Big Story 10

How to stay sober: sell funky furniture to London's hipsters

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Christmas approaches, many people will be drinking more than they normally do, but where do you draw the line between seasonal over indulgence and something more problematic?

A trainee clamping timber for restoration in the Restoration Station workshop, Shoreditch, November 25, 2014. James Bellorini Photography

“It all comes down to not being able to deal with feelings,” said 45-year-old David, who became an alcoholic at the age of 15 and stopped drinking three years ago.

“Anger was my favorite emotion for a long, long time. Drinking basically shut it down. Things would go bad quite regularly but I just did not care,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, declining to give his real name.

David’s formerly chaotic life has been transformed by Restoration Station, a workshop in a hip part of east London, where recovering alcoholics work as volunteers renovating and selling furniture.

It is a social enterprise run by the Spitalfields Crypt Trust (SCT), a charity that helps addicts recover with homes, training, jobs and therapy.

There are almost 600,000 alcoholics in Britain, according to the charity Alcohol Concern. Excessive drinking is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15- to 49-year-olds in Britain, government data shows.

Restoration Station was founded four years ago by Sheona Alexander, who manages SCT’s frontline services.

“You can’t believe what it means to people who have maybe left school early and never had any praise,” she said.

“They make something beautiful and someone buys it - it’s so amazing to them.”

More than a dozen recovering alcoholics have been trained to repair and hand finish vintage and designer furniture at Restoration Station’s workshop on busy Shoreditch High Street, a fashionable area that has become synonymous with hipsters.

Its retro wardrobes, tables and chairs are proving popular, with sales trebling in four years, Alexander said.

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The idea for Restoration Station came from a woodwork class, one of many activities that SCT offers to help fill the gap left in lives once filled by alcohol, she said.

Many of its volunteers live in Acorn House - which sits above the business - a 16-bed hostel for homeless men recovering from drug, alcohol and gambling addictions.

“When I first got into Acorn House the worst thing for me was the boredom,” said David. “I have to be doing something. I go quietly mad if I sit around too much.”

SCT requires recovering addicts in Acorn House to take classes from a range that includes creative writing and computer literacy, on top of group therapy sessions.


Ali, a London band manager in the 1980s, used to go out every night. Her alcohol addiction got so bad that a friend who was staying at her house saw her mixing a drink in the kitchen while she was still asleep, she said.

“I couldn’t work out why I had all these half drunk glasses of vodka and tonic in my bedroom,” said Ali, who has been sober for eight years after 30 years of drinking.

Ali, who has long blonde hair and a fringe, said she sought help after fighting with someone in public.

“My behavior had got really violent,” the 52-year-old said, declining to give her full name.

“I’d blackout, I wouldn’t remember how I got home, I wouldn’t remember what I had done the night before.”

She is determined to stay sober because she knows the pain of withdrawal.

“I didn’t want to go back to that point where you stop and everything is so raw,” she said, against a background of scraping noises and the smell of varnish from the workshop.

“All this stuff goes round in your head until you work the program and start to do something about it.”

Ali has worked for Restoration Station for almost a year, assessing offers of donated furniture and driving a van around London to pick them up.

“It’s really important to have people around you that have gone through the same things as you,” she said.

Her future is unclear as Restoration Station’s policy is to encourage its volunteers to move on after a year.

She now lives on a canal boat and also volunteers with Alcoholics Anonymous, providing support to other recovering addicts when they are in trouble.

Meanwhile, David has moved out of Acorn House, trained as a plumber and is now doing work experience. He credits Restoration Station for putting his life back on track.

“But for them, I would not be where I am now. I felt worthless, hopeless, I had no prospects whatsoever,” he said.

“If it weren’t for them I would probably be dead.”