Why This Legendary 60-Year-Old Covered Market is Dying
Photo by author. 

Why This Legendary 60-Year-Old Covered Market is Dying

Coventry Market is suffering from reduced city centre foot traffic and competition from big supermarkets. But where else can you find flavoured coffee, vacuum bags, and Wiltshire ham under one roof?

There’s no particular reason for you to visit Coventry Market. There’s no particular reason for you to visit Coventry, for that matter, but there’s even less of a reason for you to go to a small indoor market that sells pork pies, jumpers, cheap makeup, and bacon sarnies. Which is exactly why Coventry Market is dying.

Founded in 1958, the covered market sits in the centre of the West Midlands city, importantly (as everyone will tell you), next to the IKEA. It is dizzyingly circular, meaning you can walk around it and lose complete sense of where you are or which way you’re facing, becoming lost in a maze of identikit vegetable stalls. The whole place is concrete, strip-lit, and filled with vendors that seem like they could go out of business in a week (a stall selling fake flowers, a bespoke candle stand), despite the fact that many of them have been there for over 20 years.

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A map of Coventry Market. All photos by the author.

Coventry suffered an estimated 20,000 job losses during the 2007/8 recession and the market hasn’t escaped this economic downturn. Even though the city has plans for a £17 million redevelopment to improve its Upper Precinct area, this will only leave Coventry Market with less of a chance at pulling in customers from the rest of the city centre.

I know Coventry Market all too well. For reasons that are still unclear to me, my family moved from Italy to Coventry in the 1950s to tap into the labour boom post-World War Two, running a cafe in the market that sold traditional English food. Then they owned a frame stall and after that, a make-up stand, which they still run today.

My family's make-up stall.

I spent many hours of my childhood wandering around the market’s concrete walls, eating pink Mr. Whippy ice cream from a now long-gone ice cream stall, and helping my auntie sell mascaras. But when I visit Coventry Market as an adult, it’s a very different place. The market has been in steady decline for a while now. In 2015, only 13 percent of locals said that they did their main food shopping in Coventry’s city centre, compared to 2002, when the number was 26 percent. On top of this, footfall in the city centre has fallen by 1.4 percent in the last year.

I remember when the market was so busy that I wasn’t allowed to visit my auntie on Saturdays. I can now watch the stall for her while she’s on a break and not have to deal with customers asking how much the faux Daisy by Marc Jacobs perfume costs. To be precise: Coventry Market feels extremely dead.

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Market Cafe

I start my investigation into Coventry Market’s decline at its epicentre, the greasy spoon where my family first set up shop: Market Cafe.

I know, right? Good name. Does what it says on the tin, which also explains the cafe’s approach to food—its most extravagant dish probably being the lasagna.

Market Cafe in Coventry Market.

Mick Hind, owner of Market Cafe.

“We're selling the same stuff we were selling ten to 15 years ago,” Mick Hind, owner of Market Cafe tells me, as I eye up a tasty looking fruit cake. “We serve the kind of core customers who are mainly more mature, so they want the bacon sandwiches, they want the breakfasts.”

“They're not into your pizza,” he adds, as if there could be nothing more exotic than tomato, cheese, and bread.

Despite having a core customer base, Hind’s reluctance to change the menu has meant a lack of new customers, according to him. And as for the old ones, well, it’s not looking so good for them, either.

Hot food at Market Cafe.

”I appreciate at some time [the cafe] is not going to be here because the people aren't going to be there,” he says. By which he means, dead.

Market Cafe’s menu is as you’d expect from a virtually unchanged 60-year-old cafe, and I spot an unidentifiable piece of meat sitting under some heat lamps in the kitchen.

“We do bacon sandwiches, breakfasts, roast dinners,” Hind explains. “We're not a fancy place at all. I've tried the croissants, they go stale before we sell them. We'll have a special on now and again, which right now is turkey because it's Christmas.”

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The Irish Store

Mick recommends that I chat to the man who runs the Irish deli on the other side of the market, which sells cured meats and cheeses. Terry McCabe has worked here for the last five years, and tells me that it’s not the food that has changed at Coventry Market, but the people.

Terry McCabe, owner of The Irish Store.

“The older ones are dying off and the younger ones are not taking their place—they’re more supermarket-orientated, so the footfall that we're getting in here is more Asian, more foreigners, more Polish, Afghanistan,” McCabe continues. “Unfortunately, they don't use our stalls.”

“We meet different people. We've got some lovely customers. Especially the older generation,” he continues. “That's not knocking the younger generation because we do serve quite a lot of them, but not enough. For the market to be sustained, we need these people to come into the market.”

I ask, if the problem is that the young (read: and white) shoppers aren’t eating here, then shouldn’t food shop owners be diversifying their offerings in order to appeal to those who do come?

Cured meats in Coventry market.

McCabe shakes his head. I got a similar attitude from Hind and some other long-standing stall owners I spoke to—not wanting to alienate core customers with a more varied offering, even if it could boost sales.

Despite the reluctance to adapt to a changing market-scape, I do dig out one interesting clue about the future of Coventry Market from McCabe when I ask what he thinks will happen to the market in the coming years.

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“All I know at the moment is that the council have only taken a five-year lease out in April. So what do they know that we don't know? It would make fantastic student accommodation.”

The plot thickens.

Khan’s Vegetable Stall

Although Coventry as a city is still majority white, a third of its population is BME, meaning that the city’s food demands are changing. The city also has a large international student population, both from Coventry University and Warwick University, who I’m told by one Chinese vegetable stall owner are some of her best customers. Seeing as the traditional stall owners I spoke to seemed reluctant to adapt to the needs of these new customers, I wanted to talk to someone behind one of the less “traditional” market stalls, busy with people haggling over okra and aubergines.

Khan's Vegetable Stall.

Aubergines, okra, garlic, and ginger.

There are about ten vegetable stalls in the centre of the market, and are by far the busiest stalls there. Finding one that isn’t bustling this lunch time is difficult, but I manage to get a few minutes with Ali Khan, who moved from Birmingham to Coventry to set up a stall selling Asian vegetables at the market. Having only been here for a year, he doesn’t have the same perspective on the changes the market is undergoing—largely because he is the change. He offers customers vegetables that are popular in Indian, Pakistani, and Kenyan cuisines and tells me that they all sell well.

“We sell just vegetables: chilies, garlic, ginger, turnip, beans, white tomato, pumpkin, onion,” he explains. “Okra is our most popular. A lot of Indian people don't eat as much meat so they're eating lots of vegetables.”

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Clearly, this part of the market is flourishing.

“The market has changed, because if Asian people are coming then they going to be buying these things,” Khan says. “They're buying it every day. It's very popular.”

*

There are many reasons why Coventry Market is struggling. Coventry itself has higher than average unemployment and poverty, and has been overdue investment since it was bombed to shit in World War Two. Hopefully, its recent win of City of Culture 2021 will allow for Government funding, but there’s nothing to say this will go into the market. And besides, none of this gets around the fact that it’s no longer the norm to do your weekly shop at a local market. The giant Tesco can supply you with almost everything you need in a week's shop—and probably with more convenient parking.

But there could also be something in Coventry Market’s reluctance to adapt to its new demographic. Who knows what wonders selling falafel or paneer could do for Market Cafe and the deli?

Waving goodbye to my aunt as she ignores me to talk to a customer about lipstick, I wonder if perhaps the market has come to the end of its natural life. With a dwindling number of core customers and suspiciously short lease, it could always be replaced by a monumental, 1,000-seater Pret-a-Manger …