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Vigil at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

January 1, 2013
by the gentle author

“The in-between days are always quiet but I can’t seem to keep from the shop…”

Yesterday, I ventured from the house into the wet streets for the first time since Christmas Eve and, even at ten in the morning, the pavements were empty with many shops closed and few customers in those that were open. Yet I knew that Paul Gardner, the lone paper bag seller, would reliably be discovered sitting behind the counter at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen at this time of year, opening for business at six-thirty as usual while the rest of the world slept.

As the fourth generation in Spitalfields’ oldest family business, Paul cannot keep away from his shop which has operated from the Peabody Building in Commercial St since his great-grandfather James Gardner, the Scalemaker, opened up as one of the first tenants in 1870. Once upon a time, James peered through his window to the Royal Cambridge Theatre opposite – a vast music hall with a capacity of three thousand which filled the entire block, and where some claim Charles Chaplin made his stage debut – replaced in the nineteen thirties by Godfrey & Phillips Cigarette factory that stands today in the same location.

Through all these years, a Mr Gardner has sustained a routine of shop-keeping that, over more than a century has surpassed all others in the neighbourhood for its longevity. Thus, Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen has become the place where time has been measured out in scales and parcelled out in paper bags in Spitalfields.

At this season, when the clocks wind down before the momentum regains its pace in the New Year, Paul waits behind his counter in the empty shop, maintaining a conscientious vigil by choosing to be present lest a customer should come along. A seasoned professional at waiting, Paul sits ever-hopeful of custom and, in the normal run of things, his expectation is always fulfilled. Yet, at this time of year, he accepts that the vigil maybe without result, and so I went along to keep him company in the shop for the last hours of business at the end of the hundred and forty-second year of Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen.

“The in-between days are always quiet but I can’t seem to keep from the shop,” he admitted to me, “This week, it’s been a labour of love though, because I must confess I don’t like waiting. But then, it’s nice to come in and have a relaxed time. Last week, I didn’t even have a moment to write up my diary each morning.”

“I got up at four forty-five and left home to come here at five-thirty today.” he continued with a yawn, “I was delivering bags to the Beigel Bakery in Brick Lane at six-fifteen, they were pleased to see me but I suppose I’ve only had four or five customers since then.”

Until I arrived, Paul had spent the morning studying his copy of Classic Rock magazine with one eye upon his Ford Fiesta parked directly across the road. Whereas in the week before Christmas, there had been a line of people preventing me getting in the door, now I was able to settle down upon a pile of paperbags to pass the time quietly with Paul while we awaited the sole customer he was expecting – someone from the gift shop at the Tower of London was coming to collect an order of paper bags.

The novelty of the season was a pile of shapeless pieces of knitwear in assorted random colours beside the counter which provided us with a source of innocent amusement. “My mother broke her wrist and decided she was going to make herself useful by knitting coats for dogs,” Paul explained, flourishing one proudly, “All the dogs in Frinton already have them.”

“Thursday was a complete waste of time,” he announced in good-humoured frustration, returning to the theme of the moment as the silence of the season gathered around us again and we were brought back to waiting, “I don’t mind coming to work but I think I took ten pounds, I should have taken an extra day off. For once, I closed early and then this guy rang up to ask where I was!”

The telephone rang, shattering the calm of the empty shop. Could it be a customer on the hot-line demanding a vast bulk order of paper bags? “Bishopsgate 518” answered Paul expectantly, his constant mantra on lifting the phone, as the call was revealed to be Mr Sammy from the Beigel Bakery ringing to send his New Year Greetings. And then a skinny young Portuguese man with barely a word of English arrived with a trolley from the Tower of London giftshop. We stacked it up with the blue candy-striped bags that suit souvenirs from the Tower of London, and the Portuguese fellow found the language to explain that he was a Tottenham supporter before he wheeled off his barrow of bags through the falling rain.

It was past two now and with the last packet of bags despatched to the Tower, the working day ended at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen. We had overseen the passage of time. We shook hands, exchanging New Year Greetings and I left Paul to lock up and close the door on Spitalfields for another year. “I’m going to go to bed for an hour when I get home,” he informed me, suddenly energised with a gleam of mischeivous anticipation in his eye, “We’ve got some members of the Havering Youth Orchestra coming round. My son Robert plays the euphonium in it. And I’m going to be crashing the pots and pans at midnight, because I’m the leader of the pack.”

“Even at ten in the morning, the pavements were empty with many shops closed…”

“I ventured from the house into the wet streets for the first time since Christmas Eve…”

“All the dogs in Frinton have them already…” A new line for 2013 at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen, dog coats knitted by Paul Gardner’s mother.

Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen reopens at 6:30am on 2nd January 2013, 149 Commercial St, London E1 6BJ (6:30am – 2:30pm, Monday to Friday)

You may also like to read about

Paul Gardner, Paper Bag Seller

Paul Gardner’s Collection

At Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Joan Rose at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

James Brown at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Chris F permalink
    January 1, 2013

    I’d love to have a rummage around in that shop. I bet there are some vintage gems hidden away. Happy New Year to you and all of your ‘New family’ of followers. Looking forward to your 2013 offerings.

  2. Ros permalink
    January 1, 2013

    What a marvellous post to start the new year with. Happy New Year gentle author, Happy New Year gentle author!

  3. Susan permalink
    January 1, 2013

    Happy New Year to all the inhabitants of Spitalfields, especially you, Gentle Author.


  4. Gary permalink
    January 1, 2013

    I know how Paul feels. I opened my shop yesterday (31st) and sat playing Solitair on the computer from 9.00a.m. to 5.30p.m. I had one customer who spent £3.70.
    But at least my one customer got her stapler and staples.
    A Happy New Year to you all
    Gary Arber

  5. sprite permalink
    January 1, 2013

    no waste of time
    amidst the paper bags
    waiting with a friend


  6. January 4, 2013

    That was utterly delightful. What an honorable man!

  7. Joyce Fenton-Douglas permalink
    January 10, 2013

    Yesterday our chihuahua George became the proud owner of one of these terrific dog coats . . . yellow and green stripes, he’s now running around looking like a little bumble bee . . . thanks’s to Paul’s mum’s knitting skills!

  8. Ron Bunting permalink
    May 10, 2018

    Dog coats… I think George the Chihuahua would have looked like a large bumble bee . 🙂

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