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At Gardners’ Bags

October 20, 2021
by the gentle author

The new stockroom

Paper bag seller Paul Gardner is a happy man these days. He has a new shop where he no longer has to pay rent and he is now free of the vile clutches of his greedy landlord in Spitalfields. Although there was widespread regret when Gardners Bags left Commercial St in early 2020, after one hundred and fifty years, it turned out to be perfect timing.

Such is the universal affection with which this family business, stretching over four generations, is cherished in the East End that Paul has kept most of his customers and now earns a profit from his labours rather than working merely to pay the rent.

Regulars will recognise Paul’s old counter, now installed in his new shop in Leyton along with the paraphernalia of previous generations – the block of wood for coins carved by his great-grandfather, the nineteenth century account books, the old photographs, his father’s designs for sales tickets, the wooden sieve, and all the various tributes from his loyal customers.

Wonder of wonders! Paul now has a tidy stockroom, organised by his son Robert in between studying for a PhD in Quantum Physics at Imperial College. In addition, Paul’s new shop is centrally-heated – gone are the days of shivering in sub-zero temperatures – and at the back is a cosy parlour with a sofa where Paul can relax and put his feet up in between customers.

Here Paul & I settled down with a cup of tea and a packet of custard creams while he outlined the changes for me.

“I wanted to reach one hundred and fifty years in our premises in Spitalfields, and we did. But I could not have timed my departure any better – it was unbelievable! I negotiated a deal with my landlord to leave and they let me out of my lease. That worked out very well in my favour and I moved over to this shop on January 6th 2020. It was sad going to hand the keys back and leaving, but no-one knew what was round the corner.

When I arrived here, I did not have any shelves, everything was just piled up, so we began organising. Within about six weeks of me leaving Spitalfields, the pandemic began and my old shop sat empty for a year and a half. Coming over to Leyton was a god-send because I would have gone bankrupt if I had stayed put. My overheads are next to nothing now compared to what they were before and I even received some grants.

Obviously, it has been a terrible time for a lot of my customers but I was permitted to stay open during the lockdown because I sell bags for food. Some of my customer pre-pack food for sale. I get a lot of customers from the New Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market, here in Leyton, mainly Africans who have been the mainstay of my business for the past twenty or thirty years.

Apart from during the lockdown, I have kept about 70% of my customers. The only ones I have lost are the passing trade in Spitalfields but that would not have been there over the last eighteen months during the lockdown anyway. So it’s neither here nor there.

I have gained new customers from the New Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market, not traditional greengrocers but Africans who run food shops as family businesses. So I have done well out of that. Today I had a guy come from Harlow to buy bags from me, I am still picking up new customers.

My son Robert lives upstairs and is helping me now while completing his PhD in Quantum Physics. He sees the people come through the shop and likes the concept of the family business. He has put everything on a computer so we can see if we are actually making any money whereas in the past I was in the dark, yet I used to get by. Because everything’s in my head, I have never done a stocktake in fifty years but now everything’s on a system. While I am going to keep on going as I always have done, Robert has brought us into the twenty-first century.

We have a new logo because it used to be four generations in the family business but now it’s five. So there is no way we will be packing it in any time soon.”

Paul Gardner, paper bag baron & founder of East End Trades Guild

Nineteenth century account books

Design for sales ticket by Paul’s father, Ray Gardner

Wooden block for coins, carved by Paul’s great-grandfather James in 1870

“I wanted to reach one hundred and fifty years in our premises in Spitalfields, and we did”

Paul’s grandfather Bertie with Paul’s father Ray outside the Commercial St shop

Mural on the side of Paul Gardner’s shop in Leytonstone

Photographs copyright © Rachel Ferriman

Gardners’ Bags, 78 Ruckholt Rd, Leyton, E10 5NP

You may like to read my other stories about Paul Gardner

At Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

150 Years in Commercial St

Paul Gardner, Paper Bag Baron

Paul Gardner Goes To Downing St

Paul Gardner Returns to Downing St

Joan Rose at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

James Brown at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Vigil at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Christmas at Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

Packing Up Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen

24 Responses leave one →
  1. Cherub permalink
    October 20, 2021

    I am a huge fan of paper bags and paper carrier bags. Across here in Switzerland it costs 30 Rappen (cents) for a carrier. I save them up because I can put my newspaper recycling out in one every month.

    I also like paper carrier bags because I give clean unwanted clothes each season to the Red Cross ship and they can re-use the bags to give customers their purchases in. I like to give nice illustrated ones I’ve had from art gallery or museum shops, it makes me feel someone is getting something cheerful and free with a second hand purchase.

    There’s something nice about buying a sandwich and eating it from a paper bag. By the way, I live 5 minutes walk from a historic papermill museum where paper is hand made every day and visitors can have a go.

  2. Susan permalink
    October 20, 2021

    I am delighted to hear he is doing so well in his new location, plus – THAT MURAL!!! It is totally cool!!

  3. Georgina Briody permalink
    October 20, 2021

    So glad he moved before and survived the lockdown. A touching story.

  4. October 20, 2021

    Old tradition in new surroundings — there’s something about that. I wish good luck for the next 150 years!

    Love & Peace

  5. John De la Cruz permalink
    October 20, 2021

    Nice update GA.

  6. Hilary Smith permalink
    October 20, 2021

    Lovely to read some good news so pleased everything has worked out well for you ?

  7. October 20, 2021

    So pleased to know that Paul is continuing with the family business and still attracting new customers despite the pandemic and it’s lockdowns.
    Wishing Paul all the very best for the future in Leyton and wishing his son all the very best with his studies. Well done both of you!

  8. October 20, 2021

    Those of us that visited Paul both in his old place and now in the new premises will have found he still seems to be surrounded by semi chaos but has that wonderful knack of actually knowing exactly where he can find the item you have asked him to get for you.
    Lets hope he and his unique business continues to survive the problems of trading in today’s straitened times.

  9. Su Mason permalink
    October 20, 2021

    I went in to buy my bags a couple of weeks ago. It was so lovely to see Paul. The shop is very close to where I stay with my daughter when doing Portobello Market. Perfect for me. Much easier than Spitalfields!

  10. October 20, 2021

    This is such lovely news. Really happy that things have worked out so well and here’s to the next 150 years!

  11. Annie permalink
    October 20, 2021

    That’s great – so glad things have turned out well for him, long may he continue.
    I love the mural on the wall outside!

  12. October 20, 2021

    Great to see these pictures of Paul (I’m the old git that played the harmonica at his farewell party!) I seem to recall that I visited his new location, more than twenty years ago, when he’d run out of a stock item and he sent me to what was then his sister’s shop. Am I correct? Anyway, Paul, wonderful to see your smiling face again. Keep well and God bless. Reg

  13. October 20, 2021

    Hello Paul. It’s Peta. I hope to visit you and your new shop when I can. A good optimistic story to read today. My best wishes Peta

  14. Sharon permalink
    October 20, 2021

    So pleased to read that it’s all turned out so well for Paul, here’s to a bright future.
    I love the mural – and his T shirt!!

  15. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    October 20, 2021

    What good news!

    I love the new logo. Elegant and upbeat!

    All the best,

  16. Stanley Rondeau permalink
    October 20, 2021

    Well done Paul I miss our chats we used to have on Tues .
    Sounds like your O K now, keep going.

  17. October 20, 2021

    This makes me so, so happy.

  18. October 20, 2021

    wonderful – and now plastic has had its day a golden future ahead….

  19. Linda Granfield permalink
    October 20, 2021

    Reading this wonderful story–a great start to my day!
    Paul Gardner looks younger now that the Commercial Street worries are behind him. And his smile!
    Terrific video, stylish new logo, amazing Robert (good luck with the Ph.D.), and lots of promise for continued success.
    I’d like a cotton tote-bag with that new logo, please. Perfect for shopping.

  20. Gayle permalink
    October 20, 2021

    That mural is just beautiful, very touching.

  21. October 21, 2021

    So pleased that Paul’s business is thriving.

  22. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 22, 2021

    So pleased that things have worked out so well for Paul and his family business.

    I had a chat with his son Robert at one of the Brick Lane protests so I knew that things had turned out well, and what good timing their move had proved to be.

    But he didn’t tell me about the mural on the new shop which looks brilliant! (Very classy new logo too…)

    Good luck for the future.

  23. October 22, 2021

    Absolutely heartwarming; and just love that mural!

  24. Audrey Kneller (nee Buffman) permalink
    October 26, 2021

    Such a heartwarming story. It really made my day. Well done to Paul Gardner and his son Robert for organising the new premises and I wish them all the luck in the world for the future.

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