At the busy high street entrance of Tooting Market in South London, local residents inspect bowls laden with cucumbers, mangoes, and bananas, while the fruit and veg stallholder rushes to replenish his stock. Down the aisles of the indoor market, traders offer samples from simmering pots of Chinese broth, butchers haul meat onto blocks, and flaky patties are displayed proudly next to flashy handbags.
Among the the market's long-standing food traders are newer business: a bakery selling brownies and gluten-free cakes, a small-batch gin shop, a wine bar. Despite this variety, no one looks out of place at Tooting Market. Stallholders visit each other's pitches to say hello and catch up on the morning's news. An outpost of the trendy pizza chain Franco Manca is the only slightly incongruous sight among the rows of small, independent businesses.
"I've been working here six and a half years, in markets in general, about 17 years," says market manager Roi Mengelgrein, who is showing me around the market today. "I think change is good. As a business person, you have to be on top of it otherwise you can lose your whole business, but obviously don't forget your roots and don't forget what made this place. So we protect the butcher, we protect the fruit man, the Caribbean shop. We try to blend the old and the new."
Tooting Market first opened for business in 1930 and stands—literally and metaphorically—at the heart of the bustling community of Tooting, which lays claim to being the hometown of London's first Muslim Mayor, Sadiq Khan. According to the most recent census carried out in 2011, just over half of Tooting residents were born in England, while other locals hail from Pakistan, India, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Somalia, the Philippines, South America, Jamaica, and Kenya. Looking around the market, the area's multicultural population is clearly reflected in its food offerings.
But as commuters to Central London move further down the Northern Line, Tooting is becoming gentrified. Property prices are increasing and the market's clientele is changing. Has Mengelgrein felt pressured to cater to Tooting's new arrivals?
"Like in the world, you have an ecosystem. You have to have a healthy ecosystem in the market with different types of trades. So, I'll charge different shops different rents because I know what they can and can't afford," he explains. "We help the old people catch up with the new people by helping them re-design their shops. Rather than get someone new in, we'll upgrade them."
But there are some threats to Tooting Market's survival that a lick of fresh paint can't solve.
Last September, in proposals to make nearby Tooting Broadway tube station part of the Crossrail 2 rail network linking South West and North East London, it was revealed that Tooting Market would be demolished to build a ventilation shaft. The plans also stated that after works were complete, the land would be sold off to developers. An online petition started by Mengelgrein against the proposal has reached 2,104 signatures at the time of publication.
Naturally, the traders for whom the market is not only their bread and butter, but a space for community, are worried about the future.
Nuvola, owner of Nuvola: A Little Bakery, set up shop in Tooting Market last September, just as the Crossrail 2 announcement was made.
"We moved to Tooting three years ago and it's what I love about London. It's diverse, it's different, it's still not gentrified (as yet). The market is about that," she says, as the aroma of freshly baked cupcakes and cinnamon buns fills the air. "The fear about Crossrail 2 is not just about losing the market, it's because it'll completely change the look of Tooting. You will lose the diversity and the community. It will become another high street—normal, plain, horrible."
Nuvola continues: "It's nice to have a mixture of the old and new and have people coming down here as Tooting becomes a destination. But I hope it doesn't go as far to become somewhere like Shoreditch. I don't know how it's going to change in the future but for now, I feel like it's part of the community and I feel part of the community. They've been very welcoming."
As if on cue, she rushes over the say hello and offer a hand to someone at the flower shop opposite.
"I've been here seven years already and it's changed so much," she says with a smile. "It's really wonderful now and the back market is more lively. The mix of businesses is what makes it. It's like family here and it's multicultural. I think it's becoming better and better—I hope so!"
But not everyone is quite so upbeat about the market's future.
Wandering down the walkway, I stop at the door of The Lone Fisherman, also known as Christopher. He's busy preparing Caribbean dishes at the stove in the back of the cafe for the lunchtime crowd as the chiller cabinet heaves with patties and rum cake. His homemade chili sauces line the top of the shelf.
"As a small business person, I don't see a future. I see the future for big business. There's nothing wrong with that if you've got the money but as a small business in a market I don't see no future, but that's London in general," Christopher says with a shrug.
He points to the food on display. "Since I came here four years ago, I've seen a lot of changes. It's getting like Brixton and Camden with a different clientele coming through. It's like I'm having to start again and win people's trust by saying 'taste this,' 'try this,' and sell myself all over again."
I ask whether he thinks it's important for people to be loyal to local businesses.
"It's good that customers don't have loyalties because it means they can taste everything but as a small business person, looking out from my window, it's not too healthy," he reasons. "But whether it's good or bad, it's progress and nothing stands still."
Turning to leave, I wish The Lone Fisherman a good day. He cracks a smile: "I hope so. I've got a meeting this afternoon with Selfridges about stocking my chili sauces!"
Christopher is right—inside and outside the market, progress is happening.
While some members of the Tooting Market community are understandably concerned about the area's changing demographic and the impact of Crossrail 2, others don't bat an eyelid.
Billie, who manages wine bar Unwined which was set up by owners Laura and Kiki in 2015, is staying positive.
"We have the wine selection but also have a small kitchen with rotating pop-up chefs from the community. We also offer wine classes. There's not such as massive change as yet but I'm sure it'll come when more people start to visit," she says, arranging cutlery and menus on tables. "Everyone's getting together as a community and signing the petition against Crossrail 2. There are so many new, small independent businesses opening up so it'd be a shame for them all to be here for a few years and then go."
Out on the fruit and veg stand, I corner stallholder Kamalanathan. In between chatting with other workers, he tells me that he reckons things will only get better.
"As far as I know, from when I came here in 1996, the market has improved a lot. The manager here has done a lot of work and it's always busy here because we have the quality and we're cheaper than supermarkets. We have a big selection of fruit and vegetables and people are always going to need to buy them," he says.
"I hear about Crossrail but I don't think it's going to work out. I don't know how long I'm going to last but the market will stay. It's busy all the time."
Kamalanathan's mobile rings and he waves goodbye.
Busy man, indeed.
Heading back inside the market, I meet Daniel, a third-generation butcher at Stannards of Tooting. While it's clear from everyone I speak to that the market plays an important role in the Tooting community, it's easy to forget that for some, this is just a way to make a living.
"I've been here for all my working life since 1990. I started and that's it," states Daniel, surveying the day's meat display which includes everything from joints of beef, curry goat, and pig trotters and tails. "It's a family business and the market has given me a good living. Nothing more than it's given me a good living."
I ask how he's seen things change.
"You know, it's just different. Times move on," he says with a shrug. "Hopefully Crossrail 2 won't come but who knows? We'll deal with it when it happens."
I comment on the pig tails, piled on a tray.
He smiles: "It'd do a young girl like you some good trying some of them."
I quip back that I have and he looks impressed.
As the market begins to fill up with people grabbing lunch, I pop into Caribbean grocery store All Sorts, which is manned by Gloria.
"I've been here over 15 years, you know. But a few of weeks ago, I parted the shop in two and somebody else is doing that side. I wanted to decorate it, have my own door, and things like that. It's quite nice," she says, gesturing around the shop at the shelves lined with brightly coloured tins and packets. "I'm still doing bits and pieces, trying to get it together."
I ask what she likes best about Tooting Market.
"It's really a comfortable market because all the kids can come in and the mothers come in and have a cup of tea, sit down, relax." Gloria explains. "We have a lot of people coming in, asking, buying, sitting down, have a cup of tea, their lunch. It's very friendly. You don't even want to go home. It's like a little village."
She adds: "It's also so warm because we have the heating out there. And it's very, very clean and you have space to walk. Right now, we have the best market in London, I'm telling you."
And how's business?
"Sometimes it's not busy and the next time, it's busy and some days it's packed and some days, it's as usual. It goes up and down," says Gloria. "I'm not worrying about the future because we don't know what can happen. Anything can happen, you know. If we start thinking about that, then we start worrying way back. Because we didn't know that the market would turn out to be like this and it's really good. So, it can only be better, not worse. That's how I see it, you know."
Heeding the sound advice to sit down and have a cup of tea, I head back to Mina Shop for a mug of builder's and a custard tart. Gloria catches my eye from across the way and gives me a wave.
The sound of traders greeting regular customers like old friends, the mingling aromas of countless global cuisines, and a feast for the eyes at every turn make Tooting Market what it is. Market manager Mengelgrein is right: it is an ecosystem. But as with any ecosystem, it doesn't take much to upset the balance.
All photos by Liz Seabrook .