Paul Gardner, Paper Bag Baron
“There’s so few shops left selling paper bags”
Every now and again, the time comes to pay a call upon my friend Paul Gardner, the paper bag baron and fourth generation proprietor of the Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen, the oldest family business in Spitalfields. The occasion for my visit yesterday was to pick up a hundred bags in which to mail the famous tea-towels yet, as usual with Gardners, it was not just bags that I came away with but a whole collection of stories too.
“They used to throw four pound iron weights in the air and head them,” Paul told me, in illustration of the reckless spirit of market people, and I was rapt. Then Metin arrived, a seller of t-shirts and jeans from Covent Garden, immediately excited to see Paul’s face. “I came in here as a kid when my dad bought his bags, and you were here as a kid too, and I never thought I’d come back to buy my own bags from you,” he contemplated fondly while Paul totted up his order. “My father believed kids had to work and I came at four in the morning and wheeled the barrow round the Spitalfields Market for him.” Metin continued, in disbelief at his own past,“He was brought up on a farm in Turkey and he’d pick a box of fruit and he’d want to buy that exact one. It was the same with meat in Smithfield, he’d stick his nose in a box of lamb and smell it, and say ‘I want this one.’”
Our collective moment of delighted reminiscence was dispelled as quickly as it gathered, since Metin had to avoid the traffic warden. When he left with a large order on his shoulder, another gentleman entered who wanted just two large paper carrier bags, which Paul was happy to sell him.
Then I took the opportunity of a brief lull in the passing trade, on that quiet Monday morning, to ask Paul about the wonderful old catalogue of images for overprinting onto bags dating from his father’s era that he had showed me and, unexpectedly, I became party to this brief history of paper bags in Spitalfields.
“While the Fruit & Vegetable Market was here, 95% of our customers were greengrocers. In the days when I first started in 1971 – when I was sixteen or seventeen – I used to get here at quarter to six and until ten o’ clock there’d be a big line of greengrocers outside. They’d come early to the market for the pick of the fruit, though there were also those who came late and bought what was left to sell it cheap next day. Sometimes, they’d even sort the stuff that was being thrown out, and try and sell it on the same day.
They all bought brown paper bags at seven shillings and sixpence per thousand, but the better class of greengrocer bought white craft bags – they were seen as better quality. If you have a printed bag, you need to order a minimum of fifty thousand at a time and most of the customers did not want to lay out that much money, so they just bought them ready-printed with ‘Fresh daily.’ I used to sell printed brown paper carrier bags with a background of tomatoes too, until plastic carriers came in. They were very popular because people could sell them for five pence. Now it’s gone full circle and plastic is vilified – though you can reuse them. My dad died in 1968 and plastic bags came in just before that, in 1967.
There was very little profit in bags then but we had a big turrnover, we sold two hundred thousand bags a week. Yet once the Market went, that was the end of that – I lost 90% of my customers. At one time, there were thirty-five barrows selling fruit & vegetables in Petticoat Lane and now there’s only two. But then the little markets grew up, Columbia Rd, Upmarket, the Antiques Market. The size of individual orders has gone down but the number of my customers has gone up.
Nowadays people buy plain bags and print designs themselves, the old fashioned way, with a rubber stamp. When I first came here there were just brown and white bags, but now we’ve got leopard skin, zebra and tiger stripes, polka dots and stripes - every variety you can imagine.“
These days, Paul is wary to undertake large orders for printed bags, warning me of the risks of making an error and quoting a cautionary tale of a fellow bag seller who once invested in stock to match the distinctive hue of a famous chain store that was his customer, only to discover the shop had changed its colour. Yet, even if no-one orders printed bags today, Paul still treasures his father’s album of sample illustrations for bags from more than half a century ago, cherishing it among all the other mementos that he keeps of previous generations which tell the story of his beloved Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen.
And thus passed another morning at Spitalfields’ one-hundred-and-forty-year-old paper bag shop.
“the better class of greengrocer bought white craft bags – they were seen as better quality”
Stock illustrations for paper bags dating from the era of Paul’s father Roy.
Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen, 149 Commercial St, London E1 6BJ (6:30am – 2:30pm, Monday to Friday)
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