‘Nail Game Strong, Community Game Stronger’: Musings on the importance of nail shops in Peckham in an age of gentrification

This essay first appeared in issue 02 of SE15 Paper (2015). We explored the often overlooked importance of the nail shops in Peckham, South East London (and similar areas) and how — in an age of gentrification — such places are an oasis for visitors from all walks of life, a communal hub, and a vibrant world of their own.

Image courtesy of SE15 Paper

I am unapologetically, unashamedly, and indefatigably an avid fan of getting my nails done. Acrylics, Shellac, glitter tips, and dangly shit — I devour them all. I am almost certain I’ve frequented most of, if not all, the nail salons in South London at least once and I’ve taken note of everything from customer service, to quality of job done, enthusiasm of the nail artist for their job, and of course the price. And it will come as no surprise to hear that in most places in South London you can get an infill for a tenner and a full set for fifteen quid or less. The further away from the beating heart of South London you find yourself, it gets more expensive to pimp your nails out. In places like Hampstead, they don’t even do acrylics and falsies I’ve found.

When I lived in Cambridge from 2010–2013, I started noticing the correlation between an area’s perceived wealth and the amount of affordable places to get your hair, nails, eyebrows and such done. In all my three years there, I didn’t find one place that did acrylics. And the beauticians who did shellac manicures and gels charged £40 to £50 at least!
Why does any of this matter?
Well, for me, getting my nails done is another vessel through which to express my creativity. I come up with the design and the women (or more increasingly men) at the salon work their magic and create a physical manifestation of my vision. My nail game is part of my chosen aesthetic. It’s a fuck you to the (usually white) middle class exclusionary ‘radical’ feminists who told me there was only one way to be a feminist and who did not take me seriously because I wear makeup and get my nails done. It’s a fuck you to those who say I do it for the men out here. And above all else I just like having bombass talons.
As a student with very little money, but an abundance of determination to still keep my nailgame strong back then, and as a working woman with meagre earnings but still the same determination to treat myself here and there now, what do I have in common with many women residing in SE15?
Well, it seems we share the same determination to ‘look good’ regardless of the circumstances.
Opposite Peckham Rye station, snuggled between 99p stores, phone shops, and budget shoe shops, you will find several nail shops on one road. The store I am most familiar with, ‘Cool Nails’ has been one of my chosen places to work on my nail game since I moved to Peckham in November 2013. Although I am no longer a physical resident of Peckham anymore, whenever I’m in the area I will go and say hello to the women there. As well as being one of South London’s most affordable nail places, it acts as a hub for regulars and newcomers, young and old, much like barber shops. DIY business women pop in with knock off DVDs, home cooked Jollof rice and stew, makeup, sunglasses, clothes, and there’s a place to get your eyebrows threaded round the back too. Women doing what they need to do to survive. That hustle spirit staying alive.
The customers come from all walks of life, with some women working two or three jobs and for them getting their nails done is both respite and a welcome opportunity to, quoting one customer, just ‘feel feminine by any means necessary’. Faces become familiar as do shapes and colours in the hubbub. Regardless of language barriers, we communicate all the same with smiles, nods, and knowing looks. The nail artists grow to learn small details about you — where you live and if you’re local; where and what you study; if you have a boyfriend (or girlfriend) or if you’re married; if you have kids; whether or not you’re a stiletto or a squaletto fan. The artists themselves sometimes bring their children to work with them.
On my last trip to ‘Cool Nails’, the customers, nail artists and I discussed the changing face of Peckham. Once upon a time Peckham was nicknamed ‘Little Lagos’ due to its large Nigerian population. As a rule of thumb, the Peckham I knew, hated whilst growing up, but grew to love in my adulthood, was a place with a large (im)migrant population, even for London. Even for South London. The nail artists told me that developers had their eyes set on the land surrounding Peckham Rye station for ‘regeneration’. In a few years, some of the shops I’ve come to be familiar with will be gone.
Image courtesy of SE15 Paper
Neighbouring Peckham Academy on Peckham Road you have performance venue and restaurant — The Pelican — a place in which I found myself an ethnic minority not so long ago, on stage, dropping bars about racism and gentrification to all white faces, except for the handful of faces of colour I brought with me in the form of my squad. Who would have thought it possible?
And just like Brixton and East London, Peckham is now ‘trendy’. It’s ‘the place to be’. Hipsters of a new age are marking their territory and rubbing shoulders with West African aunties, Vietnamese and Chinese nail artists, and the road men I may have grown up with. Different walks of life colliding. And although on paper the ‘rise of Peckham’ is a good thing, in practice it comes at the expense of locals who are being pushed out by skyrocketing rent prices, and the familiar becoming the unfamiliar. The #ReclaimBrixton movement has kicked off and as social tension continues to increase, perhaps a #ReclaimPeckham movement is not far off.
I asked one customer what she will do when and if you can’t get your nails done in Peckham for just a tenner anymore. She said on principle, she would not jump ship, not even to Fantas on Walworth Road (another stronghold of South London). She said she belongs in Peckham too and must continue to do her small bit for the local economy.
‘They are driving out everything and everyone that made Peckham vibrant but they won’t ever drive me out. The women here are my friends. I always come here to get my eyebrows and nails done.’
This quiet determination is something that can be felt in pockets of the area. People continue to go about their business and continue to hustle, grind, work hard, and make their daily bread.
For now, the women of Peckham still flock to ‘Cool Nails’ and the other nail parlours, hair shops, salons and waxing places of the area. It seems that the nail game remains strong… And Peckham’s community game, now more than ever, is even stronger.