Brick Lane Market 16
This is Sean who sells vacuum cleaners and spare parts on Sclater St Market. “I’ve been involved in markets since I was twelve and then, in my mid-twenties, I decided to do it full time – and twenty-five years later I am still here,” he informed me with a bemused grin. Sean bought the business from the man he worked for who had been here since the early sixties, which makes half a century of trading in vacuum cleaners every Sunday on the same spot.
“I enjoy the lifestyle because I’ve done it all my life,” he declared – a man of extraordinary resilience, as swarthy as a seaman after working six days a week in markets over all these years. “I’ve been selling people vacuum cleaner bags so long, I’ve now got the children of my original customers coming back and reminding me of when they came here with their mum and dad,” he admitted shyly, “It’s a community, completely different from the High St. If people don’t have enough money, I say, ‘Pay me next week.’”
Like many of the stallholders, Sean is ambivalent about the tall buildings under construction that will soon tower over the market. “I think the new flats will regenerate the area, “ he said optimistically, gazing up to the sky, “unless they decide they don’t want the market anymore because it lowers the tone…”
This is Winifred, a part-time psychiatric nurse from Edmonton who is selling her possessions on Sclater St. “It’s the only market I know where I can come and sell what I have,” she said, peering warily over the piles of clothing and shoes.“I have this anxiety – ‘Are they going to buy or are they not going to buy?’” she confessed to me – when I joined her in the private tent-like space she had created behind the stall – adding, “I need money to give my daughter for her school lunches and I’ve got to pay all my bills as well.”
Yet, even as we spoke, eager customers interrupted us to enquire the prices of things. “It’s too much on my own,” Winifred whispered, turning morose, “Parking, offloading, setting up, packing up and loading again.”
But then our chat was halted by the sale of several items, occasioning a change of heart on Winifred’s part. “It’s a good experience to tell the truth,” she concluded with renewed confidence, “A lot of people have too many things in their homes and they need to sell them and use the money for something else.”
This is Kevin Conlon with his son Ross and wife Pook, who together run a cut-price stationery stall on Sclater St (where I buy all my notebooks). “I started coming at sixteen and fly-pitching in Brick Lane,” explained Kevin who grew up in Stepney, “and then, at eighteen, I passed my driving test and became a market trader – I just fell into it.”
Kevin is passionate about the life of the market, even though it means getting up at half past three in the morning. “I realised I had a gift for buying and selling,” he disclosed, his dark eyes sparkling with emotion, “I was born with it, it’s in my blood.” Kevin is fiercely proud of his independence too. “My father used to say being self-employed is the greatest thing in the world,” he told me, savouring the truth of the statement, “Here you can talk to people. It’s all about communication – I get old ladies who come and say ‘You’re the first person I’ve spoken to this week.’”
Kevin reserves his ire for the market management. “They just sit round a table and work out how to make a market trader’s life hell,” he asserted with a frown, and I would have learnt more – if the kebab stall next door had not caught fire and overwhelmed us with dense smoke.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman