Kirkgate Market

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You can tell it’s on from a distance! Happy, heavily laden shoppers carrying inexpensive blue plastic carriers are returning to car parks or the adjacent bus station.

The first thing you notice about the open air market is its vibrancy. Stallholders are competing cheek by jowl for the money in your pocket. There is nowhere for them to hide – in fact being non-descript would defeat the object. There is a buzz about the place. And not a Meerkat in sight.

When you arrive you are confronted with a long row of fruit and veg stalls arranged in an “L” shape around the edge of the market – testament to their transient but regular appearances. The inner spaces are reserved for stalls which are manned on a more regular basis.

The rain has finally stopped and the sky comprises white clouds against a welcome background of blue. No matter what the weather, it is no deterrent. The shoppers are happy and scurry from stall to stall looking for bargains.

They come in a range of ages from young mums struggling with a buggy and a couple of toddlers, to middle aged parents grudgingly accompanied by surly teenagers, to the elderly, shuffling slowly and carefully between stalls having paused for breath, trying not to miss any opportunity to eke out their pensions. The ethnicity of the shoppers is as diverse as their age ranges: women in hijabs, languages from Eastern Europe, the Indian sub-continent and China.

A frail looking, white haired lady with her tartan shopping trolley is struggling to draw attention to herself as she feebly exerts her full seven stone frame to insinuate herself to the front of the small crowd around one stall. Finally she succeeds, and is rewarded with her precious order of a pound of bananas. She places the bananas slowly and carefully into her trolley and turns away to find another stall offering unbeatable bargains.

As the old lady moves slowly along the line of stalls the free market entrepreneurs croak into action to stimulate sales. “Two boxes of strawberries for one pound twenty now,” bellows from the back of the stall reflecting the time of day and the urgency to move stock before the weekend.

His neighbour responds to this challenge with a similar high cost advertising campaign, although with a slightly deeper voice, “Three pounds of grapes for a pound. Who wants to be first?”

The stall holders repeatedly demonstrate their skill with mental arithmetic by adding long lists of prices without the assistance of tills or calculators. It’s like stepping back to a time when all shopkeepers could quickly scan a list of prices and come up with an accurate total.

Wandering round the stalls it’s possible to identify unique selling points: Eastern European produce, West Indian produce, organic or just home grown in Yorkshire, all targeted at a particular niche in the market. This concept is complemented by the fact you can buy anything in any quantity with imperial weights being the primary units of measurement.

The proximity of the customers to the goods allows the citrus aroma of a mound of lemons to assault the nostrils, reminding potential customers that they are fresh. The fragrant smell of coriander floats by on a sudden gust of wind reminding shoppers of the range of goods on sale. A pile of melons is so close that it enables them to be squeezed so their freshness can be tested before the final choice is made.

A brave customer asks, “Are these satsumas fresh?”

The stall holder metaphorically bites his tongue and assures the lady that they are indeed so in a polite manner.

“Mind your backs now, mind your backs”, shouts a middle aged man, who has appeared from nowhere, pushing a trolley loaded with empty boxes. Testament, as if it were needed, to the success of today’s sales campaign.

The shoppers part to let the trolley though. The scene is like the parting of the Red Sea, and like that event, as soon as the gap is traversed the waves of people knit together again immediately covering the route the trolley has taken. He has clearly not been on an advanced trolley driving course but manages to avoid any injuries – much to the relief and amazement of the shoppers and stall holders alike.

Leeds market is a micro version of the UK economy: its customers, real people trying to make the most of their money, and the stallholders, ordinary folk who are risking their own money to make a profit.

Forget convenience. Forsake climate control. Embrace reality. Do some market shopping!

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