Once a thriving community hub, Grey Mare Lane Market in Beswick has seen better times. But now, with the traders running the place themselves, a reverse of fortunes looks likely. Len Grant continues his series about east Manchester’s markets.
“It’s a cat repellent you’re after?” asks Mavis, checking the stock at the back of the stall.
“Yes, to keep them out of the garden. I’ve tried pepper and it doesn’t work.”
“No, it won’t,” agrees Mavis. “We’ve not got any today, but I could get some in for Saturday.”
“Oh, yes please.”
Cat repellent from a pet stall? A strange request maybe but customer service is what markets are all about.
Mavis and her husband set up the stall here on Grey Mare Lane Market in the early 70s and it’s been run by their son, Clint – with help from Mavis – for the past 25 years. Clint is one of five long-serving stallholders who now operate the market as a cooperative.
“It’s gone through lots of different phases,” says Clint as he shows me round enthusiastically. “It was a lot bigger in the 70s and 80s, but we lost customers when the Beswick flats came down and people moved away. Now, with all this new regeneration – all being well – we’ll have new customers, and that will bring more traders.”
The market would benefit from a few more traders but there’s still plenty on offer to make it popular. The outside stalls, with their blue metal roofs, have women’s and men’s fashions, second-hand furniture, sweets and chocolates, DVDs, books, matresses, rugs, electrical appliances… pretty much everything. In the permanent stalls along two sides of the market, there are a dozen or more retailers including a butchers, a little café and Norman’s Jewellers.
“You’ve been here as long as me, haven’t you Norman?” Clint says by way of an introduction. Norman’s stall is an Aladdin’s cave: display cases at the front and an assortment of paintings, bric-a-brac, books and soft toys in ‘organised disorder’ at the back.
As we chat a valued customer comes to collect a chain Norman has repaired for her. Once their transaction is complete, I ask her how long she’s been coming to Norman’s. “Oh, years,” she laughs. “More than I’d care to remember.”
“And what is it about the market that’s appealing?”
“It’s convenient, reasonably-priced and always friendly,” she says as she wanders off to another stall. Norman seems happy with that testimonial. “I’m a bit old-fashioned,” he says. “I still believe in good service, the personal touch. You don’t get that in the bigger stores. Treat people how you’d like to be treated and you won’t go far wrong.”
I realise during my tour that I’ve been confused about Grey Mare Lane Market all these years. There are actually two markets here: Clint and his cooperative run the blue-roofed market on the front but the older market at the back – which looks more like a shanty town – is managed completely separately. The ‘back market’, as it’s called, has row upon row of tightly-packed, crumbling wooden stalls. Plastic sheeting covering the narrow walkways, corrugated iron sheets and barbed wire give it a less than inviting feel.
“That used to be a really busy market and we’d to benefit from it,” says Gilly Brierley, another of the cooperative members, “but now I think they are getting the benefit of our customers.”
Gilly has been at Grey Mare Lane for the best part of 25 years. First he and his wife ran a curtains stall but now he sells cleaning products while his wife sells shirts from the next door unit.
“I’ve had the same customers for 10 or 15 years,” he says, “so you can’t be selling any rubbish, or they won’t come back.”
As if to reinforce his point, an elderly man approaches the stall, picks a large pack of toilet rolls and hands over £2.
“Thanks, mate,” says Gilly, and then as the man walks away, “he’s buys the same thing every week. If I’m not on the stall, he just leaves his money here on the top.”
You can’t really see that happening in Asda.
Grey Mare Lane Market, on the corner with Alan Turing way, is open on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Telephone: 0161 223 5742