In the first of a series about east Manchester’s markets, Len Grant takes a tour of the new Gorton Market.
“Do you have any mousetraps?” asks one of Khalid’s regular customers. “You know, the old-fashioned kind. It’s for my son, he’s got a restaurant on one side of him and a takeaway on the other. He’s overrun with them.”
Despite being called Electrical Land, stallholder Khalid Anwar does indeed have wooden mousetraps amongst the stacks of CDs, scart leads and mobile phone accessories.
“Tell your son to use chocolate instead of cheese,” I suggest as the money changes hands. Khalid nods in agreement. “Chocolate? Are you winding me up?” exclaims his customer. “Do you know that from experience?”
It’s not the sort of conversation I could imagine having at the Tesco Extra checkout on the other side of the new car park, but here at the indoor Gorton Market it seems wholly appropriate to offer some friendly advice. And yes, I know from experience that chocolate works better than cheese.
Armed with her mousetraps, Dorothy Guy from West Gorton tells me she’s been coming to the market for as long as she can remember. This time last year she’d have done her shopping in the crumbling indoor market hall and what was left of the rickety outdoor stalls. All that is now parent and child spaces. This hall, with it’s 30-odd stalls, was formerly a Co-operative supermarket but converted by the City Council to a market hall as part of the new-look Gorton centre. Not everyone has been happy with the change.
“You’ve got to move with the times, haven’t you?” says Dorothy philosophically. “There’s still a good atmosphere here, there’s always plenty of banter.”
Khalid is less optimistic. “Before it was better,” he says, “more people came to the old place. I think there was more variety then.”
I remember visiting the old market in its final days and photographing the small businesses as they closed down, some for the last time. There was a lot of history on that site, a lot of good memories, but it looked dreadful… it was on its knees.
Sheila Goodwin, who has run Goody Two Shoes with her husband since 1982, certainly prefers the new environment. “There’s no more loading and unloading, no more setting up and getting ‘weathered’. I can carry much more stock and offer a better variety.”
But, I ask, what about the customers? “We’ve lost a few and gained a few,” she says, “people don’t like change, do they? But this is the new way of shopping.”
Market Manager, Keith Payne, knows something about the ‘new way of shopping’. Although he’s only been here since the relaunch, he has an impressive track record. On his laptop in his back office he shows me graphs of monthly ‘footfall’ – it’s up for February – and outlines his plans to make Gorton a shopping destination.
“We’ve introduced an antique and craft table-top market on Wednesdays and Sundays,” he says, “and, in the service yard outside, there’s now a car boot sale every Sunday.”
After consulting with local businesses and residents he’s also considering launching an outdoor specialist street market. “It would add some colour and atmosphere to the overall shopping experience,” he says. “It’s got to be good for the community.”
Tesco, he suggests, should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. “Customers coming to the superstore are also impressed with what we have to offer, so that’s all positive.”
I have to admit I’m a supermarket man myself. I guess my shopping habits contribute to what is, nationally, a downturn for markets. Although I hate the idea of giving yet more money to the big retailers, my distaste is outweighed by the in-out, grab-and-go opportunity. I’d love more chocolate versus cheese discussions but there just isn’t time.
Tesco’s influence on trade at the market is debated. Café owner, Pete Savori of the Manchester ice cream family, is unsure whether there are now more mouths to feed. His strategy is to offer something special: “We prepare simple, home-cooked food that’s fairly priced. Yes, we could always do with more customers but the market hasn’t been open a year yet, it’s still a work in progress.” His fish and chips are mouth-watering, better than any I’ve tasted in any supermarket café.
From stall to stall, it soon becomes clear than there are as many different opinions on the new market hall as there are traders. André Janjic took over his cooked meats business from his previous boss, John Singleton. “We still keep the name,” he says, “but I now own the business and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I love it. We’re in a good position here, just off the car park, and business has been good. Tesco has brought in new customers, there’s no doubt about it.”
The fish stall is not doing as well but, as Trevor Marshall of Hills Fish and Poultry explains, it’s more to do with the product itself. “The younger generation just don’t want to be bothered handling fresh fish,” he says. “Most of them just want a bag they can pop in the microwave: ping and ding, job done.” I feel my cheeks go the colour of the red snapper in front of me. Yes, I think I’m a ‘ping and dinger’. Trevor has been on the market for over 30 years, so he’s seen the trends. “There’s no way I could have stood here on a Friday chatting to you… there’d be a queue as long as you like…”
What the markets have over their rivals – whether regular shops or supermarkets – is the atmosphere, the chat and the personal relationships that are established between shopper and trader. Ivy Buckley is in line to be served by her butcher, George Wiltshire, who is giving his customers an analysis of Man City’s performance last night. “Robinho was unlucky with that one off the bar, wasn’t he?”
“Oh, they’re all very pleasant and friendly,” Ivy says to me later, “in the supermarkets it’s all quick service and it never looks as fresh as in here.
“What do I get for doing this interview,” she quips, as she drops her sausages into her shopping bag, “… a leg of lamb!”