs can get a haircut for £10.

Carmelo says: “With these two new barbers opening a few doors away, and the cost of living, I can’t put my prices up so I have to stay at this level and just get on with it.

“I had a fixed deal with my energy supplier but it finishes in February so that’s another worry. And I can’t put money away for it because I need to earn money to save for it. When Covid hit, I had to use all my savings so now I just work each day to deal with bills.”

As we chat in the shop, it’s noticeable that footfall is down on Crow Lane despite the fact it’s the run-up to Christmas.

“I think people are spending less and they are watching their money,” says Carmelo. “A lot of people are on benefits in Henbury so everyone’s feeling the pinch. People used to come in every four weeks, they would come in at the end of the month when they get paid. Now it’s every five or six weeks - they wait that extra couple of weeks so my trade is down.”

But Carmelo has no plans to stop and he clearly enjoys running his business in Henbury, an area of Bristol he says is often misunderstood.

“Henbury has a bit of a reputation but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was or as bad as people say it is. There was a time when the buses didn’t drive down because kids were throwing stones but we don’t see that now.

“OK, you might see a few little gangs of kids hanging around after dark, but it’s all low-level stuff compared to 20 years ago when I opened he shop.

“The people who come to my shop are so friendly and polite, they have good manners and they’re nice people. We’re just normal people like everybody else!”

Maria Reeves and her husband, Kevin, have run Henbury Pet & Garden Supplies for 21 yearsMaria Reeves and her husband, Kevin, have run Henbury Pet & Garden Supplies for 21 years
Maria Reeves and her husband, Kevin, have run Henbury Pet & Garden Supplies for 21 years

Maria Reeves and her husband, Kevin, have run Henbury Pet & Garden Supplies for 21 years. As well as the pet and garden side of things, the shop sells flowers, a lot of them for funerals.

“It’s getting tough,” says Maria. “Flower prices are going up, pet supplies are rocketing and we’re the people who have to tell customers the prices have increased.

“We have a loyal customer base and they’re very nice and understanding but it’s getting tough. November was very quiet and things have picked up a bit in December but it’s January that’s the real worry because footfall will drop and people won’t have the money after Christmas.

“January is a long month after people spend a little too much at Christmas. They will think they have to feed their children rather than spending money on pets and gardens.

“My biggest concern on the pet side is the amount of pets that will be taken down to the dogs and cats home after Christmas when people realise they can’t afford to keep them.”

A popular and well supported business for 21 years, Maria’s shop is very much a community store and she says she only realised just how much local people relied on her flowers during the pandemic.

“Our main line is funeral flowers so it was so hard over lockdown. I had to post on Facebook that we couldn’t supply flowers and I actually cried writing the post, I was in tears.

“I was having to turn down people I’ve known for years but people were still ringing and asking if I could do the flowers and I just couldn’t do it.

“You would see hearses being driven down Crow Lane without any flowers and it was the saddest and most upsetting thing. That hurt me tremendously because I knew those people.

“We’re quite old school here and we’re on first name terms with most of the customers.”

Jo opened Whistlers in July 2022, making it one of the newest shops to open in HenburyJo opened Whistlers in July 2022, making it one of the newest shops to open in Henbury
Jo opened Whistlers in July 2022, making it one of the newest shops to open in Henbury

Jo opened Whistlers in July 2022, making it one of the newest shops to open in Henbury. A hardware and DIY shop that also sells gifts and cards, it occupies a former newsagents which closed last Christmas.

Jo, who lives in Henbury, used to work at the nearby branch of Iceland for four years and her husband had run a shop the other side of Bristol a few years ago. They had been looking for a suitable premises to come up in Henbury for two years and jumped at the opportunity earlier this year.

“When I used to work in Iceland, people would come in and ask for all sorts of bits and pieces and that’s where the idea came from. You can’t buy half of what we sell around here and it saves people travelling up to Cribbs Causeway or B&Q.

“We do a little bit of everything and we get customers coming in and asking for certain things and if we can get it in we will. It has been going really well since we opened five months ago.”

Whistlers is also a stockist of gas and electricity keys and cards for people using pre-paid meters and Jo says she can see how the cost of living crisis is impacting locals first-hand.

“A lot of customers are looking for something a little cheaper than they would get at The Mall but it’s very tough out there, especially with the gas and electric, the pressure is on this Christmas. Some people are coming in to top up their gas and electric every day.”

 Aneta Balcerzak who runs new Henbury shop Robert’s Bakery with her husband Aneta Balcerzak who runs new Henbury shop Robert’s Bakery with her husband
Aneta Balcerzak who runs new Henbury shop Robert’s Bakery with her husband

The newest business to open on Crow Lane is Robert’s Bakery, which opened in a former beauty salon a month ago.

It’s run by Polish couple Aneta and Robert Balcerzak, who live locally and started the business from home during the pandemic.

Robert has been a baker for 25 years and uses family recipes for his sourdough and rye breads and cakes. Aneta, who used to work in a warehouse, says business has been good since they opened their doors four weeks ago. Best-sellers include the 100% rye bread, the Starapolski loaf and the strudel with plums.

“People seem to like our bread because they come back every day or every two days,” says Aneta. “We don’t want customers to buy something and not come back, we need regulars so it’s going well so far.

“My husband worked in different bakeries for 25 years but wanted to do something on his own. We started by running a home bakery, which we advertised locally through Facebook and so we decided to look for a shop. It’s nice to own our own business, we are very proud of it and people in Henbury have been very nice to us.”