This story started with a shop.
Hoxton Street Monster Supplies really does exist; it’s the public-facing arm of a wonderful writing charity called the Ministry of Stories which launched in November 2010. Behind a secret door, carefully concealed in the wooden panelling on the shop’s back wall, young people from the local area take part in all sorts of writing projects supported by volunteers. These workshops are offered for free and are partly funded by the profits generated from the sales of items just like the ones I mention in the story – jars of thickest human snot (which tastes awfully like lemon curd), tins of fear, and even fang floss (“Oh! So you’re the place which charges a fiver for a ball of string!” I once heard a woman mutter crossly, missing the point entirely.)
It’s a model inspired by the 826 projects in the US; all over America, volunteer mentors work with young writers in spaces hidden behind shops for time-travellers, super-heroes, pirates… even spies, who can shop at Chicago’s ‘Boring Store’ safe in the knowledge that their super-secret identities will remain intact.
The shop has its own mythology, which I borrowed from extensively. Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, so the story goes, really did open in 1818 but closed down for an extensive refurbishment period, during which it went largely un-noticed by the general public (which is probably why you’d never heard of it). It re-opened its doors in November 2010, just – by coincidence – as the Ministry of Stories launched. The ball of string lady would probably be deeply suspicious about this coincidence, but who wants to listen to her?
I volunteer as a writing mentor at the Ministry, and have seen first-hand how the shop fires up the imaginations of the kids who pass through its doors. They (and we) love to play with the line between what’s make-believe and what’s real; I’ve had endless conversations about the invisible cat who sleeps in the corner, the classified advertisements pinned to the walls and the mysterious former shop-keepers whose portraits adorn the walls. So as soon as I discovered Stations still needed a Hoxton story, I jumped at the chance to write it.
At first I thought I’d write about the shop in its heyday – a story about one of the original owners, perhaps, or which explored the lives of their clientele. I soon realised, though, that it would be more fun to play with the contrast between the shop’s old fashioned image and the cool, hipster types people often associate with modern day Hoxton. A contemporary setting would also solve a problem that was starting to bother me; it meant I could write about the shop without removing too much of the mystery surrounding its origins. Lots of gaps have been left – quite deliberately, I suspect – and the longer I spent thinking about the shop’s early years the less comfortable I felt about filling those gaps in. And of course, a modern setting meant I could incorporate the Overground station which was, after all, sort of the point.
Suddenly that opening image came to me, of a customer arriving at the shop to find a sign in the window saying it was closed. Something about this just felt right – if the shop had been closed for all that time, it made perfect sense that a customers might not realise and would turn up one day to find it shut. And then what would they do?
I pitched the idea to Cherry, and was thrilled when she said yes. And then I realised I had to go away and write it, which terrified me.
© Caroline Hardman 2013