By Linus Rees
Laurence Glynne, senior partner and founder, of LDG estate agents is talking about his daughter, Rachel. “She tells me: ‘I’m not going into selling. I don’t want to do what you do. I don’t want to be like you!’” And he laughs as he recalls the scene.
We are sitting in the basement of his offices on the corner Foley and Candover Streets. There’s a lovely photograph on the wall of the shop front taken during the heavy snow of February 2008. One of his colleagues comes in and moans about no spaces in the cycle docking station in Foley Street being available.
Laurence continues to talk about his family. “Rachel would like to work in media and art. I’m cool about her ideals. But I also think you can be happy in a very commercial businesses. Here we are very commercial. That’s no secret. But we do try to do things a little differently. Our customers don’t want just a hard sell. People are not impressed by that. Property buyers want someone who knows what they are talking about and who know their neighbourhood.
“My other daughter Jessica is a creative soul. She has a great voice and wants to be a singer. As a parent you just want the best for your children. But it’s always a balance between reality and ideals. I want them to be happy and I encourage them to get where they want to go, but at the same time you need to foster some realism in them as well.” Clearly his daughters don’t think being an estate agent is a very attractive career. I’m giving Laurence the benefit of the doubt.
“Anyone can be a dull estate agent,” admits Laurence. “But to offer something different takes a bit of thought. You are trying to make people happy. People are looking for happiness from what they buy.”
The scene from US TV series Mad Men comes to mind where Don Draper explains to his clients that advertising is about happiness. You need to make people feel ok. That’s what they want. I suggest this to Laurence and he nods his head. But then hesitates and he’s not sure whether to agree with me or not. He’s not sure whether the image of Don Draper is something to be admired? Don Draper is very good at his job but he is a morally ambiguous character. Aren’t people a little more wise to that now?
Laurence is careful to explain himself. “Some people are just so hard-nosed it’s off putting. The enjoyable side of the job is important. If you enjoy your work people like that. I remember when I first came to this area in the late 1960s as a teenager with my father to visit the people in the rag trade in Great Titchfield Street. Some of the people who spoke to my father were really rude. I was quite taken aback by it.”
Laurence’s father came from Poland and his mother from Russia. They met each other in London’s East End in the late 1930s. When war broke out his father volunteered to fight. After the war his mother and father moved to Wales where his father started a business as a tailor. He didn’t want to use his Jewish name Goldstein for fear of anti-Semitism and so instead adopted the Welsh surname of Glynne. After a couple of years in Wales his parents moved to Nottingham where Laurence grew up. His father continued in the tailoring business and they used to make the trip down to London, and, of course, to the rag trade in Fitzrovia.
“So I got to know Fitzrovia quite well. When I finally bought this showroom, the day we opened one of the neighbours came over and gave me a book. He said that the place used to be a Jewish delicatessen. And I opened the book and there was a picture of the place as a deli and a bit about its history.”
Fitzrovia and Soho had many Jewish delicatessens and salt beef bar a few decades ago. Now almost all of them have gone. Just like many of the other individual family-run places and curiosities that adorned the streets of central London, they’ve disappeared to be replaced by chain sandwich bars, coffee shops, and fast-food outlets.
Laurence remembers Schmidt’s in Charlotte Street. He remembers watching the staff put money in vacuum tubes and then hearing the capsule rattle its way up the pipes and disappear. Now it’s just the beep of electronic tills taking money without any real effort. A few places of character still exist. Laurence likes Navarros on Charlotte Street. And Fitzrovia still has more character to it than many other places. Many of his clients are people selling up from Soho and Covent Garden and moving to Fitzrovia to escape the rabid commercialisation that has taken place. But how long before Fitzrovia goes the way of those places?
I ask if estate agents deserve their negative reputation. Laurence gives it to me straight. “A lot of the bad press about estate agents is justifiable. It was an estate agent that invented Noho as an alternative for Fitzrovia, after all.” Noho is a name that Laurence dislikes. And he’s in good company.
“At the moment there is a huge property shortage. But estate agents still need to make proper valuations. There is the temptation to overvalue, to manipulate the price. But in the long run, that doesn’t do either seller or buyer any good,” says Laurence.
“Buyers and sellers do their own research nowadays with the information available on the net, but people need to cross-examine estate agents and not just blindly accept what they say. After all, if the price is too high it won’t sell,” he tells me.
I ask Laurence about what music he likes. “I’m very fond of jazz,” he says with a smile.
I don’t know anything about jazz but I decide to cross-examine him on his musical taste, nonetheless. What sort of jazz? I ask.
Laurence leans back on his chair and says: “Jazz is like this.” And he stretches out his arms like an angler boasting about the size of a fish he once caught. “There’s so much to enjoy. I’m fond of the greats like Miles Davis…” and rattles off a few more names, none of whom I recognise. Then he mentions Pat Metheny, who I have heard of…
“I went to see Pat Metheny at the Barbican a while back. A fantastic concert. I really enjoy live music,” he tells me. I begin to think that the bad press about estate agents is unjustified.
What sort of people walk through his door looking to buy in Fitzrovia? “We get people looking to buy studio flats. Parents buying for their children. And of course they see property as an investment. Lots of young couples are looking to buy. Lots of international students want to rent property. Also city workers are looking to rent. Families tend to buy mews houses,” he informs me.
There is also a big pied-a-terre market in Fitzrovia. This is not popular with the more fixed population who see these people who live here for just mid-week as having no commitment to the community.
People buying a second home to use some of the time does no good for the neighbourhood in Fitzrovia or for the community where these people have their main home. It adds to the housing shortage. People who can afford two or more homes help to ratchet up the cost and shortage of housing. They buy a small place in the centre of London because they don’t want to spend huge amounts of time commuting in to London everyday.
There’s a message painted on a wall besides the M40 motorway as it enters the chalk cutting in the Chiltern Hills which says: “Why do I do this everyday?” The log jam of traffic at 7am on any weekday morning into London passes slowly past this message to the mindless commuters who sit in their cars to make the two-hour or more journey into the centre of London is enough reason to be tempted to buy a small place in Fitzrovia with its many links to mainline train stations and other public transport.
This is not the fault of estate agents or the people themselves. It’s the fault of an industry that seeks to grow the commercial heart of London; and a planning system which does little to challenge it. This is unsustainable growth sucking people into the south-east of England, creating over development and spiralling costs of housing. While other parts of the United Kingdom which should have their own locally-based economies become dormitory towns and cities. Both Crossrail and the proposed new high-speed link from Birmingham to Euston will just add to this travelling madness.
Laurence disagrees: “The pied-a-terre buyers can be good for the area because they like the mix that Fitzrovia offers and that’s a good thing. Some buy for kids and family so the local community would benefit somewhat.”
The street outside is quiet. There’s a police and a community support officer standing on the corner of Candover and Riding House Streets. They are waiting to catch cyclists riding the wrong way down Candover Street. That’s how sleepy things are in August.
We take some pictures of Laurence outside his attractive showroom, with its large windows and tastefully painted wooden frames. The logo on the shop hints to an art deco style. It reminds me of the wall mounted lampshades in the Tavistock Hotel in Bloomsbury. I ask Laurence who thought of that design.
He looks up at it and says: “I chose the logo because I am interested in the architecture of the 20s and 30s.” And that was the time when Laurence’s mother and father grew up in Eastern Europe, came to London, got to know each other and fell in love.