Spitalfields Market, in case you hadn't noticed, has been undergoing a major facelift. Last year, the revamped western end reopened with trendy boutiques and eateries, amid grumbles from some quarters that the area would lose its character (it hasn't).
Now it's the turn of the central market. This has now closed for around 3 months while the floor is refurbished. The usual Thursday, Friday and Sunday markets will be moved to a spot on Lamb St, while the record and books fair (which happens every other Wednesday) is going to be incorporated into the Spitalfields Traders Market, which is still trading every day except Sat in the newer Western development.
All the shops and restaurants are completely open for business as usual, apart from Square Pie and Café Mediterraneo, which are also reopening in autumn. Kinetica have permanently vacated their glass box, to become, well, a kinetic organisation with no real home.
We caught up with the market's manager, Eric Graham, to get his views on the changes, and the area's remarkable history.
Please introduce yourself.
I'm Eric Graham, the market manager at Old Spitalfields Market. I've been on site here for 15 years, and as market manager for nine and a half years. I started out as the market cleaner, so there is life after sweeping the market floor! Now I look everything from running the stalls to…sweeping the market floor. It's an all-encompassing hands-on job but it's very much a people job - you're dealing with people all the time, whether the public, the local authority, dustmen, film crews, fire officers, or someone asking how to become a Spitalfields stallholder.
So how does one get to run a stall on the market?
As a manager the first question we always ask is what do you want to sell? The next step is, depending on what you're selling, whether we'd even consider you for a place on the market. The next criteria is the quality of what you are selling. Some people, when we don't accept them, take that as a slight - but that's not what it is. With jewellery, for instance, I get about 20 queries every week of the year from people wanting to set up that kind of stall. A lot of them are designers and they make the stuff themselves and it's impossible for us to accept them because of the amount we already have.
When someone says ‘I'm an artist’ or ‘I'm a photographer’ – ‘can I sell my art or photography? Do you want to see it?’ I say, ‘we're not art critics and as long as it's not offensive or pornographic then we'll consider it’. Also, we keep away from politics in the market. We're not here to promote anyone's political or religious theories - they can keep that outside.
But considering all that, you can call 020 7247 8556 or email email@example.com, preferably from this autumn onwards.
You must have met a few characters over the years. Tell us about the most memorable stall holder you've had here.
It's a very difficult one that, because the ones that stand out tend to be the ones we've kicked off! I think the public would be surprised by some of the professionals who are here. We’ve got ex-City traders, doctors, nurses, social workers, musicians, who've decided they want a different angle on life. They've had enough of the nitty gritty. And although market life is gritty it's meeting the public in a different way to what they're used to.
The redevelopment of the western end was very controversial. Whose idea was it, and how long had it been brewing?
Yes it was but having worked through all that it's actually turned out brilliantly. It has been talked about ever since we arrived here 15 years ago. We were told we'd only be here for 5 years while the developers worked out their plans. For various reasons the clients changed until they found Allen & Overy [the lawyers’ firm now based in the building above the newer development], who finally took it on board. But they allowed for the fact that the roots of the market went deeper than expected. I don't think anyone ever thought we'd be here for this length of time.
What do you think now it has been redeveloped? Has it matched your expectations?
Some of it has worked out better than I expected. If you take Bishops Square for example. You've got the pond and the trees and the very big seating area. There was no public space here before and now there is and I think that's something the developers should be thanked for.
If you could click your fingers and magically have one thing for Spitalfields, what would it be?
I would say obviously ‘a long future’. And if I could have a second one it'd be ‘a long and prosperous future’!
This area is steeped in history - not all of it pleasant. Have you seen any ghosts?
Only my boss disappearing when I want a pay rise! But as for actual ghosts, I don't actually feel the presence of anything round the area, but I get a big feeling of the history of where I’m working - that Jack the Ripper killed someone at a certain place or Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man used to sleep in a place I’m walking past. I'm not really a ghost person - I've never met one yet, which is probably a good thing.
Do you have a piece of trivia or gossip you reckon none of the readers are likely to know?
Well – when they started doing the western development, because the basements had been empty for so long, nobody realised the number of foxes that were living down there. There were two extended families of them. Before they started knocking them down, I had my drumkit in the catacombs beneath and I heard this rustling and discovered a fox. I had to put boards down and create a run for him to get out! In the end most of them were caught and taken away and released in the Essex countryside, but some still live in the grounds of Christ Church Spitalfields.
There's also a music connection - Pete Doherty's a regular here and we can give him a back-up band any time he wants, Mike Jones, one of the assistant music managers here, used to be the guitarist in Voice of the Beehive; Mal, who designs and sells t-shirts, was the drummer in Transmission Vamp.
Top images courtesy of Sim Canetty-Clarke. Photo of Eric Graham by Seb Emina. Image of the Western end taken from aburt's Flickr photostream.