The charm of the daily and weekly market in Europe and elsewhere is not a topic on which I need to expound. Rather, I’m taken with the English reinvention of the gathering spot for buying the day’s needs. Their neighbors in the mild Mediterranean climes may be able to trade outdoors year round, but outdoor shopping in England is not a particularly pleasant event when rain is lashing the awning of the root vegetable seller and you’re groping for change while juggling an umbrella and several other bags.
Hence: (I assume) the indoor marketplace! Under cover of an often shabby building in the midst of town, the English market seems to be a fusty, frumpy but charming and necessary outpost on the High Streets around the country. I wrote recently about Castle Market in Sheffield. It has a long, venerable history, and is matched in usefulness only by The Moor, a stretch of budget shops and outdoor vendors about half a mile from the city center.
When I first came to England I ventured out to Meadowhall, a very American-style shopping mall. It was my destination chiefly for the fact that I knew I could reach it easily by the tram line, and I was certain I would be able to find my way back to it again for a return trip home. Of course it is every thing every mall every where is. No surprise there. The really interesting aspect to me was the warren of small shops tucked on the lower level beneath the Cineplex. Here an unnecessarily winding stretch of linoleum was filled with the pudgy, the elderly, the ordinary….and me. The tradition of the independent seller stationed behind his or her goods in a space smaller than an American bathroom was recreated just down the corridor from Lady Foot Locker at the modern Meadowhall Mall! Who knew?!
In successive towns during my travels in England I encountered the same thing again and again. The marketplace might be outside:
…like this open air mart in London. Even when shops have a presence on the street with windows to display their wares, more often than not the goodies spill out onto the sidewalk, tempting passers-by with easy to examine vegetables, or practical mop buckets, or bowers of fresh and fragrant flowers.
But the sweetest and oddest place for retail action in England is what happens when sales folks set up shop in some large and ancient building no longer used for one single purpose. And the indoor marketplace continues in England, providing convenience, value, selection, and endless opportunities for banter and gossip.
See that lady in the center of the picture above? I didn’t get a signed release to use her in my photo so I won’t divulge her identity, but I can tell you she is a shrewd and practical consumer. She frequents this market daily, inspects the goods with an eagle eye, and when done with her shop, will sit comfortable at a chrome dinette set in the market cafe, sipping contentedly on a steaming beaker of hot tea. Milk in first – tea poured on after.
It doesn’t matter if America has no equivalent. It doesn’t need to have one. This is one of the reasons England is England, and even though I loved wandering around the booths, fingering items I would never need to buy, overhearing chatter about matters that didn’t affect me, I would never want to see California, say, attempt to duplicate the funny little marketplaces of England. This is one tradition that was born from complete and utter necessity, and Englanders, many free from the tangle and headache of traffic tie ups and car park charges, will trot on down to their local marketplace to pick up some boiled sweets, or perhaps a nice fresh beetroot. You go, Mr and Mrs. Marketplace! There will always be a place for you and your wheeled cart of necessaries! Cheers!