Christmas At Gardners Market Sundriesmen
Paul Gardner takes last-minute Christmas orders for paper bags
The grey streets were empty with the first drops of rain falling yesterday, as I made my way to visit my friend Paul Gardner, the paper bag baron and fourth generation proprietor of the Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen, the oldest family business in Spitalfields. Yet the lights were gleaming brightly at his shop in Commercial St upon all the colourful bags, stacked in such appealing disarray as if a shipload of paper bags had been wrecked and washed up here upon the tide.
“Stephen’s been here helping me, as it’s been mental,” admitted Paul with a significant cheery gesture towards the mysterious darkness at the rear of the shop where his son – recently returned from Latin America – was now taking on the formidable challenge of organising Paul’s stock room. “People do wonder how I find anything and it doesn’t normally matter, but packets were falling on Stephen’s head,” Paul confessed to me with an explanatory grimace, “Now, if I say ‘twisted handle brown paper carrier bags’ he knows where they are.”
And thus it is that for the first time in a generation, the use of the plural on the shop sign, “Gardners Market Sundriesmen” has its literal meaning once more.
Meanwhile, as passersby struggled up Commercial St with their feeble umbrellas turning inside-out in the accumulating gale-force winds, inside Paul’s shop, the Christmas storm appeared to have already passed through. “I could possibly take the day off on Christmas Eve,” he deliberated idly, egged on by his son,“but I promised to deliver to the Beigel Bakery and I’ll be up at five-thirty anyway…”
Paul’s dilemma was left unresolved because Stanley, a fellow Market Sundriesman and long-standing customer who trades in paper bags from the back of a van, popped by to pick up stock and dispense greetings. “It’s changed a lot round here in thirty-two years, it’s a different life !” he declared in disbelief, shaking Paul’s hand forcibly with an excess of season goodwill, “Not that he has changed, just got more curly.”
Upon his swift departure, a girl with waist-length red hair stumbled in from the storm, her bleary eyes widening in amazement at the spectacle. “Hello!” she announced in delight, “I’ve not been here before – it’s fantastic!” Paul proposed candy-striped bags, as the most suitable for the chocolates she was making as gifts. “Red and green are very popular at this time of year,” he ventured tentatively as she made a reckoning of the contents of the coins in her purse. “I only need about ten,” she revealed apologetically. “That’ll be fifty pence for ten,” Paul answered, causing her to break into a big smile. “I’ll take another five,” she decided recklessly.
The downpour had begun and an exhausted shopkeeper in a wet coat was next through the door. “F*ck Christmas! It’s so stressful,” he pleaded wearily, “I never get a chance to enjoy it, so I’m taking three days off including Friday – that’s not a luxury is it? I’ve had such a crappy year.” Paul, Stephen and me, we all nodded sagely in confirmation of his wise decision, and – resolved – he took his bags and left quickly.
Yet Paul was still uncertain regarding the big question of Christmas Eve opening.“I’ve stayed here before on Christmas Eve and taken a fiver and got fed up and gone home,” he recalled, thinking out loud for the benefit of Stephen and me, until we were interrupted again. “I’ve got to leave at once!” gasped the visitor, gesturing to his vehicle parked on the red route outside,“I’ve got all the cameras watching me with the compliments of the season.” Next came a man in an ankle-length military coat who wanted butcher’s hooks and then a fashionably-dressed woman who needed three hundred popcorn bags, “for the Secret Cinema at the Troxy.”
“My mum sounded fed up on the phone,” Paul confided to me during a lull in the morning,“So Stephen, Robert and me, we’re going to get up at dawn on Christmas Morning and drive down to her house at Frinton. Then we’re going to call her and tell her to get up because Father Christmas is outside, and Robert’s going to play his trombone!” Father and son exchanged a mischievous smile of complicity in anticipation of the imminent festival.
“All these bloody Christmas shoppers!” the manager of a local shoe shop exclaimed in near-hysteria – breaking our reverie as he barged through the door – dripping with rain and glowing in frustration,“The General Public turned into savages yesterday. Everyone’s buying double of everything – I only wish the coppers were going into my pocket.” Then he staggered off with an armful of carrier bags that seemed to placate his emotion. And there were no more customers and a silence fell upon the shop as the trade ebbed away.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” said Paul, when the time came to close up and depart into the raging storm outside, “It’s always hit and miss at Christmas.”
“I’ll come in early in the morning tomorrow and see what happens,” he decided, heartened by the day’s custom and discovering resolution all-of-a-sudden, “I’ve got two days holiday after that and then the weekend, so it’s not too bad.”
Paul’s son Stephen has just returned from travelling through Latin America
Paul & Stephen, fourth and fifth generation Market Sundriesmen
Paul mans the counter at the front …
… while Stephen organises the stock at the rear
Stephen takes a turn behind the counter - “Are you his son? You look like him?”
Stanley, a customer of thirty-two years standing, pops by to deliver a Christmas greeting – “It’s changed a lot round here in thirty-two years, it’s a different life! Not that he has changed, just got more curly.”
Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen, 149 Commercial St, E1 6BJ (open from 6:30am on Christmas Eve)
You may like to read my other stories about Paul Gardner