Steve Sorrell, distressed seller

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“I sold a cupboard that someone said looked like a train wreck. But it reflects my outlook. I cannot stand anything poncey. ”

 

On a good day, Spitalfields covered market is one of the great markets of the world; while some of the shops in the area charge premium prices, you often can pick up an industrial lamp, a well-worn display case, or an intriguing rare item of workwear from a stall for a shockingly reasonable amount. Steve Sorrell’s stall is the perfect example; I can’t imagine it anywhere but Spitalfields, and its combination of functionality, good honest wear and a quirky Englishness is instantly recognisable. But get there early, while the morning frost is still in the air; like several local traders, a lot of his stock tends to be snapped up by dealers, who will charge you a premium for shopping in their cosy, centrally heated showroom.

The items you pick have something consistent about them, don’t they? How would you describe it?
I just go for a look… you just get a gut feeling. And when you do Spitalfields, you buy very much for that area. Tastes change, it’s difficult to describe; to be good at this game, and now it is a game, you’ve got to do your homework, keep up with  trends -  it’s all linked up with art, design and everything these days. Antiques used to be antiques, now it’s more about creating a look. Also at Spitalfields you get young people not interested in provenance,  they just want something to look right in their flat. As for me I started out in the early ’80s dealing with art deco, than started getting into 20th Century Design, then  loads people jumped on the bandwagon, so  now I go for something quirky and unusual.

And how do you find your artefacts?
I’ve been doing it for so long I’ve got loads of connections, and mates in the house clearance game, then there’s auctions, several good car boot sales where we live – it’s mainly a question of getting up early in the morning. I’ve never done it full time – I work at the market Thursdays and I go out hunting mainly on Saturday and Sundays.

So many antiques these days are over-restored, as if they’re supposed to be new. But not yours. They’re all attractively… distressed.
You have to buy stuff that you like, to be honest with you. I like stuff that’s well used, well worn, I don’t like stuff that’s ornate or over restored. I sold a cupboard last week, a woman said it looked like it came out of a train wreck, but it’s still had that great used look, which reflects my outlook on life. Basically, I cannot stand anything poncey.

Why the blue scooter?
I’ve got a friend in Hampshire does house clearance and he comes up with the most wonderful things. I’d bought lots of stuff and was leaving his house and he said, This is you. I said great, and I just love it.

What’s your favourite object that’s passed through your hands recently?
I picked up a beautiful old workbench, that had obviously been in someone’s garage or workshop for years and years. It was splattered with paint, there were saw-marks in it, it was something that was obviously used over over again, and it was made by someone who had absolutely no idea of aesthetics whatsoever, it just had a practical use. But because it  was 50 or 60 years old, the way the wood had darkened and it had marked, it looked beautiful. When I took it home I cleaned it up, scrubbed it clean, put loads of wax on it, polished it –  and in the end  it looked like something that had come out of a medieval house, it was absolutely beautiful. I took it to the market and I sold it pretty much within an hour to a guy in the East of London who is a fantastic photographer. He put it in his kitchen. And it was perfect, and it was wonderful that something so simple could be so beautiful.

That story embodies all of this, the issue of finding old objects a new home
A lot of people do this to make lots of money and I’ll never make lots of money out of it… I love to share my enthusiasms with people. It sounds stupid but I’d rather make a small profit and know it’s going to someone that’s going to love it and enjoy it. That’s important to me.

Steve Sorel is at the covered market, Spitalfields, Thursdays. Get there early.


“I was really cross with myself… making hats just helped me get over a hurdle in life.”


After a few weeks soaking up the bustle, the smells and the noise of London’s street markets, Dulwich Vintage Fashion Fair is a culture shock. It’s a restful place: golden light streams through the windows, illuminating the luscious vintage fabrics and clothing, all lovingly displayed around the spacious upper storey of the Crown and Greyhound, a rambling Victorian pub. Jane Fairhead’s stall is one of the busiest, as groups of two or three women fondle the hats, examining the feathers and construction, before trying them on. Hats, it seems, make people smile.

Hats are very happy objects – people seem to crowd round your stall, trying them on together and laughing.
Yes, that’s the nice things about doing the hats, I always get lots of people coming over wanting to try stuff on, there’s always laughter and giggles, it’s really nice. Though it often looks like I’m doing well and selling lots… but it’s just a lot of trying on!

Explain about you and hats and how you get into making them?
It started about 24 years ago. My mother’s best friend is quite a well known milliner, my mum started doing some outwork for her, and started getting sent over all these hats to work on. And I just thought, ‘I’d like to have a go’, and started designing my own. Shortly after that I moved up to Sheffield, there’s a university, a lot of young people and a new age movement there – and I was making these crazy hats that people seemed to like wearing. Later, I gave it up. And then I started again, about two and a half years ago. Because I’d made some plans that had gone wrong in life, had done a teacher training course that went horribly wrong. And I found I wanted to do something creative. I was really cross with myself at that time – and making hats just helped me get over a hurdle in my life.

Where does inspiration for a hat come from?
Just going to the fairs, I see what people like to wear, and I look at the old hats that people are selling. And I’ve just got really attracted to 1940s and 1950s styles. So I’m really using those decades for my inspiration. And I’ve also got some cloche blocks that I’ve had for years, so I make a lot of cloches because people will just buy them, people who aren’t into vintage.

When we photographed you in the summer you were very into feather hats.
That all changed. Now I’m doing a lot of felt hats!

Do you ever think about the fact you’re working in such an ancient, English tradition?
Yes I do, although I have to point out I’m not a properly trained milliner. Historically people wouldn’t go out without a hat on, and there’s still a lot of interest in them. But it’s also a crazy thing to be doing in a recession.

Does it ever get you down?
No! I struggle to survive, but it doesn’t. Actually, that’s a lie, it got me down this summer, I booked into some events that were disastrous, I lost money and I thought, I’ve really got to give this up now, I can’t be losing this much money with something I’m investing so much time in. Then I have a good day and I’m spurred on. I juggle the hats with the [day]job and muddle through that way. And I admit, I do get a lot of pleasure out of it.

You mentioned earlier how some of your new designs have a commercial basis, they’re designed to sell. And market people have this mix, don’t they, of hard-nosed business sense, and irrational exuberance or obsession?
Yes, they do. And I am firmly in the latter group.

Jane Fairhead can often be found at the Dulwich Vintage Fashion Fair, the last Sunday of every month. This winter she will be at the Duckie Christmas Market at the Barbican, December 13,14,15,18, 20, 21, 22, 23 & 28. www.fairheadsheadwear.com

Fang Liu, Mr Confusion

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“My principle is humour. And funny. And cheap.”

 

Just under the bridge at Brick Lane, before Grimsby Street, is a location that’s seen countless changes – warehouses opening, closing, opening again, traders coming, traders going. Change is the one constant for market traders – something that councils don’t always like, for they prefer things to be regular, licensed, and reliable. Anyone who’s visited Brick Lane even occasionally will have seen the texture of the place in constant flux – rough edges and people smoothed away, nice predictable food stalls moving in. But Fang Liu, who runs a wonderful, eccentric pitch under the bridge, is one of the people who makes this location irresistible. No rain or snow can dim his enthusiasm; his love of eccentric items, his appreciation of the people who pass through this place, exemplifies what makes market traders a special, vital breed.

When did you start running a market pitch?
I think last June or July. Firstly we started with the illegal [pitch], and I find customers like my stuff once I started so I keep finding [more] things. Then I met a friend, and we agreed to sell together and to apply for licence. The only reason we got a licence is ‘cos we got lots of items and we can’t run away when the council come, there are too many things to carry way. And also there’s no space in my room to put the stock, and so my girlfriend finally says, Get a licence. And over the last weeks we opened a shop in Camden, too.

You have a very unusual look to your stock, kind of Teletubbies meets the sci-fi Apocalypse, how would you describe it?
Just for fun, that’s what I tell my customers. Some people say, How could you choose these things, who will buy gas masks or a collection like this? And I say it’s just for fun, it reflects my interests. And I’m finding people who share the same interest as me.

How did you actually come to run a pitch in the first place? What were you doing before?
I’m from Beijing, I’ve never done this before I came here around one year and a half ago for studying for a Masters degree… it was in Sept 2008, Design Management for the Fashion Industry. I found it hard to find a job, I used to work for Uniqlo but it is really tough and I don’t like that… and now I started my own business I really enjoy it.

You’re on the busy bit at the bottom of Brick Lane, no shelter for you or your stock, how do you manage when it’s cold and wet?
That’s it… because my things are all second hand and dirty and messy anyway, so I just put them on the floor no matter if it’s raining or snowing, fine. I believe after a few days they will dry and customers will still like them. I’m the only guy who doesn’t cover the stuff when the rain is coming, I just let them go.

You’re out on the street, with a lot of traders close by, is there a lot of cameraderie on this part of Brick Lane?
It’s friendly, yes, the traders close to me, they have become very good friends. On the right hand side is the camera guy, we find stock and often buy things for each other. And we have got nicknames for each other – I call him Technology and he calls me Mr Confusion.

Why do your Teletubbies wear gasmasks?
I don’t know. I just find it randomly. I used to put the gas-masks on some Teletubbies.. the Teletubbies are 50p, so I thought why not put one on.. then a guy [did] buy the whole set, Teletubbies and the gasmasks, it was so funny.

Your style fits your stall, how did it evolve?
Oh, I just like collecting, going around to buy cheap things. In China we don’t have second hand markets, so when I came here it was interesting. I like funny things, interesting things from pop culture, and military stuff – it’s classic, and functional. But I’m not a military seller or trader. My principle is humour. And funny. And cheap.

Do you have to be slightly mad or eccentric to be a market trader?
Exactly. ‘Cos I got more and more stuff, I can’t stop buying things. My girlfriend thinks I’m sick in a way, she always stops me buying things but I still go out of control. But all the things are cheap that I buy.

How has your life changed since you’ve been here?
My girlfriend [first] dragged me to Brick Lane at the beginning. I’d got some things from China, and my girlfriend said, Let’s try to sell some things. I said, “No, I don’t want to.” Because I’m very shy. The first time I went to Brick Lane, I just walk around and never ask the price, I couldn’t bear to talk to anyone. Personally I have [had] a huge change.

So the market has changed your life?
Exactly, it has changed my life. And i have a lot of friends who come back. For example, this guy called Michael, he’s 70 years old and also he [had] a stroke, he can’t hardly speak, he can’t use his right hand. Also he’s living out of London but he’s keeping coming every week for me by train. Sometime I give him something for a present. He’s like my grandpa, listening and talking. He comes and stays here 20 or 30 minutes. I bring something for him, and he brings food for me. Also he shows his pictures from his family and his story. Very lovely. Very lovely, moving stories.

Fang Liu is on Brick Lane, near the Overground line, most Sundays.

 

“It’s great to grow something out of nothing. Except, sometimes, it doesn’t grow out of nothing!”

 

The West end of Columbia Road is the loud one. Back towards Ezra Street, it’s refined, sedate (these things are relative). At Matthew Harnett’s end it’s boisterous, with countless polystyrene trays of plants being handed out, a constant blur of riotous colour. But it’s not all showbiz. Even at the other end, they tell me, the Harnetts’ is one of the key stalls on the street, with one of the highest turnovers, of the best quality local flowers. Matthew has mostly taken over day to day handling of the stall from his dad, FJ; together, they’re a cornerstone of Columbia Road, a market which has more camaraderie and unity, than most. Most markets, of course, exist in a state of friendly enmity with their local council. Columbia Road is a jewel in London’s crown, but that doesn’t give it exemption from bureaucracy, interference, or pressure from issues like parking, both for traders and their customers. In contrast to other markets, though, at Columbia Road they stick together; long may they see off their threats and long, we hope, will Matthew be getting up early in the morning, and falling asleep in his chair at night, and in between, waxing lyrical about autumn plants.

FJ Harnett are always said to be one of the longest-established traders on Columbia Road – for how long you been selling flowers?
When we started it was actually, not my grand-dad, it was my great grand-dad.They started around around the Walthamstow and Leytonstone area. My grand-dad, Frederick Harnett, died about five years ago and he was 91. And he told me he used to work on that stall when he was eight. Although I’ve got nothing to prove it, that would make it nearly 90 years!

And what about you?
I used to go up there when I was a kid, eight or nine. Then I got into booze and girls,so I stopped going from 14 to 20. And then I started again. And I’m 31 now.

How different was it, 20 or so years ago, when you were first here?
It was better, to be honest. ‘Cos anyone who went there, went to buy plants, it was a well known place, that was cheap – and good. Now we get too many tourists who are just there to look.

Looking at your working day… it sounds like a hard life?
It is a hard life, to be honest. Because it’s very tie-ing. If you are dealing with fashion or something like that, and you fancy a week away, you can lock up the van and go. But we can’t do that, ‘cos the plants take a lot of care, and all the stuff is grown by us, in our own nursery.

What’s the good side of it?
It’s great to grow something from nothing. Except sometimes, it doesn’t grow out of nothing! But it can be a really nice job to have, there’s no doubting that. In fact, it’s not a job – it’s a life.

Columbia Road, more than anywhere, reflect the seasons?
My favourite season is the autumn, I don’t like the spring and summer, it’s too much stress,  it’s a lot of hard work. Whereas the autumn is a bit more laid back – and I prefer the plants. I like the cyclamen and the winter flowering pansies, they all complement each so well and because there’s not so many varieties it’s easier. But in the spring there’s so many different varities, it’s a lot more hectic.

Your stall is loud and busy – there’s a kind of show-business aspect to it, wouldn’t you say?
There is in the spring. I don’t enjoy that aspect of it to be honest, that’s the time I find too stressful, it’s a lot of hard work to get those plants to the market before you even start. I don’t get any days off in the spring, either, but in the autumn I might.

So when you get home, Sunday night, what do you do to relax?
We either go out for a meal,  or if it’s in the spring, then I walk in the front door, straight out the backdoor and cut the grass. Then I have dinner, get in a couple cans of Strongbow, relax – and usually fall asleep.

How do you feel about the future of Columbia Road?
We’re fine, as long as we have George Gladwell here, and he puts our thoughts across to the council. George is the backbone of our market, he makes sure it runs smoothly.

So do the council appreciate the market?
I wouldn’t like to answer that, to be honest. I don’t get involved. I work, do my business and come home.

It sounds like a hard life. But, if push comes to shove to you, would you swap it?
I do enjoy it, yeah. The satisfaction is when you walk in the greenhouse, and every thing looks tip top. And I can think to myself: I’ve done a job here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all me, there’s plenty of others work at it, too. But when I look at that greenhouse, I’m happy, yes.

FJ Harnett is at the West end of Columbia Road, on the corner of Ravenscroft Street, every Sunday. Get there early.


Julia Hadden, Major cycle expert

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“People appreciate a well-built machine”

 

As you root around the items on Julia Hadden’s stall, you’re filled with a feeling of bliss, because they’re so beautiful, as well as sadness, a nostalgia for an era that we never knew. Those items document a time when kids would get their mums to pack up sandwiches in greaseproof paper first thing, then they’d disappear for a carefree day making mischief on their bikes, away from the prying eyes of adults. Those items commemorate a time when objects had a certain rightness, solidity and functionality, and were made to last. Like many stalls, Julia’s is a little history lesson, all by itself.

Your stall is named after Major Taylor; who was he?

He was an American cyclist, the first man black man ever to win a World Championship, in 1898. He was the first black man to ever be part of an integrated team and to have commercial sponsorship. He went on to cycle all over the world and got paid huge amounts to do it – but in America, other cyclists would try and knock him off his bike, one competitor tried to choke him on the velodrome, or if he won, they would give the trophy to the white man who came after him. He self-published his own autobiography – and then lost all of his money in the Great Crash of 29. He died a pauper at 53 in a horrible run-down hospital and was buried in an unmarked grave. Finally in the 1950s they exhumed his body and put up a monument to him. He was an amazing man.

How do you track your stock down?

There are such things as cycle jumbles, just for cyclists, and I get some stuff there. I’ve got people who know me and bring me items, and then there’s items from run down shops – because a lot of bicycle shops went out of business and just left their stock in the basement. Car boots and things like that, anywhere and everywhere.

This part of Broadway market is quite new, how long have you been here?

Seven months. It’s taking a little while but it’s finally a stable amount of people. And now people know about it they come out and hang out on the grass and have a nice lunch, it’s much quieter than the main market, calm, with more of a leisurely atmosphere.

Why cycling items and ephemera?
I had an old bike that was my mum’s, an old English Phillips Sit up and Beg. She’d had it years and years, I went it to get it repaired at a shop and they ruined it. Everybody told me, That bike’s so old, you should just throw it out! So I bought a vintage cycling repair book and did my own bike up. Then I looked for pieces to go on it, and the new stuff was really badly made or too expensive, so I started to get vintage stuff. Then people started to ask me where I got these items, and finally I figured, if other people are interested in it, I’m sure there’s a market for it!

Your stall commemorates a part of the English lifestyle, and manufacture, that’s gone, although people like Brooks saddles say they’re bringing it back.

The old Brooks leather saddles were much better made, the leather these days has a certain PVC coating on it. You don’t get that quality any more. The older stuff lasts longer., and it looks nicer too. I get a lot of older men who come to the stall and go, Ooh, I remember this, I remember that item. An era of well-made bikes, a lot of time and care went into building them well, rather than welding them really quickly. And making them as beautiful as possible.

What’s the best thing you’ve found recently when you’ve been rooting around for stock?

It was a Boys’ Own magazine with an article in it, called Cycle Sailing. It shows you how to build a sail for your bicycle, so you can go and sail around. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ve got quite a few friends who want to find a field and build one and try it out as a sport.

So when the pressures of life get too much, you can get on your bike and…

Sail away! Yes!

The Major Taylor stall is at the small courtyard, off Broadway market, Saturdays and Sundays. You can reach Julia on majortaylorstall@gmail.com; twitter @majortaylortalk

“You’re doing your brains in – but that’s life. It’s a market. It’s supply and demand.”

 

There are few places that assault the senses so powerfully, or thrillingly, as Billingsgate market: the shouting, the brutal white fluorescent light that hurts your eyes once you come in out of the dark, the endless white polystyrene boxes of glistening creatures from far-flung oceans – or the shock of being up at five in the morning. Mick Jenrick’s eel store is one of the longest-established corners of the current Billingsgate. We were told he was famously grouchy but perhaps that’s part of his legend; he and his daughter seem like sweethearts, and when we phoned him up at the wrong time for some more questions, waking him from his hard-earned sleep, there was not even one Billingsgate swear-word. He’s proud of his eels, and he should be.

So, the obvious question – how did you get into eels?
We’re going back a long time now, aren’t we? It started fifty years ago –  my dad used to be what was called an empty box boy, sending the empty boxes back to the coast. I followed him into the market and worked for an eel company, and after that broke away and went on my own.

You must have seen huge changes at Billingsgate over 50 years?
Oh yes. Listen, I’m only isolating the eel industry, or the seafood part, but 50 years ago you didn’t have any Chinese takeaways, you didn’t have any Indian restaurants,you didn’t have places selling Cornish pasties, we had the whole market! Everything was geared towards seafood – because the only fast food was jellied eel stalls and seafood stalls. Now there’s a big change in society and now instead of the whole market you’ve got a small percentage. But that’s life, you can’t stop progress.

I get the feeling eels have been getting less popular, but that recently we’ve started valuing traditional English food more. Is there a revival?
It goes in fits and starts. You’ll be selling x amount then every eight or ten years it drops. But then it doesn’t drop again for maybe another eight or ten years. And we’re hoping that it bottoms out. But it’s a challenge, when you think what you can get for the price of a pot full of eels. In these times people are looking to save their pennies, probably you would have had somebody eating eels every week, and now they might eat them every few weeks. And that’s not because of the quality, because the quality is fantastic. Nowadays the product is better than ever, years ago you’d get fresh eels up to November, then have to wait right around to May to get more. Now the farmed eels are absolutely to perfection.

You have a great, positive attitude to these changes.
It’s not positive. It’s common sense! You got to use a bit of common sense – I can’t knock what we do, the only part about it is we are not selling enough to make it as good as it was. Also it’s a double whammy with the farm bills. The majority of the fishermen in every country are fishing wild eels, and then some balloon said they’re an endangered species. Now, the only reason for that is Europe have got a deal with China to export 16 ton of elvers. That 16 ton elvers would produce 160,000 ton of adult eels. If they weren’t going out of Europe there wouldn’t be no shortage. Then there’s the Euro! You’re an importer and you’re doing your brains ‘cos the pound’s so weak. But that’s life. It’s a market. It’s supply and demand.

Who are your main purchasers?
It’s still the little stall outside the pub –  and there’s still quite a good number of them. Then we sell to Birmingham, the fish market, then there’s quite a few people buy the product and sell ‘em on line. I suppose we could get into that but then… you can’t serve your customer and his customer. That’s probably my undoing. Because the market gets more and more like a sweet shop. It’s supposed to be a wholesale market and they wanna turn it into retail, and if they do it will just die a death.

Billingsgate has always been famous for the shouting and the swearing – has that changed since you’ve been there?
No. It’s no different. Probably more louder in my shop than anywhere else!

What’s your favourite product of everything you sell?
Eels, what else? I love them. Stewed, Chinese style – any thing that’s got the eels in, I love.

Your daughter Kate is charming, would you like to see her take over the business and carry it into the future?
Oh really?! I’ll tell her mum you said that! No, she is really wonderful, her and her mum .I try to lose the customers – and they try to keep them.

Mick Jenrick is at Billingsgate Market, Trafalgar Way, London E10, Tuesday-Saturday, 5am-8.30am.

“It will be a constant fight – I think there will be a turnaround where people realise the markets maketh the area.”


In the years we’ve seen Paul Francis around Greenwich, Spitalfields or Dulwich, we’ve never seen him wear  the same outfit twice. His stall is a treasure trove: tweed plus fours, Northampton-made brogues, fine jackets, army officer boots, thick woolen socks, Mackintoshes, Tootal paisley scarves – purposefully so, for often if he has a special item of stock, he’ll hide the gem away, so the customer can experience that joy of discovery that drives us all. His aesthetic is obvious, but hard to define – but his stall is always a joy, an oasis of 1940s England, reinvented for the modern city.

How would you describe your stock?
One of the names I use is Urban Shepherd. That’s it in a nutshell. Countrywear, things made elsewhere, being worn in in London. Some people would call it boring, I call it well-crafted traditional clothing made to be colourful and interesting, with a twist.

How did you get into your Urban Shepherd Look?
The best things that have happened to me have always happened by accident. I’ve bought vintage clothing for a number of years, then spent 12 years in property, at that time always bought new stuff. None of that new stuff lasted, but all the stuff I brought previous to that lasted. In 1996-1997 I designed clothes, first bought vintage stuff and got it remodelled, then from that I did a menswear range called Abdul Jamal, using traditional fabrics, again with a bit of a twist and a bit of color, then bit by bit I got into what I do now, so I’ve been doing stalls for maybe two years.

How do you track down your stock?
The kind of things I find and look out for I’m seeing every day, whether it be charity shops, boot sales, ragyards, and also people bringing me stuff who have an idea what I want, people seem to know my style, and there are people who buy for me, so it’s a combination.

What’s your finest recent discovery?
Just now, I found a jacket in a bunch of stuff at a ragyard. I didn’t even look at it, I felt the weight of it, and I thought… throw it in there. Normally I would try everything on, and I didn’t this time because I knew intrinsically it was something nice. Then discovering it, looking at all the zips and the rest of it, it didn’t have any label but I thought I’ve seen that lining, it looks familiar. And it was a Belstaff, a wonderful jacket, maybe from the 50s.

We’re in Greenwich, where one market has gone and the second one is under threat. How do you see the future of markets in London?
We’re going to have to fight. It will be a constant fight from here on in, and I think there will be a turnaround where people realise the markets maketh the area, as opposed to if we take the market away that’ll improve the area. The market is the lifeblood of the area. All the places people want to live, they’ve all had markets in. It’s crazy how they want to take it away, but I think there’s a fight back. It will turn around but I don’t know when.

Why the shoe horn?
I like things to be able to more than one thing. It’s useful, you can put beautiful, well-made shoes on with it. And it’s a piece of furniture.

Paul Francis is on Camden Passage Wednesdays, Spitalfields Thursday, Greenwich Clock Market, most Saturdays and Sundays, and Dulwich Village Fashion Fair, last Sunday of every month.