Q&A: BENNIE GRAY
The owner of Alfie’s Antique Market on the decline of ‘brown English furniture’, the soap opera nature of a good market, and the dangers of nostalgia
Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Orlando Gili
You’ve been in the area a long time...
I was born on Cosway Street, just round the corner, a very long time ago. I remember it quite vividly. In those days, this end of Church Street was very bustling, very busy. It had great diversity of stalls on a Saturday—certainly fruit and veg, but also second-hand furniture and items which today would be revered by the museums but were junk in those days.
My father Alfie was a very good musician—he played drums in jazz bands. He once played with Frank Sinatra—but the grass is always greener, and he’d always fancied himself as an antiques dealer. And he was the world’s worst. He used to buy and sell bits and pieces on a stall in Church Street when I was a kid and I remember standing there occasionally, helping him.
How did Alfie’s Antiques Market come to be?
In those days this whole building was called Jordan’s, which was a haberdashery superstore selling knicker elastic and darning wool. And of course, later, people weren’t so interested in knicker elastic anymore, they’d go to Marks and Spencer and buy a new pair of knickers, and so eventually Jordan’s—which was established in the 19th century—went bust. It was a marvellous place: this whole building was laced with wonderful, curving, polished brass tubes. You’d buy some knicker elastic and give a note, and that would be sent through the tubes to the cashier, who sat where all these metal tubes ended up. They’d put the change in the canister and it would go zipping back to you. Extraordinary. Mad. It was a laboratory.
Eventually it fell empty and I noticed that is was for sale—that was back in 1976. I’d just stopped being a journalist at that point—I’d been working for the Sunday Times, mainly—and I needed a project, so I bought the building. I knew about antiques, I had previous experience, and initially my idea was that we would only use the ground floor and we would simply use it on a Saturday. Well, we opened up and it was a runaway success. Within a few months, we were open five days a week and we were occupying the entire building. Within two or three years, the demand was such, we built more on to it.
Why do you think Alfie’s saw such instant success?
It’s hard to know. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. I’d been involved in antiques for a long time in one way or another, and so I knew a lot of people and my father Alfie knew everyone. He was a great street character and he helped enormously in setting the thing up. I’ve had lots of projects over the years and many of them have failed dismally—this one worked, and it continues.
Church Street is still famed for its antiques offering. Has it always thrived?
In the mid-seventies, this end of Church Street was semi-derelict. Many of the shops had been boarded up, no takers. There was a lot of vandalism, crime was a problem. What happened over the subsequent years was, dealers that started off in Alfie’s grew and began to take their own shops on Church Street. They promoted themselves from a stallholder to a shopkeeper. Many of them worked out very well and what we now have on Church Street is one of the best little enclaves of antiques shops anywhere. That was sparked, I’m pleased to say, by Alfie’s Antique Market.
Alfie’s is a characterful building and one that inspires communality—I imagine that influences the atmosphere and indeed the success of the place.
Absolutely. I think one of the attractions of Alfie’s is the community aspect of it. It’s a running soap opera: love affairs, hatreds, rivalries, and a lot of people like that intimacy. It’s also commercially positive. With antiques, there’s a lot of inter-trading. The dealers buy and sell within the market: from time to time you see an object come in the morning, change hands three times and three dealers have made a profit. We are a hub for small businesses and I think that’s excellent. In many ways, business is becoming much more fragmented because of the opportunities offered by the internet. There are all sorts of shops that sell objects you don’t have to touch or smell in order to know you want to buy them. But there are some commodities that are not ideal for selling on the internet—paintings, for example. You can’t judge what you think about a painting from an image on a screen, you have to look at the original object.
There’s certainly something to be said for the experience of markets. You wouldn’t go to a shopping mall for a mooch...
Some people do. A lot of people enjoy not just buying antiques but the process of buying antiques. Therefore, the opportunity to speak to the dealer is an attractive thing. We have some dealers who are real characters. We had one guy here a few years back, an outrageous queen, and Rod Stewart came into the market and he ran after him chanting, “Do you think I’m sexy?” I don’t think Rod Stewart came back after that.
Two years ago, I was at a market in Paris, one of those huge open-air markets, and it started pouring with rain and we took refuge in a very nice café. We were sitting having lunch and a homeless person came in carrying a sack. A waiter jumped on him, but he came creeping back in, lifted the sack to his face and started playing Bach on the trumpet. And it was fantastic. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. With a good market, you’re looking to encourage those sorts of experiences. It’s all part of the texture.
Do you set any parameters in terms of dealers at Alfie’s?
We’re really keen that people that come here are selling stuff that’s very high quality and high interest, with the whole price range. We’ve got people selling Victorian postcards for a fiver and we’ve got one of the dealers selling an extraordinary bit of Islamic art for £50,000. It’s everything.
Have there been noticeable shifts in popularity of certain objects or periods?
One of the remarkable things over the last 10, 15 years is the demise of what’s known as ‘brown English furniture’—in other words the mahogany of the 19th century. People don’t live in the same way. A decade or so ago and even before that, the dinner party was a big number. That doesn’t happen so much now, even in Islington. The furniture that went with that—the sideboard, the d-ended extendable dining table and a set of eight Chippendale-type chairs, forget about it. Twenty years ago, if you went into Sotheby’s with a bit of furniture made after the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 they’d tell you to eff off. Now, you go in with a nice bit of art deco furniture and they go on their bended knees. It’s no longer a date line business, and that’s a very healthy thing. Now it’s much more to do with an appreciation for things that look good and are well-made, which includes modern crafts at high level.
One of the more worrying things is the extraordinary expansion of the market for memorabilia. For example, five, six years ago, at Christie’s in New York there was an auction sale that included a bit of wedding cake from Queen Victoria’s wedding. A rotting bit of cake in the original box. A man paid £1,500 pounds for it. You think that’s mad: about five years ago, somebody tried to sell a can ‘guaranteed’ to contain a fart from John Lennon. There’s a lot of that: people wanting to buy an element of fantasy of some sort. There’s always been a nostalgia thing, a very dangerous emotion, and of course a particular element of that is the growth of the market for childhood things: people trying to recapture their childhood by buying comics or dinky toys; people trying to escape to their past. Which is a terrible thing. What’s wrong with the present?
You’ve been involved in various projects over the years. Is it antiques in particular that interest you or entrepreneurship generally?
The thing that interests me is community, really. That’s the thread that runs through everything I’ve done: trying to create places which people feel good in, but more importantly where they’re likely to encounter each other and establish relationships. One of the biggest global issues we are facing is the way in which cities are changing. It’s already the case that more than half the world’s population live in cities—by 2050, it’s estimated that’ll be 80 per cent. It creates problems with the environment, pollution, disease, crime. It’s really very challenging indeed. One aspect of that is the way in which people relate to each other and the context in which they do that. Anything you can bring to the table in that sense is a good thing.
What are you most proud of?
I love Alfie’s. For all kinds of reasons. I grew up round here, I named it after my dad, I love all the bits and pieces and Dickensian nature of much of it, I know the people here very well indeed. I feel very comfortable here, which is what I like to encourage other people to feel. I’m also very proud of Danceworks, the school of dance that I started, where we have a lot of auditions, rehearsals, but also a community of small traders in the way of dance teachers, therapists and so on. I like all that. It’s universal, isn’t it: we all want to love and be loved in one way or another. Too many things that are going on don’t actively encourage that.