The East End Trades Guild needs you!
With this sign, Paul Gardner, fourth generation paper bag seller and proprietor of Spitalfields’ oldest family business, eloquently expresses the situation that he and other small independent traders find themselves in. “2 & 8″ is rhyming slang for “a bit of a state,” as he explained to me when I called round to his shop, Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen in Commercial St, yesterday.
Since the rebuilding of the Spitalfields Market introduced expensive office property and chain-stores into the neighbourhood, landlords have been pushing up rents mercilessly to the detriment of the small trades and family businesses which have always characterised this area at the boundary of the City of London.
Now change is in the air, as these independent traders are gathering together to form The East End Trades Guild, a union that can square up to exploitative landlords, demand the concessions from local government that are being granted to corporations, and be an advocate for the interests of shopkeepers and small businesses. It all started after community organiser Krissie Nicolson went to visit Paul Gardner, when she read in the pages of Spitalfields Life that he was being confronted with an overnight rent increase from £15,000 to £25,000 a year. It soon became clear that many others were facing similar pressure and then – in a defining moment – the Duke of Uke, Britain’s only ukulele shop, was forced out of Hanbury St. Matthew Reynolds, the proprietor, had created a destination that drew people from far and wide, encouraging some high-end brands to open there beside him, and raising the value of all the property in the street. Through this example, the simple paradox became apparent – upmarket companies are moving into the area because of the attractive identity created by local businesses, and those same businesses are getting pushed out as a result.
In such a climate, looking to short-term gain, landlords have escalated rents wildly with destructive outcome – as seen in Cheshire St, where exorbitant increases led to the departure of Shelf, Mimi, Labour and Wait, and other businesses which drew customers to come there from across London. Over a year later, many of those properties remain empty in a street that has lost its passing trade as a consequence, such is the hubris of the greedy landlord. The irony here is that the Duke of Uke has now opened in Cheshire St and looks set to bring it back to life by attracting other businesses, just as happened in Hanbury St. Maybe in a few years, he will get pushed out once more when the properties surrounding him are full, after he has put the street back on the map?
Landlords are seduced by fantasies of replacing independent traders with chain-stores, yet I am informed that among the largest chain-stores in Spitalfields some are unable to pay their rents. These overblown corporate enterprises stumble from one financial crisis to the next, seeking constant recapitalisation while still adding to their property portfolios by opening more unprofitable shops. As an alternative to this, a responsible private individual who commits themselves to paying a realistic rent long-term is a more prudent option for the owner of the property – if the landlords were not blinded by the pound signs in their eyes. Pursued to its bitter end, the landlords’ short-term profit motive will result in streets lined with chain-stores, and then the value of the commercial property will fall when the area resembles everywhere else and its distinctive appeal is gone.
Unless this situation can be changed, the outcome will be a complete loss of the culture of artisans and family businesses that has defined Spitalfields historically. As Raphael Samuel, the foremost historian of the East End, wrote with remarkable prescience in 1988 -“The fate of Spitalfields Market illustrates in stark form some of the paradoxes of contemporary metropolitan development – on the one hand, the preservation of “historic” houses, on the other, the wholesale destruction of London’s hereditary occupations and trades and the dispersal of its settled communities. The viewer is thus confronted with two versions of “enterprise” culture – the one that of family business and small scale firms, the other that of international high finance with computer screens linking the City of London to the money markets of the world.”
It was in Spitalfields that the match girls of Bryant & May met to form the very first trade union in the nineteenth century and now, demonstrating the same indomitable spirit, the shopkeepers and independent small businesses of the East End are gathering next Monday 30th April at 6:30pm at the Bishopsgate Institute to inaugurate The East End Trades Guild, which launches formally as a pressure group in September. All local small trades are invited to this open meeting to discuss what can be done to ensure their survival and to contribute ideas which can form the policy for the guild. If you are a shopkeeper or you run a small business in the East End, you need to be there to make your voice heard.
Paul Gardner, whose plight was the catalyst for the founding of The East End Trades Guild is its founder member. When I visited him in the building in Commercial St where his family have traded, serving the people of the East End for over one hundred and forty years, he said to me, “I hope it will unite us and give the little businesses a chance to survive, because unless something is done we’re all going to be gone from here in the next five years.”
Graphic by James Brown
You may also like to read
and the article that started it all
and Raphael Samuel’s essay