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At Spitalfields Oldest Family Business

June 16, 2015
by the gentle author

Five years ago, I first wrote about Paul Gardner of Gardners Market Sundriesmen when he was being confronted with unrealistic rent increases which threatened to close his shop down, yet thanks to the widespread support shown by the community at that time Paul was able to face off the landlord’s agent. But now Paul Gardner’s rent is up for negotiation again and we all need to stand behind him, if we are not to lose Spitalfields oldest family business.

Paul Gardner, Paper Bag Baron of Spitalfields

I always delight to drop into the premises of my friend Paul Gardner – the paper bag seller of Gardners Market Sundriesman, 149 Commercial St – to observe the constant parade of long-standing customers who pass through, creating the life of this distinctive business. It was early one morning, when I called round at six-thirty – opening time – to enjoy a quiet chat before the rush, that Paul explained to me his great-grandfather James Gardner began trading here in this building as a Scalemaker when it was built in 1870 – which means Paul is a fourth generation Market Sundriesman and makes Gardners the longest established family business in Spitalfields.

Paul still has his great-grandfather’s accounts from the end of the nineteenth century, when as Scalemakers they serviced the scales for all the traders in the fruit and vegetable market on a regular basis. Turning the pages and scanning the lines of James’ fine copperplate handwriting your eye alights upon the names, Isaac, Isaiah and Ezekiel, indicative of the Jewish population that once defined the identity of Spitalfields. There is an ancient block of wood with three scoops carved out that are smoothed with wear, it has been in use since the days of Paul’s great-grandfather. Then his son Bertie (Paul’s grandfather) used it, then Bertie’s son Roy (Paul’s father) used it and Paul still keeps his cash in it today. As the twentieth century wore on, each of the successive Mr Gardners found that customers began to expect to buy their produce in a paper bag (a trend which is now reversed) and so the trade of dealing in bags supplanted the supply of scales entirely over four generations.

Turn your back on the traffic rattling down Commercial St and stand for a moment to contemplate the dignified Brunswick green frontage of Gardners Market Sundriesman. An old glass signs reads “Paper & Polythene Bag Merchant” and, sure enough, a variety of different coloured bags are festooned on strings like bunting, below them are some scales hinting at the origins of the business and then your attention is distracted by a mysterious wooden sieve, a memento of Paul’s grandfather. Enter the shop to be confronted by piles of bags of every variety in packets stacked up on either side and leaving barely any room to stand. Only two routes are possible, straight ahead leading into the dark recesses where the stacks grow taller and closer together in the gloom or turn right to the makeshift counter, improvised from an old counter-top supported upon yet more packets of bags. Beneath the fluorescent glow, the dust of ages is settling upon everything. You think you have entered a storeroom, but you are wrong because you neglected to notice Paul sitting at the counter in a cosy corner, partly concealed by a stack of bags. You turn to greet him and a vista appears with a colourful display of bags and tags and tapes and those old green-grocers’ signs that say “Today’s price 2/8” and “Morning Gathered” – which creates a pleasant backdrop to the figure of Paul Gardner as he stands to greet you with a genial “Hello!”

With his wavy grey locks, gentle face, sociable manner and innate decency,  Paul could have stepped from another age and it is a joy to meet someone who has successfully resisted the relentless imperative to haste and efficiency at any cost, that tyrannises our age and threatens to enslave us all. When you enter the shop, you enter Paul’s world and you discover it is a better place than the one outside.

Paul was thirteen when his father Roy died unexpectedly in 1968, creating a brief inter-regnum when his mother took over for four years until he came of age. “I came here the first day after I left school at seventeen,” said Paul, “It was what I wanted to do. After the first year, my mother stopped coming, though my nan used to live above the shop then. I haven’t had a day off since 1972. I don’t make much money, I will never become a millionaire. To be honest, I try to sell things as cheap as I can while others try to sell them as expensive as they can. I do it because I have done it all my life. I do it because it is like a family heirloom.”

Paul Gardner’s customers are the stallholders and small businessmen and women of East London, many of whom have been coming for more than twenty years, especially loyal are the Ghanaian and Nigerian people who prefer to trade with a family business. Paul will sell small numbers of bags while other suppliers only deal in bulk, and he offers the same price per bag for ten as for a hundred. Even then, most of his customers expect to negotiate the price down, unable to resist their innate natures as traders. Paul explained to me that some have such small turnovers they can only afford to buy ten carrier bags at a time.

In his endeavours, Paul supports and nurtures an enormous network of tiny businesses that are a key part of the economy of our city. Many have grown and come back with bigger and bigger orders, selling their products to supermarkets, while others simply sustain themselves, like the Nigerian woman who has a stall in Brixton market and has been coming regularly on the bus for twenty-three years to buy her paper bags here. “I try to do favours for people,” says Paul and, in spontaneous confirmation of this, a customer rings with the joyous news that they have finally scraped enough money together to pay their account for the last seven years. Sharing in the moment of triumph, Paul laughs down the phone, “What happened, did you win the lottery or something?”

Paul has the greatest respect for his customers and they hold him in affection too. In fact, Paul’s approach could serve as a model if we wish to move forward from the ugliness of the current business ethos. Paul only wants to make enough to live and builds mutually supportive relationships with his customers over the longterm based upon trust. His is a more equitable version of capitalism tempered by mutual respect, anchored in a belief in the essential goodness rather than the essential greediness of people. As a fourth generation trader, Paul has no business plan, he is guided by his beliefs about people and how he wants to live in the world. His integrity and self-respect are his most precious possessions.“I have never advertised,” says Paul, “All my customers come because they have been recommended by friends who are already my customers.”

However, after Gardners survived two World Wars and the closure of the market, there is now a new threat in the form of rent increases demanded by greedy agents on commission, who can easily exploit the situation when chain stores eager to have a presence in the neighbourhood can pay high rents which they do not need to match with turnover. “I earn two hundred and fifty pounds a week,” reveals Paul with frank humility, “If I earned five hundred pounds a week, I could give an extra two hundred and fifty towards the rent but at two hundred and fifty pounds a week, the cupboard is bare.”

Ruminating upon the problem,“They’ve dollied-up the place round here!” says Paul quietly, in an eloquently caustic verdict upon this current situation in which his venerable family business finds itself now, after a hundred and forty years, in a fashionable shopping district with a landlord seeking to maximize profits. Paul needs to renegotiate his lease in a way that does not leave him solely working to pay the rent and we must support Paul by sending more business his way, because Paul is a Spitalfields legend we cannot lose. But more important than the history itself, is the political philosophy that has evolved over four generations of experience. It is the sum of what has been learnt. In all his many transactions, Paul unselfconsciously espouses a practical step-by-step approach towards a more sustainable mode of society. Who would have expected that the oldest traders in Spitalfields might also turn out to be the model of an ethical business pointing the way to the future?

Paul’s grandfather Bertie Gardner, standing with Paul’s father Roy Gardner as child outside the shop around 1930

Roy Gardner, now a grown man, standing outside the shop after World War II, around 1947

Gardners Market Sundriesmen, 149, Commercial St, Spitalfields, E1

You may also like to read about

At Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Paul Gardner, Paper Bag Baron

Roy Gardner’s Sales Tickets

Paul Gardner’s Collection

Joan Rose at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

James Brown at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Vigil at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Christmas at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

16 Responses leave one →
  1. June 16, 2015

    I very much hope that he will be able to keep his shop, and then it will not be lost to the greed of the investors. Valerie

  2. Susan permalink
    June 16, 2015

    Reading this lovely piece caused me to read more about Mr. Gardner. The Christmas profile was particularly wonderful – plus it had all those photos of his fabulous chaos (which is right up my alley – too bad I live in Canada…*sigh*). Thank you for these heartfelt reflections. I do hope he is able to find a way to carry on.

  3. June 16, 2015

    Great story and I love his signs with the names of apple varieties that I remember from visits with my mother to the greengrocers of my Tottenham childhood in the 1950s. It’s some years since I’ve eaten a Dunn’s Seedling – have never seen them on offer. Seem to remember they were a sharp tasting apple, not so much like a Granny Smith. Today’s fruit and veg stalls make do with less eloquent handwritten signs on old bits of cardboard in felt tip, with their “avo’s” and “cu’s” and “corjet’s”!

  4. Bob D permalink
    June 16, 2015

    I use plastic bags from Gardner’s to try to thwart the attempted takeover of East Finchley by clothes moths. You don’t have to be a market trader to put a bit of business Paul’s way.

  5. June 16, 2015

    I live in Somerset but stay in the Spitalfields area once or twice a year. I buy paper bags at a local ‘cash and carry’ but will ensure I buy a stack from Gardner’s next time I am in the area. What a wonderful man.

  6. June 16, 2015

    If we all spent a few quid each week at small businesses instead of buying from Supermarkets or on-line, our communities will be better off. Luckily I have to be in Rotherhithe next Friday, and the local paper bag man closed down, so it won’t be too difficult a stretch to come along and buy my years supply of paper bags, even though it sounds like a 500 mile round trip from Oldham!

  7. Denise Bryant permalink
    June 16, 2015

    This closure of yet another independent business should not be seen as inevitable .
    To stop this ever encroaching grab for money by landlords eager to grow rich by doing
    absolutely nothing to maintain and enhance the culture of this part of the world …
    Some advice ; become active and make this a serious issue . For it is .
    Use ‘social media ‘ and spread the word by Facebook and twitter , make posters and
    signs explaining the urgency if this matter brought on by the venal landlords
    mushrooming worldwide . Paul Gardner has the paper to publicise his plight so form a committee of interested locals and cover the area with painted signs clearly describing
    this issue . Nail them to every vertical surface . Email the Council and the local Member of Parliament without cease .
    Don’t give in .
    Protest and protect .
    Once gone …
    There is a special place in hell reserved for landlords in Dante’s ‘Inferno ‘.
    And …
    ‘ Once there were islands all a-sprout with palms ;
    and coral reefs and sands as white as milk .
    What is there now but a vast shambles of the heart ?
    Filth , squalor and a world of little men .’

  8. June 16, 2015

    I love reading these stories, and I do hope he gets to keep his shop. Sending good vibes from the colonies! ♥

  9. Pauline Taylor permalink
    June 16, 2015

    Having had to fight to relocate our business due to new greedy landlords I truly sympathise with Paul. We were really fortunate to find fantastic new premises but I hope that Paul will be able to stay where he is and where he is happy. Good luck Paul!!


  10. redandblackmanthinks permalink
    June 16, 2015

    Paul looks like his grandad does n`t he? Lovely story.

  11. June 16, 2015

    Sounds like a good response to your blog on Paul’s 60th birthday. I really enjoy going at 0630 to buy my paper bags and have a chat/catch up with PAUL GARDNER. Let’s all support small businesses with tradition behind them. Su Mason Dealer in Old Clothes.

  12. Charly Fowler permalink
    June 17, 2015

    If I didn’t live so far away in the US, I would surely be a good customer! Will say a prayer that things go his way!

  13. June 19, 2015

    Paul a lovely bloke. Tradition is possibly London’s greatest asset and is being sold off by idiot zombie estate agents. . Taylors Yard off Brick Lane also threatend by same greedy scumbags. Don’t let this sh*t happen!

  14. February 14, 2016

    I’ve used Gardner’s for over twenty years (on and off.) Always amazed how Paul manages to locate a special size of bag in the ‘chaos.’ I understand he plays mean blues guitar. I’ve always got a blues harp in my pocket and play him a ‘riff’ when I visit. Hope, one day, we can ‘jam’ together! God bless you, Paul.

  15. Deb permalink
    February 15, 2016

    Are the price signs for sale? Seriously, I would LOVE to buy some.
    Loved the story – best wishes from across the pond in Canada.
    If I was closer I would Be a regular customer.

  16. Leila, Cumber permalink
    March 11, 2018

    My paternal grandfather, Leib Nathan, I believe that his first name was Leib, had a wholesale fruit and green grocery business in Spitalfields. Probably around the 1890’s. He and his wife, my paternal grandmother, lived in Stepney Green where all their children were born and brought up.
    .My father, Jack Nathan, was a jeweller and diamond merchant in Hatton Garden from around 1918 to the 1960’s.

    The histories you write are always so fascinating and interesting

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