It could have been 1501, maybe 1498, it was so long ago nobody knows for sure, a small shop (shoppe?) dedicated to selling sailing supplies opened in London. Originally, the store was called: John Buckingham, Hemp and Flax Dresser, Two-dealer and Rope-maker. A few hundred years later, the store took on its current name when a young Arthur Beale took over the business and decided to name the store after himself. For 500 years, the store carried on, one owner to the next, offering goods for the sailor and the adventurer.
But now, Arthur Beale Ltd. is slated to shut its doors at the end of June. A victim of high rent and less foot traffic as Covid confined Londoners indoors for the better part of a year. Think of all the hard times this store must have suffered through for half a millennia. Then, 2020 comes along and asserts itself as the king of all maladies.
The shop’s original location was near a field that grew and processed flax, a critical ingredient of ropes. It may seem hard to believe now, but London wasn’t always a glittering financial hub seemingly removed from something as banal as shipping and the sea. The Thames river was a crucial waterway, and sailors would stop in London to resupply their boats. Arthur Beale’s was a busy place then.
It wasn’t just sailors stopping in over the years though. The shop was the exclusive provider of rope to the Alpine Club, the world’s first mountaineering club, founded in the mid-1800s. Tenzing Norgay and Eric Shipton used rope from Arthur Beale in their Everest bids. Ernest Shackleton outfitted at least some of his Antarctic expedition craft at Arthur Beale; the shop has a framed receipt from his 1921 purchase to prove it.
“All the Everest explorers would come to the shop in London for their supplies,” said Hugh Taylor, the store’s co-owner.
And while that bit of historical curiosity may have encouraged plenty of visitors, not many of them needed a yacht outfitting, so sales slumped. How a shop like that survived so long in a financial capital far from the sea is surprising. That high rents in London’s posh West End are driving it to ruin is not.
Like so much of the gear world these days, Arthur Beale will try to make a go of it as an online business. Taylor was able to secure enough financial backing to open a small warehouse to house the shop’s inventory. He plans a pop-up shop over Christmas, to capitalize on nostalgia, and then, that’s it for in-person shopping at Arthur Beale.
There's still some life in the old ship yet! See you soon, The Arthur Beale Team pic.twitter.com/yZaUh0nLIH
— Arthur Beale (@arthurbealeltd) May 12, 2021
It’s the sort of store you can practically smell just from photos. The dusty hay scent of coils of rope, wood that’s been quietly aging for centuries, wool sweaters warmed by a space heater, perhaps a whiff of creosote to lend the nautical touch.
None of those things will be available online, of course, which is what makes brick and mortar stores so beloved. When news of the store’s closing, which is expected to be June 24, leaked out, suddenly, there was a line snaking out the front door, as people realized they’d miss a 500-year-old fixture when it was gone.
“It’s a bit ironic,” Taylor told Esquire magazine. “Since people found out that we’re closing down, we’ve never been busier!”