At Gardners Market Sundriesmen
When people ask me about this place, I can only respond by declaring,“You cannot really say you have been to Spitalfields unless you have shook the hand of Paul Gardner, the fourth generation paper bag seller,” because Gardners Market Sundriesmen in Commercial St is the centre of our particular universe here in this corner of the East End. Established in 1870 by Paul’s great-grandfather James, this remarkable family business – the oldest here – has come to incarnate the very essence of the Spitalfields.
Other shops only sell paper bags in bulk, but Paul Gardner will sell you as few as you please – and the entire nature of his business is based upon this subtle premise, which means it has become the essential destination for the smallest traders. Stallholders, shopkeepers, designers and makers – Paul welcomes them all at his shop and many have been coming back for decades, making the regular pilgrimage and enjoying the unhurried chit-chat with Paul that has been a rare constant through volatile times. “Someone came round the other day, I hadn’t seen them in fifteen years,” Paul told me with a smile of amazement, “‘What, are you still here?’ they asked.” Yet the beauty and the wonder of it is that Gardners Market Sundriesmen is still here, to remind us what Spitalfields is all about.
“Most of my customers have been coming here a long time, so I can always find something to talk about,” Paul confided to me as we sat in the shop chatting – one morning before seven recently – while the traffic roared up and down Commercial St in the rainy darkness outside, “That’s what I say to my wife, ‘At least I enjoy going to work, I don’t have to work for someone I don’t like.’” It was coming up to the last weekend before Christmas and Paul needed to reassure himself because trade had been slow. “I must admit, it has been quiet all week,” he said, leaning over the counter with his chin propped upon his fist in contemplation, gazing towards to the door and willing customers to walk through it. “It’s a bit grim when you’re waiting like a lemon.”
If I had not been there keeping him company, sitting beside him on a vast stack of paper bags with “Fish & Chips” printed on them, Paul would have been writing in his diary, kept since the age of thirteen – making entries like, “Had a slightly better day moneywise – steamroller outside – glad to get away on time,” or “Not that busy, but I still didn’t have time to put things out.” Otherwise, Paul passes the peaceful hours by counting luggage tags and plastic bags, securing them in bundles of fifty with elastic bands. “I remember coming into the shop when I was child and smelling the paper bags,” he reminisced affectionately, as he counted, “I sat on a pile of bags and the customers gave me sixpence. My father took me to get one my first haircuts in Hanbury St and my mother cried when she saw it. One day, I had six sausage rolls – the good old days!”
Prompted by this last thought, Paul sent me across the road to get two cups of tea. It was daylight now and the procession of stony-faced office-workers had begun. When I got back, Paul was happily serving one of his long-term customers. “She’s a very pleasant lady but her cheques invariably bounce,” he revealed to me in a whisper after she left, with a smile as he put the cheque in the cash register, as if this aspect of her personality were an endearing quality. Yet – as soon as she had gone – another customer arrived, it was a fishmonger on his way to set up in Chapel Market in the rain. He threw cash onto the counter with a sample bag, declaring enigmatically, “I need them like this only different,” and dashing back to his van before the traffic warden arrived. “They expect you to be like Mystic Meg and read their minds,” Paul quipped – pulling a comic grimace as he sought the required bags – since he always remembers his customer’s previous orders.
Old market traders and young hipster designers, Nigerian jewellery sellers and Bengali garment makers, they all came wanting bags. “We’re doing a week’s trade in a day, but we have Mount Everest still to climb and we’re just at the Base Camp.” declared Trevor from Liverpool St Chicken, exercising seasonal hyperbole, as he put in his order for thousands of bags. In spite of their impatience, the traders waited quietly – a reflection of the universal esteem that Paul enjoys. Meanwhile, some complained that business was down and others bragged that it was up. Unflustered, Paul ran back and forth between the counter and the stockroom, answering the phone (“Bishopsgate 5119 Gardners”), expertly totting up the totals and the VAT with super-quick mental arithmetic, stamping receipts, giving change and sending the bags flying out the door. Then, in the middle of it all, the delivery of bags that Paul had been expecting arrived, but as soon as they were stacked on the pavement in Commercial St – before they even made it into the shop – customers began carrying them off – “I’m taking four packs of the brown paper bags, Paul,” I heard one call.
Here at the boundary of the City, this has always been the place of markets and the preserve of small businesses. Both kinds of endeavour rely upon Paul who, as custodian of the most venerable family business, carries much of the history and culture of this place. Everyone has reason to come to Gardners. Even the Rector of Christ Church buys luggage labels to write prayers upon and local residents get their Christmas wrappings from Paul. Gardners Market Sundriesmen is both the focus of the community in Spitalfields and the manifestation of what makes this neighbourhood distinctive. So, as long as we have Gardeners Market Sundriesmen, we can know that the identity of the place is alive.
“Oh blimey, I didn’t think I was going to get busy at all, but then about nine thirty it just went mental,” exclaimed Paul, mopping the perspiration from his brow and sweeping his wavy grey hair to one side, “I didn’t even realise what time it was until it was one o’clock.” He looked a little startled, until the inevitable realisation came upon him and he broke into a wide smile. “It must be Christmas!” he announced in a cheer, spreading his arms with delight. Before I departed, I helped Paul carry the remaining stacks of brown paper bags from the pavement into the shop.“Thanks for coming in, I think you brought me some good luck,” he said, as we shook hands and made our farewells.
The view from behind the counter.
“One day, I had six sausage rolls – the good old days!”
“Bishopsgate 5119 Gardners”
“I didn’t even realise what time it was until it was one o’clock”
Gardners Market Sundriesmen, 149 Commercial St, London E1 6BJ (6:30am – 2:30pm, Monday to Friday)
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