Morocco Bound's founder discusses his career: from transforming Bermondsey from a bomb site to opening a bookshop with his partner's daughter's ex-boyfriend...!
Stumbling into architecture
"I think in the family I was seen as a bit of a dullard," Jonathan says mildly, thinking back to his school days in Runcorn, near Liverpool. He knows that nowadays he would be diagnosed with dyslexia, but at that time he used to be bribed "a penny a page" to read Dickens out loud to his father. His literary pursuits were confined to Enid Blyton and Alistair MacLean, apparently with the odd anomaly such as Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward.
Fortunately, Jonathan was taught art by Alan Ashcroft, who also played rugby for the British Lions and who recognised in Jonathan a comrade who shared his unlikely combination of passions. It was Ashcroft who first suggested that Jonathan might enjoy architecture. This led him to take a holiday job at a firm. "Actually they spent most of their time in the pub," he observes, "I don't think I ever did anything useful for them apart from printing, but it seemed to me like a good job."
Bound for Bermondsey
After finishing his degree in the early '80s, Jonathan joined a North London workers' co-op – "a right rag-bag of young people". He describes how they would get a grant of £3,500 to make liveable council-owned buildings that had been gutted to prevent people squatting before they were demolished and rebuilt. This involved installing rudimentary kitchens and electrics, doing up roofs and even building whole staircases – something none of them had ever done before. "There's nothing like learning on the job," he summarises.
1986 was the year Jonathan began operating in Bermondsey. At the time, the area was a wasteland pockmarked by bomb sites and empty warehouses. "It was like the land that time forgot. Nothing much had happened since the Second World War," Jonathan explains. It was only in the late '80s that the tide turned and people began to eschew the suburbs in favour of repopulating the inner city.
Bermondsey was unusual, in that council and civic trust worked with residents to plan out rebuilding. Michael Davis became the first area manager and took it upon himself to radically improve the place. "I think people were fed up that the place had gone to dust," Jonathan says of Bermondsey locals. Given the vitality and popularity of the area today, it goes without saying that the development served its purpose.
When books met beer
How did all this lead to what Morocco Bound is today? Well, once upon a time Jonathan had had an idea. He conceived of a story where a bunch of kids get sent to Mars in a rocket because they are the only people light enough to get it off the planet. What began as 90 illustrations took two years to develop into his book, The Other Things. He describes the process as akin to painting by numbers: "writing by painting."
With copies of his book to flog, Jonathan got chatting to the then-boyfriend of one of his partner's daughters, Natty. A student with a passionate love of literature, he persuaded Jonathan to give his fantasy of opening a bookshop a go. Opening its doors in July 2019, at first as a coffee shop, it was once they started putting on poetry nights "and everyone was getting pissed off their heads that [Jonathan] thought: I think now's the time to bring the beer in."
Rather conveniently, Bermondsey has got a little something called the Beer Mile. This meant Jonathan was able to source fresh, locally made craft beer from nearby independent breweries.
From off-licence to music venue
Morocco Bound was the only bookshop open in London during lockdown. However, due to drunkenness on Bermondsey Street, the police tried to shut down all venues with on-site alcohol licences. Absurdly, Jonathan found a solution by registering MB as an off-licence, which meant beer sales could continue but book sales were, for a month, forbidden.
Jonathan is a firm believer in the energy and innovation of young people. "I don't interfere too much," he says – quite the understatement, considering he put the shop in the hands of former manager Lucy while completing a six-week pilgrimage along the Camino. He admitted that this act of trust made him anxious, but explained that Morocco Bound "has developed through what people want to do for it and what people want it to do for them." In this case, Lucy used quieter days to conceive of the Morocco Bound Review, our in-house magazine, and the Morocco Bound Jazz Night was born, as Joe Elliott, still our resident saxophonist, began putting on gigs to small crowds of (of course appropriately distanced at all times) customers. It is Jonathan's hands-off approach which explains the project's development in so many directions; "it has its own momentum," as he sees it.
Since the summer of 2021 – when pubs reopened and at-home craft beer consumption passed its zenith – our events have become the main factor luring people off Bermondsey Street to discover Morocco Bound. The cultural programme has grown at a frankly alarming rate, with new team members, customers and collaborators continuously contributing new ideas.
Jonathan doesn't like making plans so there's no knowing where MB might develop yet, but there are three things I can promise:
1. It will be creative and collaborative
2. It will be learnt on the job
3. Whatever it is, it will involve beer
For the full interview featuring more on the way Morocco Bound has developed since its inception and (finally) a thorough explanation of the damned name, listen here: