Paul Gardner; the man, the myth, the London legend. If you ever have the pleasure of purchasing a paper bag from Paul, count yourself lucky. Like his shop, Paul and his family of ‘market sundriesmen’ are a longstanding East End institution. For over four generations, the Gardner’s have been servicing scales, stocking bags of all shapes and sizes and selling bits and bobs that every market trader needs. Think till rolls, tags and tickets; the little things that quietly keep the world turning. It was a different time back in 1870 when Paul’s great-grandfather started out in Spitalfields. Rent was 2 shillings and 6 pence, there was a printing press in the basement of the shop and a horse and cart used to deliver goods to nearby markets.
After 150 years in the same spot, Gardners Market Sundriesmen has been forced to pack its bags and move further East after being priced out of Spitalfields by soaring property prices. The shop where Paul started work on his first day out of school, as per family tradition, lies empty in the hands of developers. This corporate cloud does have a silver lining, which is the creation of the East End Trades Guild, a union representing over 300 independent businesses in the area.
As the founder, Paul is regularly fighting the good fight and knocking on the door of No.10 Downing Street armed with petitions demanding fair rents for the little guys in the big city. As well as being the ultimate small business champion, Paul thankfully still remains the paper bag baron of East London (with the paper hat to prove it). Market sundriesmen is not yet a forgotten trade, bags are for life after all, but it’s now our job to keep it that way.
Paul’s emporium of market paraphernalia is now bursting out of a normal looking house on a residential street in Leyton. While the world changes around him, from paper to plastic and back again, whatever the weather Paul will always be found surrounded by boxes of bubble wrap, 6:30am sharp. An ancient block of wood carved by his great-grandfather is still used as a cash and receipts drawer today. The shop is an archive not just of the Gardner family, but also details the fascinating history of bygone businesses in the East End.
Along with passing trade from those looking for the perfect parcel tape, Paul continues to stock bags in bulk for many local businesses in the city, including Beigel Bake on Brick Lane nearby. His unhurried chit-chat and calm presence in the middle of the multiplying mountains of miscellanea remain a rare constant in the storm of East London’s changing identity. So, next time someone asks, ‘would you like a bag for that?’, think of Paul, and spread the very special story of Spitalfields’ market sundriesmen.
(78 Ruckholt Road, Leyton, E10; 020 8558 1289; Mon-Fri 6.30am-2.30pm; Gardnersbags.com)