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Legend of the stalls

Paul Clarke goes bargain hunting in Kirkgate market

Published on May 6th 2011.

Legend of the stalls

THE seemingly inexorable rise of the out of town supermarket has cut a swathe through our city centre, but now the historic Kirkgate Market is fighting back.

Buoyed by a survey that showed 94 per cent of people who visited this architectural marvel thought it was an intrinsic part of the city centre, the Friends of Kirkgate Market are spearheading the first Shop at Leeds Market Week.

“The idea of the week is all about proving you can revitalise the spaces here and the whole point of the events we are having is that they are spontaneous across the market,” says Elly Snare from the Friends.

“Anyone who has lived in Leeds for a while will remember when this place was thriving and all we want is for the market to get back to what it was.”

The focal point of their activities is an empty unit where shoppers can write down their memories of the market, its rich array of characters and the best bargains they’ve ever had.

As a man who likes a bargain, I'm a regular in Kirkgate, snapping up cheap bags of crisps or near the end of run sauces to stick on a bowl of pasta. But with 420 stalls, there's something for everyone - from the latest mobile phones to decent fresh flowers and a range of foods from around the world.

Kirkgate1.jpgElly took me on a tour of what is undeniably a beautiful building. The spectacular windows let in so much natural light and the market has clearly benefited the £12m ploughed into restoring it to its former glory.

There’s no escaping the fact that many of the units lie empty, but as we wandered around it soon becomes clear that the meat market and the famous Fish Row are the main arteries of market life.

So we went to meet butcher Malcolm Michaels, who has been on the market for nearly three decades and has run his own shop for 18.

“What we offer here is quality, value and the personal touch which you just don’t get in supermarkets,” Michael tells Confidential as he stops to serve a regular.

“Hello, how long have I been serving you?”

“Thirty years and it’s disgrace what they’re doing to this market .”

KirkgateButcher2.jpgWith that comment from a Kirkgate regular ringing in our ears, Malcolm tells me he has fought hard to stay in business.

“The BSE outbreak hit us hard and it is a lot slower when I first started. It was heaving along here, but we don’t sell anything put of boxes and we give people what they want.

“We stock cow hooves for our African customers, pork bones for our Chinese customers and goat meat for the local Asian community.

“Anyone who has lived in Leeds for a while will remember when this place was thriving and all we want is for the market to get back to what it was.”

A short walk to the other side of the market brings us to another Kirkgate veteran, fishmonger Stephen Myers, who has clocked up more than 20 years on Fish Row.

Standing in front of his beautifully laid out stall heaving with a dizzying array of fresh fish and seafood, Stephen is clear what brings people to the market.

Kirkgate4.jpg“All the traders along here make a real effort and for me it’s the personal touch when you see someone you haven’t seen for a while. It’s the ‘how are you’ chat because we know them as they’ve been coming for years.

“You wouldn’t get that in Tesco.”

Fish Row has benefited from what can only be called the ‘Jamie Oliver effect’ as young professionals wander in to get fresh fish for their 30 minutes dinners.

“At the weekend we get a lot of young people and students coming in because cooking your own meals at the moment is really trendy and we can offer them advice on how to cook the fish.

“Look at that piece of fish - 24 hours ago it was just coming off a boat, being sold at auction, then on to my merchant who I spoke to at 9pm last night and now it’s here fresh. Beat that Mr Morrison.”

Like all the traders Stephen has seen massive changes but he remains cautiously optimistic.

“It feels a bit stale and we need more food, more fruit and veg stalls, just a bit more variety like you get somewhere like Bury market.

“But regulars come back because you just can’t this sort of stuff in the supermarket and we get people coming from Harrogate, North Yorkshire and even from down south to get fish from here.”

KirkgateTheSource.jpgIt’s interesting that only around one fifth of the stalls are food and Nick Copland from The Source is trying to change that.

“The Source is about making sure that people get information on all the food stalls in the market.

“The meat market and Fish Row are obvious draws but tucked away around the market are all sorts of different stalls so we’ve produced a map to show where they are.

“We want to encourage specialist traders who might be seasonal so don’t want a stall for a year to come and trade here for short periods.”

Nick’s contribution to Shop at Leeds Market week are daily food walks so punters can find new stalls and meet the traders who are offering tips on how to cook their wares.

As our tour reaches its end there is no escaping the fact that Kirkgate has been affected by the supermarket giants as evidenced by the empty stalls.

But perhaps the surge in eco issues coupled with the impact of the recession might offer some hope. People are trying to cut their own food miles by shopping local and shrinking household budgets will force more of us to bargain hunt.

But it is also clear the time for old fashioned thinking is long over and events like Shop at Leeds Market week offering music, art and fun will be critical in attracting new and younger customers.
Meanwhile, I wandered off happy with some quality fish and two bottles of garlic mayo for £1.20. The perfect Kirkgate market bargain run.

Shop at Leeds Market Week ends tomorrow with spontaneous music all over the market from 10am.

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