‘We didn’t intend to sell toys,’ claims the last shop standing

Now in its fourth decade, Upper Street store is an institution for fans

Friday, 22nd April — By Charlotte Chambers

After Noah

Simon Tarr with Matthew, Oscar and Zoe Crawford outside After Noah

“TO infinity and beyond!” may have been the famous tagline of the popular 90s film Toy Story but it could also be used to describe the staying power – and ambitions – of the last toy shop in Islington.

That’s because 31 years ago, when After Noah first opened, they were one of a raft of toy stores in the borough.

But now they are into their fourth decade – and the only toy shop left, aside from a shop that exclusively sells Sylvanian Families goods in Highbury and a charity shop that specialises in toys in Junction Road, Archway.

And while the Upper Street store is now an institution, fans of the Aladdin’s cave may be shocked to learn it almost never happened.

The site was originally an antique shop when furniture restorer Matthew Crawford spotted it and took over the lease. He and his wife Zoe later moved in upstairs – having two children there – before friend Simon Tarr took on a summer job there while on holiday from university.

Thirty-one years later they are all still there and running an ever-changing empire of toys, books and gifts.

“We accidentally became a toy shop because I like toys,” Simon said of the beginning, after someone once turned up at their door with three boxes of toys to sell and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Initially the toy section was a small-scale operation that would ramp up over Christmas, but it soon became a full-time proposition and the furniture and antiques moved to the basement.

And what is the secret of their longevity? Good ideas, apparently. “The shop kept growing and morphing because we always had the next best thing,” Simon said, highlighting how they would trawl Europe and America for “unique things to bring in” each year, and were the first to import the now-global skincare range Burt’s Bees.

But he is also at pains to point out that it is commitment that keeps it running.

“It’s an awful lot of hard work,” he said. “Duncan Bannatyne off Dragons’ Den said many people miss an opportunity because it’s wearing dungarees and looks like hard work. And that is just the reality of it.”

Even after more than 30 years working there, he will still come in on his day off to cover for someone who’s ill, do a seven-day week or routinely work through Christmas.

Another feel-good factor about the shop is how everyone who works there seems somehow connected: whether it’s Matthew and Zoe’s daughter India, who also works there, their son Oscar, who helps his father restore furniture, or how the couple offer their workers a room to stay in their home above the shop.

Oscar even met his wife while working there, as did Simon.

Admitting that he never recognises famous people in the shop, it was no surprise that when Titanic star Kate Winslet came in and bought a bed, he asked for her name before asking her to spell it.

Afterwards, he said: “Presumably not Kate Winslet like the Kate Winslet and she said ‘yes actually’. Everyone thought that was highly hilarious.”

And what is their best-selling toy? Toy cars.

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