From Fleet Street photographer to firefighter to founder of Canary Wharf’s antique map and framing shop Frontispiece , Reginald Beer has experienced a varied career.
That’s not including the time he spent teaching at east London high school, St Paul’s Way, and as Tower Hamlets councillor.
On November 30, the 70-year-old will celebrate the store’s 20th anniversary, two decades after it was opened by his friend, Phillipa, Viscountess Astor.
Since April, his collection has shifted from the mall to his workshop space in West India Quay .
Here, he chats about his highlights, the enduring appeal of antique maps and why he was only retailer open as 9/11 unfolded.
What’s behind the name, Frontispiece?
Frontispiece is an image at the start of a book which is meant to encapsulate the content.
The name was a bit of a mistake – we should have called ourselves Antiques Map Shop, that’s what everyone calls us.
We used to advertise ourselves as the most interesting shop in Canary Wharf and a lot of people agree with that.
Why Canary Wharf?
I saw Canary Wharf when there was nothing there – it’s my back garden.
When the Docklands was developing I thought it was very modern and I thought antique maps would work well in Tobacco Dock, in Wapping.
But then that was being demolished, I needed to find somewhere quickly, and Canary Wharf Group was very helpful.
We were the only store on our mall level for the first two years – people would come down the escalators, come and see us, then go back
The fact this is an international centre is helpful too – people come in and say, “Have you got any maps of Germany?” and I say “How many do you want?”
And why the move across the water to West India Quay?
I work seven days a week and 12 hours a day and at 70 I thought I should slow down.
I now do 12 hours a day Monday to Friday and nine on a Saturday and Sunday’s. I just potter around.
I’d had a workshop there for 20 years, so we converted the office into a showroom.
We’ve had really great loyal customers, like Ian McKellen, who have been with us from the early days and followed us across the water.
So who are your customers?
People who work on the estate and increasingly, people who live within Docklands area.
Most come in because they have an interest in where they are from.
Very often we get people come in here and say, “Have you got a map that shows this street, because that’s where my grandparents were born?”
People like to put maps on the wall and increasingly, photographs are just stored on the computer, which is unfortunate.
One of the nice things about family photo albums is being able to flick through and touch the photographs.
What’s the best bit about working at Frontispiece?
With so many images it can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to find what you know you have.
So it’s finding something I knew I had and I’d promised to someone, but wasn’t able to locate at the time.
It’s ringing someone back and saying, “Do you remember two years ago when you wanted this map? I’ve found it.”
We’ve got around a million prints, the oldest is probably one dating to 1810, of West India Quay and at that time boats were bringing sugar from the West Indies.
We do bespoke framing and that’s mainly for people for their own work.
Any plans for the big anniversary?
We haven’t got anything special on – we’re not doing a firework display or cheese and wine night.
I’ll work from 7am until 7pm that day as the customers expect you to be there on the advertised hours.
It’s like during 9/11 – we stayed open as the security was closing down the estate.
People were flooding out of the Wharf and it was only when I went back to West India Quay when I saw the pictures on the news, and that made me realise why everyone was evacuated.
Looking ahead, we will be doing more online – we have a million prints, but there’s not a million customers going to come in, but there’s billions of people who have a computer.