As every bargain hunter knows, sometimes you have to go the extra mile to get the best deals. And, sometimes, you have to get on a train to the arse end of Ballards Lane in NW12-or-something in freezing fog. In this particularly drab no-man’s-land part of Finchley (there’s an ugly pub and a bus station – and that’s about it, if ya catch ma drift) lurks The Curtain Factory Outlet, in all its, erm, splendour.
It’s hard to miss the ENTRANCE, which is lined with outdoor Christmas market style hutches filled with fabrics, suggesting they’ve run out of space inside. Which they have. The official line is that the shop has ‘500,000m of fabric in stock’. Who knows if this is true or not, and who cares? There is certainly A LOT. It’s a strange old place. If your name’s not down, you’re not coming in… when you arrive, the staff crowd around you and are very insistent that you sign in – ushering you towards a big book that’s balanced on a lectern with a biro. As you write your name and where you come from and how you heard about them, everybody eyes you suspiciously. You feel as though you’re entering a private members’ bar when you’re not a member, or a top secret cult. Once you’re ‘in the book’, you qualify for a map which explains the weird split-site set up. There’s a higgeldy piggeldy warren of ‘buildings’ (including outside pre-fabs, shacks and an empty house that reminds me of the 1960s building I did my crime prevention badge in as a brownie, or an abandoned bank) on one site, a ‘strictly trade only’ warehouse round the corner (although it seems anybody can enter actually because once you’ve signed in you get given a magical no-questions-asked TRADE CARD from reception), and a ready-made curtains shop just up the road. It’s all a bit confusing. But there’s a map – and plenty of passive aggressive laminated notices that leave you in no doubt as to who is in charge; And it ain’t you, sweet cheeks.
This is NO FRILLS shopping, so there are, of course, a number of trials to endure before you hit the jackpot. For starters, around every corner is a well-meaning lad with a pencil behind his ear (and lots of Lynx) who will ask you: “Awright, love? Need any help?” every few minutes or so. This wears a bit thin if you just want to be left in peace to browse. If it’s not the cheeky chappies, it’s officious clucky women who glare at you and – despite the bright yellow map you clutch – demand to know: HAVE YOU SIGNED IN AT THE DESK YET? This also gets a tad annoying after a while. And then there are the ‘buildings’, which certainly aren’t going to win any architecture (or health and safety?) awards.
Rolls of fabric line the walls of room after skanky room, all of which are pretty much undecorated. Wires trail – there are poorly-fitted fluorescent strip lights dangling, ugly radiators and various patches of minging 1980s vinyl flooring which may or may not have once been somebody’s kitchen floor. It’s all very bizarre.
HOWEVER, it all adds to the charm. AND the prices are TO DIE FOR. I found Ian Mankin ticking fabrics for £7.99 per m. There were amazing designer fabrics from the likes of Sanderson, Malabar and Designers Guild, all for £6.99 per m. I KNOW. By bulk buying rolls directly from the printers and dyers, the firm keeps costs LOW and this is the secret to the whole set-up: It is eye-wateringly cheap, if not-very-cheerful. I found pure wool Voyage fabrics for £29.99 (normally at least £47) per m, and luxury velvets for £19.99 per m. They can’t spell ‘metre’ – but at these silly prices, who gives a monkey’s? There are Cath Kidston-esque prints for £9.99 and stunning metallic silks covered with Art Deco fans for £19.99. I mean, honestly. It’s insane. In the membrane.
The curtains shop up the road was untidy and the assistant was unhelpful, but the prices were ‘ridic’ as the youth of today apparently say, and there is a useful bespoke service, so you can order blinds etc. There was even a bargain box, where (if you were really desperate) you could rummage around and unearth a set of ghastly Linda Barker bed linen for just £9.99. Not that you would. But ONE COULD.