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Camden Market misses tourist trade as stalls start to re-open

05 June, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

The market site was quiet this week

THE world-famous Camden Market, which attracted thousands of visitors every weekend before the coronavirus lockdown, reopened on Monday.

But some stallholders warned that the tourist destination would have to go back to its roots to survive in a post-Covid world, and cater for Londoners rather than visitors from other countries.

Traders were given a rent holiday during lockdown and have been told by market owners LabTech they will not have to pay for pitches for the time being. They told the New Journal that they had been dependent on tourist shoppers.

Units inside the Stables remain closed

“I am so pleased to be here again, but 90 per cent of our visitors are tourists,” said one trader who reopened this week. “We need to be able to adapt quickly to replace that customer base – and it will be extremely worrying if we can’t.”

When it was created in the 1970s, the market’s bric-a-brac and second-hand stalls were a weekend joy for people arriving on foot or by bus. But it later became a guidebook favourite for overseas visitors in search of a slice of bohemian London and has grown to be one of the most-visited attractions in the UK.

Now, with travel restrictions, quarantine rules, a global recession and simple fear hitting tourism, stallholders say they may need a radical rethink.

One trader said: “These first two days have been dreadful for trade, as expected, but not being asked to pay any rent obviously has given us a leg up.”

He said new safety measures brought in were so far proving effective. LabTech has introduced one-way routes, social-distancing markers, hand-sanitiser points and is employing wardens to make sure all the rules are obeyed.

The trader said: “LabTech has done as much as it can and has done a good job. “I feel if I have to work, this environment is as safe as it gets.”

Beata Soja, who runs the Highland Game sausage stall in a prominent position by the iconic Camden Lock bridge, said she was delighted to be back at work behind her giant frying pan.

She acknowledged trade was slow, but said it had been better than she expected, after selling 11 portions of her bratwurst and onion dish by 2.30pm on Tuesday.

She added: “We will see in a month’s time or so if tourists return. If things haven’t picked up by July, it could be a real problem for all of us.”

Beata Soja back at work

LabTech also own Buck Street, Camden Lock and Hawley Wharf markets. They were among the last of the capital’s open-air markets to shut before lockdown.

Market managers have said up to 80 per cent of food and drink outlets will be reopening in the “near future”, with at least 30 trading this week.

LabTech boss Yaron Shahar said: “We have three priorities: doing so safely and responsibly for visitors, traders and the wider community, supporting traders as comprehensively as possible as they restart their businesses, and learning from this first phase as we plan to open Buck Street and other areas of the estate.”

He added that because the markets were “open-air” and had “abundant” seating, customers could sit and eat.

The new Buck Street market space, which had only opened a week before lockdown, will remain closed for the foreseeable future, Mr Shahar said. He added: “The market has thrived for 45 years and we are confident it will continue to be the heart of north London for many years to come.”

Leather Lane ‘a ghost town’

THE traditional banter of traders attracting passing customers has been silenced at Camden’s oldest street market, as they come to terms with Covid-19’s effect on their businesses, writes Dan Carrier.

Fruit and veg stall The Fruit Desk, run by Michael Gasparro, has been based at the same Leather Lane pitch since the 1970s.

Established by his grandfather Mario and father Michael, they have had to adapt as the market has evolved, and say the continuing absence of office workers in central London will hit them hard. Mario and his wife Angelo moved to London after the Second World War.

“Our cousins were in the fruit and veg wholesale business,” said grandson Michael. “There were a lot of Italian restaurants to sell to. We knew who to ask and where to go to.”

But the independent trader has been under sustained pressure. Michael said: “First, we saw the corner shops, often owned by families in the Indian community, suffer because of big supermarkets opening convenience stores.” He has watched Leather Lane gradually focus on street food for the lunchtime crowd.

Leather Lane in busier times

But more traditional stalls have disappeared.

While fruit and veg is still a fixture, Mr Gasparro said he has found new ways of staying in business, delivering to offices across the West End, the City and east London, but as they shut down in March, so did this income.

“That has died a death,” he said. “The question is: will it ever come back?”

Mr Gasparro has signed up to an app called what3words and during the pandemic it has been a lifeline as he has delivered to other customers using its software.

But he fears many who usually work locally have shown they can do their jobs at home, and wonders how that will affect the market.

Michael Gasparro

“We know there will be a real impact, and it will last for some time,” he added.

The Town Hall are drawing up plans that include a four-metre social distancing rule, and greater space between stalls.

Meanwhile, council-run Inverness Street in Camden Town remains silent, while Queen’s Crescent has had a skeleton presence. “There are not as many residents about who are customers,” said Mr Gasparro. “It is like a ghost town.”

Markets chief, Labour councillor Nadia Shah, said the Town Hall was doing “all they can” to support traders, adding: “We are planning for the safe reopening in the near future, following new government guidance.” She has met with the London Markets Board to discuss best practice. This includes council officers drawing up plans to manage customer flow safely.

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