Up Close and Personal with London's Market Stall Traders

London's markets are the heart of the city, but they are endangered by supermarkets, online ordering and gentrification. We spoke to the people who are still trading, week in, week out.

|
30 March 2017, 6:00am

Smithfield Market

VICE: How long have you been trading here?
Oliver, 43, Absalom + Tribe: Since the 1970s. Not me, but our old man was here since the 70s.

And you personally? 
Ten years.

And how's it changed in that time?
The staff have got more and more miserable each year. Um, yeah, no, the trade has changed because there's less butcher shops out there, but our business has sort of gone more to catering – the Turkish trade, the kebab trade, that's a very big sector.

Who's your typical customer?
Turkish wholesalers, English butchers, restaurant wholesalers and other general middlemen traders that buy and sell, doing similar to what we do. We sell to them, and they sell it on. We get sole traders as well. Everyone buys meat! They're all in it for the money!

What's your typical day like?
We start selling meat at about midnight. By 7AM, which is about almost now, it's pretty much over. We've sold, I would think, 20 tons by now. Since midnight. And that's every night.

When do you go to bed? When do you sleep?
I have a little snooze late morning, then I have a nice afternoon of doing all sorts, and then about 5.30, 6PM I go to bed, say goodbye to the kids, have a sleep and do it all over again. It's alright, it's OK. It's nice to get the day.

Ridley Road

VICE: How long have you been trading here?
Said, 27, Butcher: It's [been] like ten years. The customers are Nigerian and Ghanaian people especially. So, yeah, the customers are only black people here. White people come less – it's like ten persons here in the market. What else you want to know?

What time do you get here in the morning and how long do you work for?
It's an eight-hour shift. Every person works like eight hours. 

And have you seen Ridley Road change much in the last ten years?
In Dalston? No, there's no more change. It's only that station [Dalston Kingsland] that has been changed, and that area is so busy right now because of the station. But in Dalston market, nothing has changed from last eight, ten years. It's the same thing. But they are thinking that the front market – they are making some developments there.

How do you get along with the other traders? Do you know everyone?
Yeah, we know people around this market. We are working here for ten years so obviously we know each other.

What's your most popular item?
Fish. Any kind. People buy all the fishes.

VICE: Do you enjoy it here?
Mohamed, 63, watch stall: Yeah! Sometimes busy, sometimes not…

What do you sell the most of?
I sell only watches. Clocks. 

Who's your typical customer?
Some customers are Africans, who sell the watches in Africa.

What time do you wake up?
I wake up at 6.30AM. [It takes] one hour to travel to here, by train. Then 9 I come here, 10 set up, 3PM closing.

What's your favourite other market stall here?
No, I'm not going to the other markets! I don't shop, no.

Covent Garden Flower Market

How long have you been trading here for?
Katie, 60, Arnott & Mason: Since 1980.

How have you seen it change in that time?
Quite a few customers have gone to buying directly from Holland, and it has quietened down quite a lot, really. We're still busy, though – we're now targeting furniture shops like The Conran Shop and places like that, and we've got a couple of customers doing online stuff, so we're still very, very busy.

When do you sleep?
Not a lot, really! We don't tend to sleep a lot – it's a different lifestyle, really. You get used to it. My body clock... it doesn't matter if I have a day off; I still wake up before the alarm goes off at half 2. But I love it, love the banter. In the 80s I was the first lady salesperson.

Yeah, you're the first woman I've spoken to on all the markets I've visited.
Everybody thought I was an undercover policewoman when I first came in, 'cause it used to be a very closed shop. It was like father and son – most of them are father and son [shops that have] been passed down from the old Covent Garden [market], so generations, really.

VICE: How long have you been trading here for?
Ken, 60, S. Robert Allen: Since the market opened. I think you're looking at about 44 years ago. We're moving locations on the 3rd, to the new market.

So what's a typical day like for you here?
We start at 3AM. Well, customers are allowed in at 3AM. Sometimes, depending on what orders we have, we get in before that. It's a very tiring existence.

When do you sleep?
Depends. I try and grab a few hours in the afternoon so you don't have to go to bed very early in the evening. You have to get used to, really, sleeping twice in a day. So it does disrupt your whole social life.

Who's your typical customer?
Well basically you've got wholesalers, secondary wholesalers, you got event florists, and then you got the shopkeepers, so you're across a wide range. So it's a variety. And then you got your ordinary people that wander in off the street. The ordinary household customers.

And what do you sell the most of?
We sell everything. We sell across the range. Every range of flower, from any country – you name it; Kenya, Colombia, Ecuador, mainly through Holland. Ninety-odd percent of our supplies are probably Dutch. 

Do you still enjoy working here?
Well, as I say, if I could turn the clock back I would've left. We're not earning the money that we used to. Obviously with the internet now people can just log on and get their flowers delivered, and I can't blame them – you gotta get up in the middle of the night, and drive here, and pay money to enter and get loaded and unloaded at the other end, whereas online it's delivered straight into them, so I don't blame them. So from being a good living, we're reduced to basically scratching a living. So I'm glad I'm nearer the end of my career.

Brixton Market

VICE: How long have you been trading here?
Wassef, 42, fruit and veg stall: I started in 2006.

And what time do you start?
Start at 5.30AM, finish 7 o'clock.

And what kind of customers do you have?
Different customers. Some buy for restaurants, some buy for themselves, yeah. Different types of people.

Do you think Brixton has changed a lot since you came in 2006?
Too much change. Too much change. Before it was big, now it's too quiet. Before 2006, 2004, best time. This time is nothing. Before 2004, 2006, Wednesdays was like Friday. Now it's nothing. 

VICE: What's a typical day like here for you?
Dida, 35, Dida's Jamaican Shop: Well, market in Brixton at the moment is not too great as before. As you can see, the market is slow. Not much people here. You have to take what comes. I don't think it's a place for you to be rich. I don't know what's happened to Brixton. I don't know if it's too much parking charge for people with cars who coming far and want to come visit Brixton and buy stuff, or because they're treating Brixton so bad by closing down all the places and turning it into a ghost town. They're making every place become a restaurant or something. I dunno, I dunno. People gone off Brixton or something. A lot of people in Brixton they be suffering a loss of trade. 

And there's the whole thing of closing the old businesses in the Arches.
The Arches! They're taking over. I dunno why. I thought Brixton was a place of poor people. People could try and make life, in a sense. It's not about poor people any more, is it? Everything's going to the richer person. What the poor man's gonna do to make money, or get money from? I mean, the rich man gonna be rich by the poor man. And every poor man, he got no money to spend – all the rich man gonna get the money. So I dunno. It's difficult in Brixton.

And what kind of customers do you usually get? Who's your typical customer?
We get everybody, we get everybody. I get my own people and I get your people and I get the other people. Whoever needs my things or want my things. They come in and buy. I'm not too greedy so I'm satisfied with what comes. And as far as I see I'm not gonna be rich. Which is something I would love to be. Anybody who do business would love to make good progress in business – that's what you're in it for. At the moment, it's not like that. 

What's the most popular thing you sell?
Bit of each, really; bit of each. People buy all what I have – they buy sugar cane, they buy yam. And herbs, peas, Irish moss, a little bit of everything. It's always good to have plenty stuff – that mean if you don't sell one fast enough then you may sell one of each, you can get a day's pay out of it. Every little thing goes.

@alice.zoo