Spitalfields’ traditions in danger

Paul Gardner has been working in his paper bag shop since he was 16 years old. The shop was opened by his great-grandfather in 1870.

Paul Gardner has been working in his paper bag shop since he was 16 years old. The shop was opened by his great-grandfather in 1870.

An old fashioned paper bag shop is a symbol of dying traditions in London’s East End – but this paper bag won’t be left out in the rain.

The little shop is packed with stuff from floor to ceiling. Boxes are piled everywhere, price tags and posters, paper bags in all colours and shapes cover the walls. In fact, the room looks more like a storeroom than a shop. Behind the counter stands a man with grey, slightly curly hair wearing a comfortable blue t-shirt. The man is Paul Gardner, owner of the paper bag shop Gardners‘ in Spitalfields, London. This place is a second home to Gardner as he was born just around the corner and practically grew up in the shop. It was Gardner’s great-grandfather, James, who opened the store in 1870, which makes the little shop the oldest family business is Spitalfields.

“My dad died young and my mother was forced to work in the shop to support my siblings and me,” says Gardner. “When I turned 16 I took over. I have been working a lot over the years and have not had many holidays. But I have never regretted it. The traders at the market and in the neighbourhood need my paper bags for putting their products in. This is why they keep coming back.”

Spitalields is located in the East End of London. The area is often described as vibrant and multicultural, and correctly so. The streets are filled with girls in trendy oversized jeans jackets, businessmen in dark suits and tourists with their cameras ready. In a corner a homeless man is begging for some coins while traffic buzzes around him unceasingly. Stalls where Chinese, Bangladeshi and Thai food is cooked before your eyes can be found everywhere, the smell of garlic and teriyaki lingers over the neighbourhood. This area has changed a lot since Gardner took over the shop. “I have seen people come and go during these years,” he says. “This used to be a very poor area, call it shabby if you want to. Now it is trendy and a place where all the hip people want to live.”

But the change in the neighbourhood has had negative effects as well. “This area used to be famous for the small independent shops but there is a big problem right now because a lot of small businesses and traders have had to move since the rents are going up and they go bankrupt,” says Gardner. “That is a shame. Now Spitalfields is turning into the rest of London.”

Kicking out the independent

The rents are increasing rapidly and relentlessly. And it’s happening fast. “I know about three shops that have had to shut down just this month,” says Gardner. “I have had a hard time as well, but luckily I have been able to survive so far.”

Last year Gardner’s landlord tried to increase the rent by 20%. When he went to the media in protest the landlord backed down. “I can understand that the rents are getting higher because the city is moving this way,” says Gardner. “But the way they treat people is unacceptable. Right now they want to raise the rent for one trader not far from here. He pays £27 000 a year and now they want £90 000. That is ridiculous.”

By “they” Gardner is referring to the investment and development company Ballymore, which owns a great deal of real estate in the neighbourhood. Ballymore is originally from Dublin but has offices all over Europe. On their website they describe themselves as one of the top developers in London and claim their developments enrich people’s lives. “Before, Ballymore said that they wanted to support smaller businesses and now they are doing the completely opposite,” says Gardner. “They are kicking out the independent sellers and taking in the chains. Nowadays I have Urban Outfitters and Tesco on the other side of the street.”

For Paul Gardner it is very important to work for the small independent shops in Spitalfields. He thinks they are the one giving the spark and charisma to the area.

For Paul Gardner it is very important to work for the small independent shops in Spitalfields. He thinks they are the one giving the spark and charisma to the area.

Just around the corner from Gardner’s shop another independent businessman is struggling to survive. Les Bobrow is the owner of the party shop Wood’n’Things which opened in 2004. He sells costumes, toys and other party accessories. A couple of months ago he got the news that Ballymore would not renew his lease. “I was shocked because first I thought that it had to do with the rent,” says Bobrow. “But even though I said that I can pay a higher rent Ballymore refused to renew my lease. I am one of a kind and they don’t want that, their main interest are the chains.”

But in the middle of the closing down sale another offer came that changed the situation. “Suddenly they gave me a new lease, just like that. No explanation, no apologies.”

What made Ballymore change their minds is unclear, but one reason could be the East End Traders Guild, established by Krissie Nicolson in late 2012. The East End Traders Guild is a union working for the small independent traders of East End London. “I felt that by bringing traders together to act collectively on the issues that concern them would be a more effective way to create the change they want to see. That’s why I founded this union,” says Nicolson.

Over 200 traders are already involved in the trader’s guild, and they are working hard to keep independent businesses open in the East End and Spitalfields. Even though the guild is relatively new Nicolson already sees a breakthrough. “The members are forming relationships that did not exist before the guild and they are working together in solidarity with each other in a different way now,” she says. “The reactions from the traders have been very positive but we are still working on relationships with the landlords such as Ballymore. I think they are quite nervous about us.”

Rubbish for tourists

Just outside Bobrow’s shop the Old Spitalfields Market takes place seven days a week. The market has a history that goes back to the 17th century and nowadays customers can find everything from antiques to fashion and food. On Sundays, the busiest day of the week, it’s crowded between the stalls. A woman tries to convince two ladies that they won’t find cheaper handmade jewellery anywhere else in London and a man calling himself “the hat man” is arranging his hundreds of hats for both ladies and gentlemen. A young lady gently fondles a dress hanging under the sign ‘everything £10.’

Customers can find anything from antiques to fashion and food at the Old Spitalfields Market.

Customers can find anything from antiques to fashion and food at the Old Spitalfields Market.

The market has played a major role in the development of the area and on the surface it may look as if this is a flourishing market. But they have not succeeded in staying out of economic trouble. “The market has changed massively during my time here. Ten years ago artists and other creative people came here, even celebrities like Madonna. Now it is mainly for tourists. It is not the same vibe that it used to be,” says Louie Eden Brown, who has been selling posters and printings here for the last 20 years. “When I started the rent was £10 per day, now I pay £85.”

Louie Eden Brown has been a trader at the Old Spitalfields Market for 20 years. When he first started his business the rent was £10, now he pays £85.

Louie Eden Brown has been a trader at the Old Spitalfields Market for 20 years. When he first started his business the rent was £10, now he pays £85.

Scarf-seller Shama has only been trading at the market for one year but she has already noticed a difference. “The rent has gone up 30% and there are many more people selling rubbish stuff here now,” she says. “This is a very negative trend. The independent businesses are disappearing and that is also visible in how much we sell. The customers prefer the unique before the mass-produced.”

Uniqueness is what has enabled Gardner’s shop to survive tough times over the years. “My small shop along with the other independent businesses gives a charisma and spark to the area. We don’t want to loose this spark,” he says. “My customers keep on coming back because I am more of a friend to them. Money isn’t everything to me, as long as I can make it, I am happy. I had a customer this morning that hadn’t been in here for 20 years and he was surprised to still see me here. I told him to come back in 20 years again to check in on me. I will carry on as long as I can.”

* Ballymore has not responded to CulTour’s request for an interview.

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