The cactus shop

Tom is creating a cactus shop. I meet him on a bright sunny morning. He communicates with purposeful energy, yet seems tired and wired — his client has him on a short timeline and a tight budget. His cycling vest covered in flecks of paint, he leaps around the tiny dilapidated space — display shelves will be here, sink there and a service counter just like this. “Function is not so important,” he says.

Once finished, the shop will sell small cactuses and succulents, and take its place amongst the cafes, hairdressers and restaurants of Dalston’s near-complete gentrification. Or, as one estate agent imaginatively termed it, the Artisan Quarter.

As we chat, various people poke their head in the door to see what’s happening. “They’re the most knowledgeable people about the space,” says Tom, nodding towards an elderly Turkish man. “They know where the pipes lead, where to park, who’s a good electrician.” He’s talking about the locals, the real locals bemused and clearly intrigued by the new wave of young business owners cropping up around them.

Does the world, or even Dalston, need a cactus shop? Well, maybe it does. Especially when the world of young city-dwellers is as confined physically as it is broad conceptually. Despite unprecedented access to information, networks and tools online, access to real, physical space is diminishing. Dramatically priced out of the housing market and trapped financially and culturally in a suspended kidulthood, the so-called Generation Rent must rely on both the sharing economy and the economy of sharing to make it.

This isn’t ‘making it’ in your parents’ sense of the term — a job for life, a house, three kids and a massive telly. According to a recent Observer study, 71% of people now doubt their ability to buy their own home. We can’t have it, and we don’t want it anyway. Making it today is built on one’s ability to successfully create the image of an aspirational life. It’s about curating a sizzle reel out of reality. For reasons both necessary and attitudinal, it’s about access not ownership. It’s about honing in on the little things, because, with the big things totally out of reach, the little things are all we have. The coffees, the Outfits of the Day, the Big Night Out, the motivational quotes, the avocado on toast. And the cacti.

“It’s the little details that matter,” confirms Tom, now wolfing an English breakfast at the caff opposite (Father, son, grandson — the holy trinity of endurance scribed above the door). “I want to do it well, and come at it as positively as possible, like a home.”

I think of the homes around us and of that Reddit-ified version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with ‘wifi’ at the base. Homes that are shared with strangers, homes that are packed and unpacked with each rent hike and move, homes that see more Tinder dates than sit-down dinners. Home — an option to select in the late-night Uber. Home is where the wifi is.

The word “cactus” derived from the Ancient Greek kaktos, a name originally used by Theophrastus for a spiny plant whose identity is not certain. Cacti occur in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Most cacti live in habitats subject to at least some drought. Many live in extremely dry environments, even being found in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth.

Are Generation Rent in the Artisan Quarter seeing themselves in these spiny creatures whose identity is not certain? Are we drawn to these tiny oddities living in uninhabitable habitats for good reason? Why else place them next to a copy of Kinfolk and a coffee and shoot them artfully from above with the hashtag #lazysunday? Like their young, aspirational owners, cacti remain cute in the harshest of conditions. They thrive in the face of adversity — rewarding not because they blossom and grow, but purely because they do not die.

Tom has been talking and let his last piece of bacon grow cold. “What’s wrong with it?” demands the waitress (granddaughter?) as she clears the table.

“Nothing! I was chatting too much!” says Tom.

“Sorry.” She means it. “I have to ask, don’t I?”

And she’s right, she does. If we don’t ask what’s wrong, we can’t get better, we can’t move forward. Young people’s lives in London — priced out, ground down. “What’s wrong with it?” Oh, quite a bit. But a cactus helps. We’ll make it through with a cactus.


With thanks to Tom Pande. To read more of my writing and see what I do, please visit camillagrey.com

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