“A lot of old people are missing. I’m wondering what’s happened with them.”

 

Halfway down Cheshire Street is a perfect little alley, leading to a walkway over the railtracks. For a long time it hosted a perfect little stall. It’s hard to say what was so good about Albert’s hoard: the old cameras, musical instruments, records, bits of hi fi, random toys, old Super 8 glamour films, hats, pictures, random objects. But there is a certain rightness to it. Now, sadly, Cheshire Street is dying; but Albert’s stall, now round the corner just off Sclater Street, is still, in its glorious randomness, quite perfect.

How did you come to run a stall here?
Probably, it’s from my childhood in my town  – Novi Sad, in Yugoslavia. There was a big flea market and we used to go, dress ourselves with all the 1940s, 30s clothes – it was a fashion. And my mother would sometimes discover there  was something missing from her display cabinet, like a figurine. Yugoslavia was something between the West and the East, it was nice to live in, a free country.

You were on Cheshire Street for a long time – when did you start, and how were those early days?
I started on Bethnal Green Road, a fly pitch, me and my friend, probably when I came here in ’87. The old Brick Lane was a really big market, all year around it was full of stuff… the poor people would bring things to sell that they found on the street, there was a guy I remember in my first days, he used to go with a metal detector searching the river bed and he would come with all this old metal things, clay pipes, all sort of things and he was full of the story of London historically. So, these people are not there now. But, however it changes… you still love it.

You had a nice spot on Cheshire Street – sadly, the whole street is very quiet now. Do you miss it?
It was a nice place. Every time I pass that spot, it’s bringing up all these nice memories. And I see it in movies, too, it’s been in lots, Children Of Men was one of the latest.

Your stall has a special, distinctive mix – how would you describe it?
Bizarre, is that the right word? Eclectic. I was never really a follower of fashion, I always try to make a fashion. It’s all part of my hobby. It’s my interest – my interest in life. It passes through my home, it’s like, OK, have we lived enough with this piece, and it gets handed on to someone. We live very minimalistic, though, I am not allowed by my wife to bring all that stuff.

Where do you find it all?
All around Sheffield, where we live. There are all these old market towns, Chesterfield, Barnsley, Rotherham, they all have a tradition of a market, on different days. I don’t do it full time, though, I am an artist. London, for me, is like a meeting place, I don’t have anyone from my country or my town here in Sheffield, so we meet in the market.

Tell me about your favourite discovery or treasure from the last few years.
I found this skeleton. A real skeleton, from a house clearance in Sheffield. I put it on the market and then one student came and put a deposit on it. He was a medical student, and he told me a really harsh story, that this skeleton comes from India, and he was age nineteen and he suffered from this illness and that illness. And another story, that families  sometimes sell a human being to somebody to kill and make it a skeleton. Horrible stories. And the student didn’t come back the next week. That skeleton travelled with me for four weeks, to London and back to Sheffield. And throughout these weeks, I was with this skeleton, thinking about it and those horrible stories.

I get a sense that, whatever changes, you love this place and will keep coming.
Oh yes. I am over there all day. I come about five o’clock and we go about 10 o’clock. It’s a meeting place. Not just Yugoslavian people, English people, American, Spanish, all the people I know who are living in London. It is important.

Selling on the internet changed a lot that type of contact with people and socialising. Quite a lot of old people are missing, I’m wondering what’s happening with them. For example there was a guy,  he was some sort of spy in Yugoslavia, early after the war, he would come every week, we would have a talk, he was interested in movies, French, Italian. He’s gone now. And I’m wondering what happened to him. That kind of thing. It’s part of history.

Albert Olaffsen is at Sclater Street, Brick Lane, Sundays.


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