When Prince's Sign o' the Times shop opened in Camden

Prince opens memorabilia shop in Chal Farm Road in 1994

Prince, with dancer and future wife Mayte, visits Sign o' the Times in Chalk Farm Road in 1994 - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Against the backdrop of a row with his record label and a bizarre name change, the musician Prince arrived in Camden in 1994 to open his new store for a crowd of screaming fans.

This week (April 21) marks the fifth anniversary of Prince's death. Though his hometown always would be Minneapolis, it is not a stretch to suggest he felt an affinity for London.

He played in the city many times - often injecting some soul into the cavernous Wembley Arena and Earls Court - and in 2007 set up residency for 21 nights at the O2. He was famous for intimate after-show sets and in 2014 he bypassed the arenas and took the Hit and Run tour directly to venues including the Electric Ballroom, KOKO and King’s Place. 

In one sense Camden in 1994, London’s musical heart, was the natural home for his shop. But this was a time of Britpop emerging as a counterpoint to grunge - and the genre known as gangster rap was seeking world dominance. 

He may not have been part of the zeitgeist, but Prince remained a superstar and when he made an appearance, it drew crowds.  

Assistant manager Claire Herbert at Prince's Sign O' The Times shop in Chalk Farm Road, which opened in 1994

Assistant manager Claire Herbert at Prince's Sign o' the Times shop in Chalk Farm Road, which opened in 1994 - Credit: Claire Herbert


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Claire Herbert was a 23-year-old working in retail and hoping to get into the music industry when she landed the job as assistant manager at the Sign o' the Times store.

She had been a "huge fan" since the release of When Doves Cry and, though interacting with the star wasn't permitted, she remembers the opening day well.

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"He came in and sat on the stairs and I did have a little peek at him and he looked down at me and I just went: 'Whoops!' 

"I just wanted to see him. He was one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen in my life - seriously," she said. 

"He was so tiny - really, really tiny. He was so elfin it was really up close quite a surprise, you know he's going to be smaller in stature, but that was something else." 

With future wife Mayte, he went out on the balcony and waved to crowds of fans gathered in Chalk Farm Road.

It was a fleeting visit but he did occasionally check in on the store, which stocked records and memorabilia, and had guitars on the wall and a coffee shop upstairs.

Cafes were not as common as they are now, and as well as browsers, Claire said people would visit the store to hang out.

"It was quite a mixture," she said. "We had our regulars, that we knew really well by name, that we used to see all the time. They'd come in very regularly. Then you would get the people who made the special journey were in London."

Prince was experimenting with new ways to reach his audience - fan clubs, phone lines - and for the fans the shop presented an opportunity to see otherwise unreleased videos of new music.

The artist's dispute with Warner Brothers led to masked television performances and the pencilling of the word "slave" on his face.

What he wanted was control of his music and to be able to choose when to release it. The irony was that many of the songs he might have released could be picked up on bootleg cassettes and CDs at market stalls just around the corner.

At the shop, which closed in 1996, Claire said he gave "clear direction as to what he wanted", adding: "I think he was a man with a clear vision for whatever it is he wanted to do and he did it." 

Although he was driven by his artistic vision, Prince always took an interest in business, from creating a scene around him, to Paisley Park Studios, to exploring different ways to bypass the record labels. And he wasn't unaware of finances, as some superstars might be.

"He did once ask for the money from the safe and so someone came by and we gave him all the money from the safe," said Claire. "It was a bit bizarre. Maybe he needed some spending money?"

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince receiving his BRIT award in 1995

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince receiving his BRIT award in 1995 - Credit: PA

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