Written by Ryan Senense.

What does mushroom risotto have in common with cereal “bars”, and calamari? Besides being wonderful snacks, all three are dishes that you can find in London’s extraordinarily popular and charming street markets. While wonderful places for anyone to visit, these bustling shopping spaces can also demonstrate how the street market, and commerce in general, has evolved over time.

An important part of any industry is the cultivation of new ideas. Popular street fairs such as Borough Market, Tooting Market, and Camden Town Market can provide anyone with a unique culinary, fashion, or artisan experience. Although both of these markets showcase London’s local character and creativity, they have almost entirely different respective atmospheres.

Borough Market is known for its fine wine, cheese, honey, and novelty dishes, while Camden Town Market is a grimy, edgy collection of vintage clothing and street food vendors, and Tooting Market distinguishes itself by being a cozy indoor market packed with produce, foods, and handmade gifts. Regardless, street markets attract those searching for a more authentic experience than what you can find at a typical supermarket or franchise. But how can a specific street market be seen as unique when they exist all over the world, from London to the Bay Area? One possibility is that they offer niche products that are difficult to find in most retailers.  

The Appeal of Street Markets

Open-air shopping centers, like farmer’s markets, have an image of being trendy, economical, and more environmentally friendly than their corporate counterparts. Consignment stores sell used clothes instead of newly manufactured fabrics, and in Camden Town Market these are labeled as ‘vintage’ to attract customers searching for special finds. Camden Town is considered one of London’s grimy hipster neighborhoods, and this image is capitalized on within the market itself, which has thousands of stalls set up in what was once a massive gin distillery.

This action alone illustrates the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra that remains in popular culture, as the market was formed into the already-existing architecture of the city rather than erecting new building projects. This repurposing connects the street market to the past.

Perhaps there is some nostalgia for the ‘vintage’ market, where vendors locally sourced their produce and artisans sold their own carefully crafted wares. Perhaps this rustic ideal is captured in visiting an open-air market, like in Borough Market where the aromas of spicy seafood paella, zesty grilled mushrooms, and fresh fruit smoothies are reminders that the food and wares are all handmade. This authenticity is vastly different than the convenience of mass production and based on these areas’ popularity, many people might be willing to pay more in exchange for quality goods.

Street Markets as Innovation Centers

Each market is different, but they all exist as spaces for local small business owners to flourish. They are microcosms of the areas they are located in, and allow the development and popularization of goods that are yet to become widespread such as imported honeys or ostrich eggs, or exist primarily as specialty pieces, such as the paintings, sculptures, and jewelry handmade by local craftsmen. Individual stalls can be extremely different from one another, such as in Camden Market where traditional cuisine from Thai to Venezuelan to Tibetan can be found within mere steps of one another. Street markets can act as the opportunity for untapped markets to gain traction and popularity.

However, street markets are most popular in large cities, so what about enterprising individuals who live outside of urban centers? Well, there is a far more prolific and accessible medium for the sale of niche products- the internet. While street markets once existed as staples of industry, today they are tourist attractions and seen as novelties rather than mainstays. In fact, despite being a major tourist attraction and holding community events, Tooting Market was in danger of being closed down due to a proposed new railway route running through the venue.

So, while street markets may very well provide enjoyment and pleasant experiences, they are seen as luxuries rather than necessities. However, instead of yearning for the return to a reliance on markets, we can appreciate their continued existence and acknowledge their current contributions to developing new products.

Previous Success is not a zero-sum game Next Humans of Haas: Jon Mead