Belfast Telegraph

Where entrepreneurs set out their stall

Behind a fine red-brick Victorian façade in Belfast lies a thriving, bustling market

By Margaret Canning

His great-grandparents sold fruit and vegetables from baskets on their backs in the 1890s. As a child, he and his mother would push a pram filled with clothes to sell in Belfast's Flea Market.

Now Paddy Lynn sells his antiques and collectibles through the thankfully less back-breaking channel of a stall in St George's Market.

Hundreds of traders sell everything from vegetables to custom-made stationery from Friday to Sunday in the lively atmosphere which has made St George's Market one of the most vibrant features of Belfast city centre.

Despite facing relocation in the 1990s, it is now an important asset to Belfast City Council, which estimates that its worth around £15.7m per year to the city.

The red-brick Victorian market will be part of events marking 400 years of market trading in Belfast – as part of celebrating four centuries since it won a charter granting it borough status – and Mr Lynn, who is also the Northern Ireland representative of the National Market Traders Federation, will lead historical tours about the city's markets.

Mr Lynn, who promises that you can find everything "from a needle to an anchor" in the Friday Variety market where he sells his wares, said market trading isn't for the faint-hearted.

"You can sometimes see the blears in people's eyes on a Friday. You can't go out and have 10 glasses of wine on a Thursday night if you're going to be in the market at half-five on a Friday. You have to be extremely dedicated to be working in the cold weather. You have to be hardy and committed.

"Market traders are a special breed of people. We love what we do and we love the people we provide a service to.

"At a market you can get food at around 15-20% cheaper than out of the supermarkets. Fish will be caught locally though some comes from Scotland because of limits on how much you can land.

"Some people travel to trade at the market from two or three hours across the province.

"People can't make a massive living but they do get by, providing a service in any city."

Rachel Law, owner of stationery business Arbee Cards, will soon mark three years of trading in the market.

"I was just a casual trader and then got my permanent stall in 2011. It can be hard to get a permanent stall but I was lucky because I was just cards and stationery. It just took me about six months but for cake or jewellery you may have to wait much longer.

"You do have to earn your stripes and prove you're in it for the long haul – but there are a lot of people who aren't. You find some people who by lunchtime are fed up because they haven't made a sale and then pack up and go. A lot of people think it's just easy to come down and make your money, but it's not."

Feedback from customers has also proved invaluable. "Some of my best sellers have come from people suggesting things to me. I had a card with 'wee dote' printed on it as a thank you card, but then someone suggested they'd make good new baby cards, and now it's my biggest seller online and on the stall."

She said customers value the personal interaction with a stall holder, who has usually created their products themselves.

"I would love to open up a store but I think the way probably to keep growing is to build up the online business – but I would never, ever lose the stall. It's such direct contact with the customer. And because you're just a small design business working away, it's nice to be working with others – it's like a community of creative designers."

It takes backbone and commitment, and Ms Law takes just two or three Saturdays off a year. Yet traders have also been affected by factors beyond their control as their shoppers deserted the market during the long weeks of protests over the flying of the Union flag at City Hall. All are hopeful the worst is over, especially after a busy day's trading on Easter Saturday.

"It was absolutely packed, which was fantastic," Ms Law said.

Glass artist Alice McGuinness said she regards her stall, where goods retail for a range of prices from £3 to £300, as her shopfront. She also has a studio in Conway Mill in west Belfast.

"No matter how bad I'm feeling, I just know that coming to the market is going to cheer me up. I absolutely love the place. I really, really love the place.

"There's nowhere like it. The atmosphere is nearly palpable, especially with the live entertainment on a Saturday."

But she warned that a consistent presence in the market is vital if a trader is to succeed. "I am there Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"You need to be there.

"And if you're new, you really need to give it a year to genuinely know if it's worth your while.

"Customers like to see you there and it takes a long time to get established in the market and build up your business.

"I don't do the hard sell – I want people to walk away from my table with something they actually want."

She has been working in fused glass since 1997 and coming to the market for five years.

"You can get a turnover, a lot of stall holders going through the doors, mainly because it's a weekend thing. To some people it seems like a good idea at the time but then they have to turn up at weekends when they're working at something else during the week. You can, however, tell the people who want to make it their business."

Mix of attractions draws 600,000 per year

  • St George's Market opens three days a week.
  • Friday's Variety Market features fruit, vegetables, antiques, books, clothes and fish.
  • Saturday's market has food, craft and garden produce and live entertainment, and Sunday's market features locally made arts and crafts, antiques and collectables, recyclable goods and food – as well as some top live music.
  • Belfast City Council, which runs the market in consultation with the market's Traders' Association, said it provides a place to trade for over 170 small businesses.
  • It also supports around 385 jobs and attracts around 600,000 visitors each year.
  • Waiting lists for Saturday and Sunday stalls are closed, the council said, though it is still accepting applications for stalls at Friday's market.
  • A stall costs £13 per day to rent, and £16 if you also require a fridge.

The markets that helped build city

Markets have played a major role in the growth of Belfast.

By the 1900s there were around a dozen markets selling everything from potatoes, pork, fowl, fish and vegetables to hay, straw, flax and poultry.

In the 18th century markets flourished at High Street, Cornmarket, Ann Street and Poultry Square (now Victoria Square).

May's Market, built on reclaimed land at the Oxford Street end of Chichester Street, opened in 1813. By 1823 it was the "principal place for sale of butter, meal, eggs, potatoes and vegetables".

Smithfield Market near the present CastleCourt Shopping Centre opened in the 1840s, selling cattle, pedlars' goods, grains and hides. It continues to function as a variety market though its original building was destroyed in a bomb in the 1970s. Trading at the site of St George's Market dates back to the 17th century.

The imposing red-brick building which still houses the present market was completed in the 1890s and renovated in a £3.5m project 100 years later.


Belfast Telegraph