Albert Olafson, Meeting Man

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“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.


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.