Joe and the Juice are the latest chain to ruffle feathers in Primrose Hill with the imminent arrival of a branch in Regent’s Park Road, considered by some to be an unwelcome arrival in the village.  Local author Karen Ross is watching with interest. 

Three decades of life in Primrose Hill, with our undeniably lovely high street both the hub of village life and a draw for visitors far and wide, has given Karen plenty of food for thought about changing role of high streets everywhere, the nature of the retail world, and the reaction of locals to shops that the vociferous decide are unwelcome.   And her latest novel examines what happens when an unpopular shop opens on a high street where locals have a strong sense of ‘ownership’.

In the case of Five Wakes and a Wedding, which is Karen’s third novel,  the new shop on Regent’s Park Road is called Happy Endings. It turns out, after some initial confusion, to be funeral parlour – and her neighbours are quick to inform owner Nina Sherwood, “We don’t do death in this part of town.”

A campaign to strangle Nina’s business at birth gets swiftly underway.  But can one woman really take on what feels like an entire community?  Might she not be better off moving somewhere more suitable – say Kentish Town – as one unlikely ally suggests?  And if Nina does give in, how is she going to explain that she’s squandered her dad’s life savings?  

This likeable and relatable character decides to fight back against all skulduggery.  But the plot against her is far bigger than she realises.

Five Wakes and a Wedding turns out to be a wonderful romantic comedy noir– satirical in many places – with plenty of useful advice.  For example:  Never wear lip gloss when you’re scattering ashes.  

But why did Karen choose to write about a funeral parlour?

“The starting point was a conversation with some friends when we were having our morning coffee in Antonio’s deli,” she says. “Three or four shops were empty, so we did some back-of-the-envelope calculations to see what sort of business could succeed, taking into consideration rents, business rates, staff costs just to start.  We came to the conclusion that to be profitable, it would have to be some sort of gentleman’s club.

“A few weeks later, I went to a humanist funeral, which turned out to be the warmest and most personal type of send-off I’d ever attended.  I put these two threads together, and came up with the idea of an unpopular shop run by someone who’s a bit naïve about business, but full of good intentions to help people create modern, meaningful funeral ceremonies, and Nina Sherwood came gradually to life.”

Primrose Hill locals, who will certainly recognise the agitation stirred up by the new, unwelcome shop, will enjoy Karen’s cheerful side-swipes at basement dig-outs, guerrilla gardening, modern art, crazy beauty therapies, and people who have more money than sense. 

Back in the real world, Karen makes no secret of her irritation of  those proposing a boycott of Joe and the Juice.  “We are approaching the death of local high streets everywhere because of the paradigm of retail and how it has changed.  Primrose Hill is the perfect place for a coffee and to hang out, whereas when I first moved here, we had shops that met everyday needs.  It’s different now, and we’re not going to bring back the past.

‘The quest to see Joe and the Juice run out of town before it has even opened its doors is parochial bullying.  It’s a fact that even some of most long-standing, highly regarded businesses are chains, so what’s the big deal?  It’s easy for those who haven’t been on the sharp end of retail to want cute candle shops and handmade artisan vegan produce in sustainable packaging, but how do you make that viable?  It’s naive to expect landlords to reduce rents to accommodate them. No-one’s forced to use any of our shops. They ebb and flow according to trends and demand.  Better Joe and the Juice than a shop that stands empty for month after month, surely?”

Karen has lived in Primrose Hill since the days when there were two greengrocers in the village, and our neighbourhood has been the setting for her previous novels.  “I don’t like going too far for research,” she quips.  “And with so much happening on the doorstep, who needs to!”

Having so thoroughly explored Regent’s Park Road, which of our shops does meet with Karen’s approval?  “The wonderful display of flowers outside Yeomans makes me happy every single day,” she says.  “As for the Post Office, they are the success story of Regent’s Park Road, having adapted to meet demand.  They’ve hugely expanded their range, and now sell the sort of products we used to be able to buy in Sesame.” (A health-food shop which closed down several years ago, to great local sadness, ed.)

But best of all for Karen is Primrose Hill Books. “It’s one of the few remaining shops that’s been here even longer than I have,” she observes.  “And  long may it continue.  If you want to do something more constructive than boycotting Joe and the Juice – and do one useful thing for the neighbourhood – then please buy a copy of my book, or any book, from them!” 

Five Wakes and a Wedding is available in hardback and paperback from all good booksellers but especially Primrose Hill Books

© 2019 Joanna Reeves, all rights reserved.

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