Before you enter Muharrem Bora’s vegetable shop, Newington Greens, on the corner of the square after which it is named, you are greeted by a cornucopia of fruit, vegetables and herbs; everything is brightly coloured, perfectly polished and carefully arranged. The tomatoes, squashes, sweet potatoes and onions sit in pyramids, house-of-cards style, and look like each might collapse if you remove one. The produce sits in crates, jutting out in aisles from the shop front, stacked up to hip-level– perfect for peering over and inspecting potential purchases. Standing in front of Bora’s is like being before a grand rainbow of all things edible; everything the soil can produce, from all around the world.

But this shop is not just a utopia for vegetarians and omnivores alike; it is a business and livelihood which Bora has built up over nearly twelve years, currently working over one hundred hours a week. But that pales in comparison to what it took to set up. “You wouldn’t believe what I used to do for this business. I used to sleep outside the shop,” says Bora, with a beaming smile as he recalls the early days, “I’d open at 7am and close about 9pm, go home and shower, ask the Mrs to make a Turkish coffee, drink that and go to the market straight away. I’d do the buying for 4 or 5 hours – and I did that every day as well – come back to the shop, sleep a couple of hours in a van and start all over again. I worked maybe 140 hours a week.”

Originally from Turkey, Bora is Kurdish, and was pushed to leave for London 27 years ago by his mother, out of fear for her boisterous 22-year- old son. According to Bora, he and his brother had been held without charge more than once. “The first time I was taken to prison, I was 11. That’s why my mum wanted me out of Turkey. And one of my brothers was also in prison without charge and tortured”, explains Bora. “Turkey is a wonderful, beautiful country. But it used to be different, people were friendlier towards [the Kurdish people]… At the moment, the situation there is getting worse and worse and we only see about 10% of it here… It is not safe. I lost two of my nephews two weeks ago. They’d been in the Kurdish army for about eight years and I lost them. That’s why we ran out.”

In London though, Bora says he does not encounter any problems because of his Kurdish background. Instead, the community around him in Newington Green have helped him since the beginning. “The shop next door, which we now own, used to be a flower shop and they did everything for me,” he says, pointing to the unit which is now Newington Greens. “They made me breakfast, tea, banged on the van to wake me up and help me open the shop. That’ how we got started.” His Kurdish background does not influence what he likes to eat or chooses to stock though. “I’m not a fussy eater. If I don’t like it, I don’t eat it – but I eat everything,” he says laughing. “I always go for the taste, but people often go for how it looks, they go by the eyes… But they are learning and more people cook nowadays, especially the younger generation.” And while he listens to his customers in terms of what to stock, Bora tries not to get bogged down in politics when it comes to his business. “We get avocados from Uganda, India, Chile, Peru, and from Israel, which some don’t agree with. But I can’t bring religion into my business, people don’t have to buy what they don’t want. I never bring religion into business – if you bring religion or politics in, there is no success. You can’t do that”

Everything about Bora shows not only his dedication and drive for his shop on this east London street corner, but his incredible energy. His demeanour, his build and the speed at which he speaks all suggest years younger than his 49. He is charming and jovial, happy in his constant state of busy-ness and activity. Give Bora a subject, and he will regale you with anecdotes and opinions, admitting he can be “quite political”. And as one of the many shopkeepers facing rising prices due to a weak pound, Brexit is a hot topic. “When we decided to come out of the EU, I don’t know what the logic was to that. We always look to blame someone else, we never blame ourselves. People are getting lazier, they don’t want to do the hard work and we blame other people for taking the jobs, but refugees and asylum seekers do all the humble, hard work. They’re sweeping the streets, they’re running shops like us, they’re the small businesses. But we decided we didn’t want them anymore and now I want to see the future for England – who’s going to do all the jobs they do? Who’s going to sweep the streets and run the businesses?”

Compounding the Brexit effect of a weak pound was this year’s harsh spring in southern Europe and its effect on crops. “The price [of produce] doubled, tripled over night. Especially things coming from Spain and Italy during the bad weather,” says Bora, gesturing towards the 40 varieties of tomato he stocks, with many coming from Italy. “And Brexit is affecting prices by about 25%. I don’t know what will happen in a couple of years when we completely come out. It’ll be tough.” Furthermore to these challenges is the recent increase in business rates, which Bora says is hitting small businesses like his, extremely hard. “If you ask me if it’s worth it [running this business], even if you earn a million pounds, no it’s not. With taxes, personal, business rates, rent – it’s just tax and tax and tax… Rates are up 100% in some places making them nearly the same as rents now.”

Despite the challenges that have affected him and his business over the years, Bora will continue with Newington Greens on the corner where it has been for the past twelve years. And in the face of Brexit, poor weather and increasing overheads, Bora says his success lies in listening to is patrons and having a passion for his work. “You have to run it the way the customers want it and for them. I can’t say I’m not going to come to work today – but I enjoy it. I love my business. I love what I’m doing, I enjoy it. Whatever you do, you must enjoy it. That’s where the success comes from, you must enjoy it, whatever you do.”

Words by Polly Dennison

Images by Nick St Oegger