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No trip to London is complete without a visit to its world-famous markets. Before coronavirus, shoppers from around the globe would browse stalls under Camden Market’s wooden Victorian-era arches or underneath the soaring industrial pillars of Spitalfields. Small market traders now acutely feel their absence, and fear the worst.
“Summer months are usually the busiest in Camden Market, between July and September,” Maria Costello says. “It’s an absolute ghost town now.”
She hunches over a sewing machine inside Josiah Amari, her children’s clothes store, named after her son. It doubles as a workshop. A masked customer hesitantly browses her handmade infant kimonos and stretchable baby trousers. A freight train rumbles overhead just as the rare customer leaves.
International tourists are long gone. Tourists from the US and Japan, who usually pack Camden’s cobbled alleyways, have not returned. Costello’s Middle Eastern customers usually escape the summer heat for London, but they are nowhere to be seen. Very few European customers have returned since Britain eased lockdown in early July.
Costello is worried. Business is down 90% compared to the beginning of 2020. Since reopening in June, she makes as little as £20 ($260) on “a good day.” Pre-lockdown, Costello could take as much as £700 ($917) in a single day.
The single mom-of-two has dipped into her personal savings to keep her business and family afloat. Since June’s reopening, Camden Market’s small business traders pay only 30% of their usual base rent — but that hasn’t stopped several closing down, according to the traders Business Insider speaks to.
“If it continues like this and we start paying full rent, we too will have to close permanently,” Costello says.
Japan Craft, a five-minute walk through the market’s labyrinthine brick and wooden tunnels from Josiah Amari, also relies on overseas tourists eager to buy imported Japanese anime memorabilia and customers thirsty for matcha tea and iced drinks. Owner Jeremy Barth says they are now nowhere to be seen, and takings are down 80% post-lockdown.
“We do have some people coming back, but they are local people. Now they come to Camden Market because it’s not as crowded. They appreciate it a bit more,” Barth says.
From his vinyl stall Disc Disciple Records by the entrance of Camden Market, Daniel Alexander-Harwood has also observed a trickle of locals returning now that tourists aren’t clogging the alleyways, especially when the sun shines. But they are no substitute.
“A lot of people aren’t carrying bags so you can tell they’re not shopping as much. They’re mainly here for food and drink,” he adds. Locals, Costello says, don’t spend more.
Four miles away from Camden Market is Spitalfields Market, a partially indoors space sandwiched between the skyscrapers of London’s financial district and a densely populated neighbourhood of students, artists, startups, and a large Bangladeshi community in one of the UK’s poorest boroughs.
Spitalfields doesn’t rely as heavily on tourists as Camden. Locals and other Londoners tend to visit but its traders have been hit hard by workers not returning to the offices that surround the market.
“Sales are down quite considerably, especially Monday to Friday without the lunch and post-work trade after 5 p.m.. But there’s steady signs of improvement here in Spitalfields,” Abilash Jobamputra, cofounder of Chai Guys, says.
Both he and his business partner Gabriel Unger left their jobs at accounting firm Deloitte to set up their freshly brewed chai stall in 2018. Since reopening on June 15, they have worked seven days a week without paying themselves. They both strike a note of quiet optimism, despite having to dip into cash reserves during lockdown to pay for staff whose monthly pay was not covered by the UK Government’s furlough scheme because they were self-employed, and had jobs with multiple vendors.
Market holders at Spitalfields say the post-lockdown system of charging rents only as a commission on turnover has eased financial pressures. Anyone taking in zero revenue pays nothing.
But there are still problems. Kim Innes opened Humble Crumble, a new market stall selling homemade apple crumble, just a week before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown in March, forcing her to close.
“No one was in the market that week. Everyone was terrified,” she says.
She says the reopening of restaurants and bars in July has reduced the custom for her stall and others in Spitalfields after she had a “positive” early bounceback in June.
“It’s so strange in the market right now. It’s busy one day and not the next day. We don’t know who our customers are,” she adds.
“You have to be flexible to adapt”
London is trying to adapt and find its way through.
John Li, who set up food stall Dumpling Shack in Spitalfields five years ago, used space elsewhere in the market, now closed to the public in lockdown, to make food for delivery. With uncertainty over when, or even if, people will return to nearby offices, Li plans to take his food stall to them instead. He wants to open a second location in the Isle of Dogs, a residential area where many workers who ordinarily work in the Canary Wharf financial district live.
“That’s the key to getting something positive from this awful situation. You have to be flexible to adapt,” says Li.
Meanwhile, Innes says she faces “a lot of uncertainty,” compounded by a £5,500 ($7,200) rent bill she received from her landlords over lockdown. Yet she remains upbeat about Spitalfields Market’s future, and her own.
“It’s accessible to most people in London. It’s not as far as Camden is for most of us.”
Jobamputra agrees: “The beauty of this market as a location is that it always has a mix of residential, office workers and tourists on the weekends.”
“We used to be funky”
Camden’s reputation for its quirky, independent market and music scene could soon be gone.
“I can’t see anything being good till next year,” says Costello.
She sells products made by other mothers unable to have their own stall and fears the closure of Josiah Amari would damage an “ecosystem” of local female entrepreneurs.
There’s unease about what could replace stalls like hers. Israeli billionaire Teddy Sagi, who spearheads investment firm LabTech, owns 16 acres of land in North London including Camden Market. Many independent market traders, including Costello and Barth, tell Business Insider they fear they will be replaced by established chain brands with higher revenues who can afford to pay higher rents (Sagi did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment).
Barth laments that Camden Market “used to be funky” but stalls have been replaced by chains such as SportsDirect and Dr Martens.
“Lots of businesses who were here for decades have been pushed away,” he says. Coronavirus, he adds, could be one more nail in the coffin.
Most market holders Business Insider speaks to agree: These thriving centres for small, independent businesses are in danger of being torn apart, particularly in Camden. Their futures, and the fabric of these historic London landmarks, hang in the balance.