Brick Lane Market 6
When I asked Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Jeremy Freedman to photograph Keith in Sclater St, he came back with a picture of someone I did not recognise as Keith. “This is Keith,” he said. And when he returned next Sunday to seek the particular Keith I had in mind, he came back again from Sclater St with a picture of another man called Keith that I did not recognise. Happily, on the third week, he found the Keith I was seeking and, as a consequence, it is now my great pleasure to introduce you to each of the three Keiths of Sclater St Market.
“This is the best site,” said Keith proudly, speaking of the corner of the yard in Sclater St where he has been trading for twelve years, “but this land was sold years ago and they’ve got planning permission for shops and flats. Soon, Brick Lane will have no space for people like me, we’re going to become dinosaurs. The City is moving right in and the gap between here and there is quite short. It’s squeezing out all the local people and their families who have made a living here.”
Even as we spoke, a tall white block of flats was being constructed across the road, while lively business went on as usual below among the stalls upon the two remaining pieces of undeveloped land, and Keith winced to peer up into the sunlight at this visible symbol of the changes that threaten his beloved market.
“My dad brought me here when I was three or four years old. It used to be a lovely atmosphere,” he mused, contemplating the half-dozen trestle tables that comprise his pitch in this corner of the yard, piled with books, records, clothes, china ornaments and attended by a eclectic display of pictures hung upon the brick wall.
In the Winter months, Keith sometimes has a fire in a brazier in his corner and I always come over to examine his ever-changing stock as I work my way through this market each week. Blessed with a placid nature, Keith maintains a dignified presence in his black peaked cap, and his corner is a recognised meeting place where other traders and friends gather in conversation. As long as the recession continues, and the development of Sclater St Market remains suspended, you will find Keith presiding here, with the generous civility and modest charisma of one who has emotional if not legal ownership of his territory.
Keith has been here at the Western end of Sclater St for just six weeks and is doing a roaring trade in old clothes, shoes, used computer parts and other junk. In spite of the empty street in this photograph, he could barely stand still for the constant assault of eager customers, swarming all over his gear and making demands from all directions, as we attempted a conversation.
“They think you get it for free,” he exclaimed, rolling his eyes in humorous exasperation as an over-zealous bargain hunter attempted to press a pound coin into his hand as payment for an item priced at five pounds. “Do I look like I need a pound?” declared Keith in self-parodic affront, placing his hands up in surrender, while shaking his head in disbelief and breaking into a smile at the audacity of it.
“I used to do Western Rd, and I was in Brick Lane a long time ago.” continued Keith, a man in his element, “I also had a shop but it closed down. Years ago, this was my way of life, yet although I have got a lot of stuff to sell, it’s not worth it full time. Now I refurbish homes and doing this on Sunday suits my job.”
With his lively animated nature and ease of banter, Keith delights in his weekly stalling out in Sclater St – as he confirmed for me, “I enjoy coming. I look forward to it because you meet all these different people. I’m just down here for the stories, they tell you more stories than you have ever heard.”
Keith told me he has been selling bicycles in this corner of the Sclater St yard “forever,” which means every Sunday for the last thirty years.
Each week, he fills his van with as many bicycles as he can, around forty – specialising in good quality used and single speed bikes – and such is his widespread reputation and keen pricing that mostly he returns again to Essex at the end of the day with an empty hold. “I don’t mind it here,” he admitted,with understated affection for this familiar piece of empty land, casting his eyes thoughtfully around the territory, “It’s become a second home, I’ve been here that long.”
“I used to have a couple of shops in Essex, but now I trade at Portobello on Saturdays and here on Sunday instead – you just pay the rent for your stall and walk away.” Keith revealed with a smile, spreading his arms in a spontaneous gesture that simultaneously indicated liberation from responsibility, as well suggesting a philosophical acceptance of circumstances beyond his control, “In Essex, bikes are seasonal, they’ll only buy from you in the Summer and at Christmas – whereas here you can sell them all year round.”
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman