Market traders’ stall tales give glimpes of changing London
Mohammad ‘Terry’ Tahir, Petticoat Lane
Originally from Pakistan, Tahir has lived in London for 25 years. Petticoat Lane market, which sells general goods and clothing, is in the East End and has seen successive waves of immigration, from French Huguenots in the 17th century to Jews fleeing eastern Europe in the late 19th century, and Bangladeshis in the 20th century.
Petticoat Lane market is said to be where entrepreneur Alan Sugar cut his teeth as a stallholder. Today Tahir finds the market is quiet, apart from office workers who come to buy their lunch from the hot-food stands.
“Fifteen to 20 years ago it used to be very, very busy,” he says, but office workers are not interested in buying clothes from the traders. “Profits are very, very down. It’s very hard to survive. The rain comes and everyone goes home.”
Some of Tahir’s peers do extra jobs around market trading hours. While he says it is a “very hard job”, he admits he likes it and has no plans to switch career.
Ron Granger, Chapel Market
The brothels of King’s Cross were once a reliable revenue stream for Ron Granger’s father. The older Granger used to trade in sheets from his stall in Chapel Market, Islington. “He sold sheeting by the yard; unbleached calico cotton as it was stronger,” says the locksmith.
The family have had a stall in the Islington market for about 100 years. Granger has made keys for the past 30 years, although there was a five-year interval when he lived in Alabama with his American wife, making contact lenses and then as a warehouse manager at Kmart.
In recent years he has diversified into poison. “We’ve got a bit of a problem with rats in Islington, thank God. Restaurants have exploded the rat population.” Global warming has been good for business, he says. Recently he added moth traps and balls to his range. Bed bugs have made something of a comeback too, to Granger’s great delight; he has added a deadly spray to his stock. “Cockroaches will come back,” he predicts.
Keys are the most lucrative of the products he sells, but rat poison is not far behind. The weak pound has had an impact, increasing prices of keys, which he sources from Italy and Spain.
Today, young people are not interested in taking over their parents’ stalls, he says. “They’re all Deliveroo riders now.” Granger’s own children have not followed the 69-year-old into the business, although his son, who now works in advertising, did stints in the holidays.
His customers have changed over the years, too.“You get every nation under the sun. Some years there are more Nigerians, some years more Croatians.”
When a farmers’ market was added on Sundays, traders worried it would hurt their business. But Granger thinks the increased footfall has been a boon; when customers see the high cost of organic tomatoes, he says, they often retreat to the traditional fruit and veg stalls.
Traders have always reacted swiftly to changes in tastes, he says. “Today, hipsters want cheap, good food at markets. Once it was jeans, then it was handbags.”
Is he considering retirement? Despite the early starts and downpours, Granger has no plans to quit.
Vittoria Fichera, Borough Market
A native of Venice, Vittoria Fichera has been in London for the past seven months. She works on the Greenfield Farm Organic Life tea stand at Borough Market, which was hit by a terrorist attack in June.
In addition to her job at the market, near London Bridge, the 27-year-old works at a pub in Notting Hill, where she was on duty on the night of the attack. “I was very scared [for my friends in the market]. It was very nice the way the community [came together],” she says.
Fichera got the market job through a friend; her boyfriend works on another stand. The company she works for also sells online.
Her mother is English, so she spent part of her youth in the UK on family holidays. A psychology graduate, she hopes to study criminology. But longer-term plans are uncertain. “Brexit will make a difference,” she says.
Victorine Bille, Spitalfields Market
The Parisian has had an occasional stall in Spitalfields Market for about five years, from which she sells her own jewellery, hats, bags and boots, made with fabrics and beads sourced from Africa.
“I go round the world to show my work,” says the 41-year-old, who makes everything herself. “I don’t like buying to sell.”
The market, which has been on the site for 350 years and once sold fresh produce, was modernised at the turn of the century, despite opposition amid fears that stallholders would be forced out and the area sanitised.
Bille loves her work but says that business can be patchy. “Yesterday I made nothing. Some days nothing.”
When in London, she stays with friends but most of the time she lives in Paris with her six-year-old daughter and her mother.
Zarullah Sherzad, Brixton Market
The Afghan sells avocados, mangoes and hot chillis in Brixton Market in south London. Most of his customers, he says, are of African or West Indian descent. Why did he specialise in these fruits? “I don’t have Afghan customers, so there’s no point selling Afghan food.”
The 37-year-old sends money to his family, who still live in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. When he arrived in London, he had no idea he would be selling fruit and vegetables.
“London is the best,” he says. “It’s safe, quiet and you get opportunities if you want to start a business, study or work.”
Pictures by Charlie Bibby/FT
Visitors to Club Row in Shoreditch 100 years ago would have found the street alive with the squawks of parakeets, the yaps of puppies, the shrieks of monkeys and the odd growl from a lion cub. Founded in the 18th century by Huguenot refugees, who first popularised the keeping of songbirds in Britain, Club Row Animal Market continued selling pets until the early 1980s, when animal welfare concerns finally led to the din being silenced.
In this edition: mind the equality gap; taking on terrorism; the City speaks on Brexit; an NFL team for the capital?