Passing through the forest of children’s windmill toys that marks the entrance to Deptford Market, I enter a noisy, colourful metropolis of vintage treasures, second-hand finds, and bizarre, confounding and sometimes hilarious pieces of stuff. Though smaller than the likes of Greenwich or Spitalfields, Deptford Market has an immediately perceptible authentic atmosphere behind it, and positively crackles with energy from the wares, people and customers of every background and origin. Accompanied by the market’s resident doleful-looking boxer dog, I make my way round the stalls, taking in clothes and books dating back to year dot, chests of [still-working?] remote controls, masses of jewellery, ancient fairground toys, and ‘80s gizmos so kitsch you can’t help but feel that Marty McFly will be popping forward in time to retrieve them at any moment. How is it that I haven’t been here before?

There is an impressive cache of real finds among the hoards of second-hand clothing on offer. In my short stay, I come across a royal blue smoking jacket, a houndstooth waistcoat, printed dresses from every recent era (though you never know), more silk scarves than you could ever hope to wear, and acre upon acre of slippers. All of this is catnip to students at nearby Goldsmiths University, who hover in droves around the stalls like flies around vintage honey.
“You find all sorts of mental stuff around here… old nappies, or ‘bargain knickers’”, art student Shaun tells me, “But you can come across some great finds too. I got some amazing vintage trousers here once, for just two pounds!”

Pre-owned books are another major feature here in the market, as local James is only too keen to tell me. He comes every day the market’s on (that’s three times a week!) to peruse the latest additions, which for the most part originate from charity shops with no more room on their shelves.
“There are some amazing bargains here”, he claims, rootling through a box of well-thumbed paperbacks. “I love it! I’ve always been a collector of this, that and the other, and it always amazes me what you can find here.” It’s true; mixed in with the mountains of self-help books and Private Eye annuals of yore is a wealth of rarer reads, including the likes of Victor Hugo, Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco.

Having shuffled around the busy stalls for an hour or two, I am told repeatedly by stall-owner and customer alike to approach Peter, of ‘Peter’s Empire’, who, I am assured, is the lead authority on all that Deptford Market has to offer. It’s hard to miss him – in the midst of his mass of odds and ends that takes up a good quarter of the market, his bearded, smiling figure stands on the summit of one of his stalls, surveying his kingdom, and bearing the stickered emblem ‘NO DISCOUNTS GIVEN’.

It’s impossible not to take to Peter immediately. A savvy, business-minded entrepreneur and patriarch of the old East End market tradition, his warm manner and cheeky-chappy charm immediately draw people to his ‘Empire’ of second-hand furniture, jewellery, electronics, paintings, books, sports memorabilia, 3-D video reality visors… there really is something for everybody.

So how did such a significant sales presence first get into the market game?
“Completely by accident! I originally started out as a surveyor. Me Mum was a matron at a hospital, and needed me to shift a load of old, unwanted hospital bits and pieces one day. So, I set up a table in the Wharf, and got fifteen quid for the lot – that was a whole week’s pay in one day’s work! I sell bits of everything, really. I get lots of calls from estate agents and solicitors needing old houses cleared out, and relatives of family members that have passed away who want to sell on the unwanted things left behind.” Peter pauses, looking at his stalls: “There’s no real rhyme or reason why we get anything… and I’ll sell anything!”

So, that establishes the how of Peter’s story as a market tradesman. But what about the why – what is it about Deptford that makes it stand out from selling at one of London’s other markets?
“That’s easy”, he replies. “Deptford’s a real, traditional second-hand market. There’s a rule; no new stuff’s allowed to be sold here. Once new goods come in, markets lose what makes them special.”
I ask, does he ever regret selling any of his goods on? Peter blanches and laughs: “God no, I’m a minimalist by nature! If you do this every day”, he says, gesturing to his sprawling ‘Empire’, “you don’t want to come home to find your house filled up with it too!” Fair point, I think – though it’s somewhat unexpected to hear such an immaterialist perspective coming from a stall-owner! So if everything is put onto the stalls to sell, surely Peter must have sold some peculiar finds?
“Oh, I’ve sold some weird stuff. Used to get human skeletons in, from auctions and medical schools, before that was banned. Coffins as well – once, I lay down in one and served people from it!”

I thank Peter for his time, and his genuine enthusiasm to colour in his story behind of one of London’s oldest markets. One last question: what is his own most prized possession?
“My new elephant! I bought it from the Elephant Parades. It lives in my garden now, with my palm trees, my goats and my skellingtons.”

Words: Charlotte McManus

Photos: Gabriel Love

About Charlotte McManus

Editor for and Freelance writer - The Creator's Project, SUPERSUPER!, Don't Panic, FAULT, Flux, Who's Jack & more.

Posted on 05/03/2012, in Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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