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Lata Patel, winner of Belgravia Magazine’s ‘Local Hero’ award, tells us why she’s loved every second of the 36 years she’s spent working on Elizabeth Street.
Lata took up the lease for Walden Chymist in 1980, after travelling across London to find the perfect premises for a pharmacy. Originally established by a Mr Walden in 1846, the pharmacy has since had a string of owners, but Lata was determined to preserve its heritage. “The name stayed because it’s a Grade II listed building and the lettering on the shop’s facade is coated in gold leaf,” she explains.
Though steeped in local history, Lata’s chemist is a far cry from the original. “Mr Metcalf, who sold us the shop, told us the extension at the back was originally a backyard where distilleries were kept,” she says. “People came with empty glass bottles and they would buy paraffin for their lights. Water was purified at the back, too, so people would literally fill up as they needed it.”
Today, the distilleries have been replaced by a backroom containing prescription medications, while an array of health supplements and beauty products sit beside the over-the-counter medicines out the front.
Lata’s devotion to customer service is perhaps the only other way in which the chemist could be described as harking back to the past. “Mr Metcalf told us that if we provided the same old-fashioned customer service that he did, he would love to sell the shop to us,” she recalls. “Other people were interested but, for them, the customer was just a number.”
As far as Lata is concerned, the customer always comes first – even if they are discourteous. “If people are ever rude to you, it’s because they’re not feeling well, so you have to let that bounce off you,” she explains.
This consideration for others is something that local residents have come to fully appreciate over the years. When nominating Lata for the ‘Local Hero’ award, Belgravia Magazine readers described her as a “wonderful, bright and caring” woman, and praised her for her exceptional service.
And it’s not just customers who are on the receiving end of Lata’s generosity. Over the years, she’s fixed a tourist’s broken sandal with electrical tape and even helped a passer-by free a pigeon that was tangled up in twine. This compulsion to go the extra mile is no doubt why generation after generation still shop at Walden Chymist.
“I’m now looking after the third generation of many of my customers,” she says. “I saw them in school uniform, and now here they are pushing prams! Their loyalty makes you feel like you’re doing something useful. I am extremely grateful to all my customers for supporting their local, independent pharmacy. I look forward to continuing to serve the community alongside my son and daughter in-law, who are also a trained pharmacists.”
When Lata is not working on Elizabeth Street, she’s often found at the pharmacy her son runs in Chelsea. Her husband bought the premises in Sloane Avenue in 1981, just a year after settling into Elizabeth Street. Six months ago, the family opened an out-of-hours clinic in the Chelsea shop’s basement. “We’ve just added a paediatrician to our team of doctors there,” Lata reveals. “These doctors normally have a day job at a hospital or GP surgery, and they give us a few hours of their day to do our clinic.”
She has similar hopes for the subterranean space she owns below the chemist on Elizabeth Street. “If you want an NHS doctor today, you may have to wait three weeks before you get an appointment and your situation could worsen,” she explains. “But if you’re a working person and you’ve got a problem, you want to deal with it straight away.
“Right now, people want so many things from Walden Chymist, and I’m often forced to refuse because, legally, I can’t provide them without a prescription. If we get a licence and planning permission to open a clinic downstairs, then we can treat our patients now, rather than turning them away.”
Passing all the requirements needed to open a clinic won’t be easy, but Lata is determined to make it work. If she’s given the opportunity to help more people, she will seize it with both hands.