Paul Gardner, paper bag seller
Recently, I have taken to dropping in to the premises of my new friend Paul Gardner, the paper bag seller at 149 Commercial St, to observe the constant parade of long-standing customers that pass through, creating the life of this distinctive business. One morning, I called round at six thirty, opening time, to enjoy a quiet chat before the rush and Paul explained that his great-grandfather James Gardner began trading here in this same building as a Scalemaker when it was built in 1870 – which means Paul is a fourth generation Market Sundriesman and makes Gardners the longest established family business in Spitalfields.
Paul still has his great-grandfather’s accounts from the end of the nineteenth century, when as Scalemakers they serviced the scales for all the traders in the fruit and vegetable market on a regular basis. Turning the pages and scanning the lines of James’ fine copperplate handwriting your eye alights upon the names, Isaac, Isaiah and Ezekiel, indicative of the Jewish population that once defined the identity of Spitalfields. There is an ancient block of wood with three scoops carved out that are smoothed with wear, it has been in use since the days of Paul’s great-grandfather. Then his son Bertie (Paul’s grandfather) used it, then Bertie’s son Roy (Paul’s father) used it and Paul still keeps his cash in it today. As the twentieth century wore on, each of the successive Mr Gardners found that customers began to expect to buy their produce in a paper bag (a trend which is now reversed) and so the trade of dealing in bags supplanted the supply of scales entirely over four generations.
Turn your back on the traffic rattling down Commercial St and stand for a moment to contemplate the dignified Brunswick green frontage of Gardners Market Sundriesman. An old glass signs reads “Paper & Polythene Bag Merchant” and, sure enough, a variety of different coloured bags are festooned on strings like bunting, below them are some scales hinting at the origins of the business and then your attention is distracted by a mysterious wooden sieve, a memento of Paul’s grandfather. Enter the shop to be confronted by piles of bags of every variety in packets stacked up on either side and leaving barely any room to stand. Only two routes are possible, straight ahead leading into the dark recesses where the stacks grow taller and closer together in the gloom or turn right to the makeshift counter, improvised from an old counter-top supported upon yet more packets of bags. Beneath the fluorescent glow, the dust of ages is settling upon everything. You think you have entered a storeroom, but you are wrong because you neglected to notice Paul sitting at the counter in a cosy corner, partly concealed by a stack of bags. You turn to greet him and a vista appears with a colourful display of bags and tags and tapes and those old green-grocers’ signs that say “Today’s price 2/8″ and “Morning Gathered” – which creates a pleasant backdrop to the figure of Paul Gardner as he stands to greet you with a genial “Hello!”
With his wavy grey locks, gentle face, sociable manner and innate decency, Paul could have stepped from another age and it is a joy to meet someone who has successfully resisted the relentless imperative to haste and efficiency at any cost, that tyrannises our age and threatens to enslave us all. When you enter the shop, you enter Paul’s world and you discover it is a better place than the one outside.
Paul was thirteen when his father Roy died unexpectedly in 1968, creating a brief inter-regnum when his mother took over for four years until he came of age. “I came here the first day after I left school at seventeen,” said Paul, “It was what I wanted to do. After the first year, my mother stopped coming, though my nan used to live above the shop then. I haven’t had a day off since 1972. I don’t make much money, I will never become a millionaire. To be honest, I try to sell things as cheap as I can while others try to sell them as expensive as they can. I do it because I have done it all my life. I do it because it is like a family heirloom.”
Paul Gardner’s customers are the stallholders and small businessmen and women of East London, many of whom have been coming for more than twenty years, especially loyal are the Ghanaian and Nigerian people who prefer to trade with a family business. Paul will sell small numbers of bags while other suppliers only deal in bulk, and he offers the same price per bag for ten as for a hundred. Even then, most of his customers expect to negotiate the price down, unable to resist their innate natures as traders. Paul explained to me that some have such small turnovers they can only afford to buy ten carrier bags at a time.
In his endeavours, Paul supports and nurtures an enormous network of tiny businesses that are a key part of the economy of our city. Many have grown and come back with bigger and bigger orders, selling their products to supermarkets, while others simply sustain themselves, like the Nigerian woman who has a stall in Brixton market and has been coming regularly on the bus for twenty-three years to buy her paper bags here. “I try to do favours for people,” says Paul and, in spontaneous confirmation of this, a customer rings with the joyous news that they have finally scraped enough money together to pay their account for the last seven years. Sharing in the moment of triumph, Paul laughs down the phone, “What happened, did you win the lottery or something?”
Paul has the greatest respect for his customers and they hold him in affection too. In fact, Paul’s approach could serve as a model if we wish to move forward from the ugliness of the current business ethos. Paul only wants to make enough to live and builds mutually supportive relationships with his customers over the longterm based upon trust. His is a more equitable version of capitalism tempered by mutual respect, anchored in a belief in the essential goodness rather than the essential greediness of people. As a fourth generation trader, Paul has no business plan, he is guided by his beliefs about people and how he wants to live in the world. His integrity and self-respect are his most precious possessions.“I have never advertised,” says Paul, “All my customers come because they have been recommended by friends who are already my customers.”
However, after Gardners survived two World Wars and the closure of the market, there is now a new threat as the landlord’s agents’ Tarn & Tarn seek to increase the annual rent from £15,000 to £25,000. “I earn two hundred and fifty pounds a week,” reveals Paul with frank humility, “If I earned five hundred pounds a week, I could give an extra two hundred and fifty towards the rent but at two hundred and fifty pounds a week, the cupboard is bare.”
Ruminating upon the problem,“They’ve dollied-up the place round here!” says Paul quietly, in an eloquently caustic verdict upon this current situation in which his venerable family business finds itself now, after a hundred and forty years, in a fashionable shopping district with a landlord seeking to maximize profits. Paul needs to renegotiate his rent increase and we must support Paul by sending more business his way (at the very least, everyone go round and buy your bin bags from him), because Paul is a Spitalfields legend we cannot lose. But more important than the history itself, is the political philosophy that has evolved over four generations of experience. It is the sum of what has been learnt. In all his many transactions, Paul unselfconsciously espouses a practical step-by-step approach towards a more sustainable mode of society. Who would have expected that the oldest traders in Spitalfields might also turn out to be the model of an ethical business pointing the way to the future?
Paul’s grandfather Bertie Gardner, standing with Paul’s father Roy Gardner as child outside the shop around 1930.
Roy Gardner, now a grown man, standing outside the shop after World War II, around 1947.