Two hundred founding members join forces to resist threat of rising rents and competition from big companies
With a rousing traditional fanfare of trumpets, the butcher, the baker, the bucket seller and the paper bag supplier of London will unite on Monday with scores of other small independent traders in a new guild, dedicated to fighting their corner against the killer combination of rising rents and rates, competition from multiples, and the state of the economy.
“The definition of a small independent is generally below 250 employees, but we’re way below that. Most of ours are below 10 people and many are one-man operations, but they’re what gives colour, light and character to our streets. When they’re gone, they’re gone,” organiser Krissie Nicolson said.
The traders – whose logo boasts: “We are the beating heart of the East End” – will meet in Christ Church, Spitalfields, the Hawksmoor-designed church whose soaring spire is visible from many of their premises.
The 200 founding members of the East End Trades Guild are all in the capital but Nicolson believes the model – inspired by medieval predecessors in which traders banded together not only for combined muscle, but also for social meetings and training – could work in many other places where small independent businesses feel under severe threat and high streets are being abandoned to charity shops and multiples.
It was the success of Paul Gardner – the fourth generation of his family to run Gardners Market Sundriesmen, supplier of paper bags to many of the new members of the guild – in fighting a threatened rent increase, which inspired his fellow traders.
Gardners in Commercial Street claims to be the oldest family business in Spitalfields, and one of the most thoroughly old-fashioned, with stock stacked up to the ceiling: price tags are displayed for all the brands of apples once sold in the long-vanished fruit and veg market. Recently it looked as if it would inevitably close, like so many former neighbours, faced with a rent increase from £15,000 to £25,000.
With advice obtained after publicity from the award-winning Spitalfields Life blog, that was renegotiated as a staged increase. The Gardners shop bell continues to ring, and the guild intends to run rent review workshops for its members.
In Spitalfields, the trendiness of the narrow streets has been a mixed blessing for the traders. It has brought in customers, and encouraged independents like Franceskka Abimbola, a textile trader who sells “wax” cloth, brilliantly patterned prints for African traditional dresses, or Labour and Wait, suppliers of traditional household goods including enamel basins and galvanised buckets. But it has also brought chain stores, bars, cafes and restaurants pouring in, and encouraged landlords’ agents to look for rent increases of up to 60%, according to Nicolson, who has a master’s degree in community organisation.
“Anecdotally, we believe even many of the multiples can’t support these costs. We can see the result in empty units, but landlords prefer to leave them empty, in the hope of lucrative new tenants, than keep traditional businesses going,” she said. “It’s been a long struggle, but maybe now the tide is turning. We hope other areas will look at what we’re doing, and believe that for small independents, decline and closure is not an inexorable process.”