'It can't be any worse' – Bull Ring market traders working 50-hour weeks but streets are still empty

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Market traders in Birmingham have been dealt a difficult hand these past near-two years – but their spirits are still high.

They’re determined to believe that things really can’t be as bad as last year.

It’s almost two years since the Covid-19 pandemic began and if 2020 was the year of the big lockdown, then 2021 was the first year of society beginning ‘to live with the virus’.

For Bull Ring Market traders that still means having to pay full rent to stay open even when office workers have been told to work from home.

Two nearby multi-storey car parks were demolished by the city council last year at the same time that it was introducing a Clean Air Zone to try to keep a quarter of the most polluting vehicles out of the city.

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At the dawn of 2022 – the year that is supposed to put Birmingham ‘on the world stage’ via the Commonwealth Games in late July – England is still open for business.

Although the government’s ‘Plan B’ restrictions offer a lighter touch than elsewhere in the UK, the Omicron variant is proving to be highly contagious and most office workers are currently home based again.

No wonder some traders in the city are fearing the worst but instinctively hoping for the best at the same time.

We’ll be reporting from retail and hospitality later this week, but first here are two cases from Birmingham’s famous Bull Ring Markets as the great battle for survival continues.

Still looking on the bright side: After more than 35 years on the Bull Ring Open Market, trader John Barley still takes huge pride in selling the freshest fruits he can source after getting up at 3am to go to the Wholesale Market in Witton (Image: Graham Young / BirminghamLive)

The outdoor trader

John Barley gets up at 3am in order to be ready to put fruit on his outdoor stall on the now 856-year-old Bull Ring Market – and he still gives service with a smile.

From the age of 15, market life is all that he’s known – but after more than 35 years of braving all weathers John says business has never been this tough.

The former Wholesale Markets site on the other side of Upper Dean Street closed in May 2018, so he now has to travel to its replacement in Witton to source his produce.

Father-of-two John has shrunk his working week to Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday but still works 50 hours in that time.

“There are no bargains,” he says of his fruits positively glowing with vitamins in the morning sunshine.

“But everything is as fresh as it can be, quality that will keep. There’s no point buying fruit that won’t be fresh in a day or two. Everything I sell is top quality.”

John Barley has juicy fruits galore on his Bull Ring Open Market stall next to Upper Dean Street (Image: Graham Young / BirminghamLive)

Although his stall can be exposed in bad weather, John should have one of the best positions on the 130-stall open market, right next to the Upper Dean Street bus stops.

But office workers are being told to work from home again.

And, on the other side of the street, he’s now facing the relentless sound of pneumatic drills as preparations are made to transform the former Wholesale Markets’ site into a venue for several events at the Commonwealth Games.

Plans to redevelop the site as Smithfield will take 15 years and £1.5 billion but everyone’s hope is that the market will survive and then thrive.

View towards Edgbaston Street: Empty stalls on January 4, 2022 next to the top end of the Bull Ring Open Market on the first regular trading day of the New Year (Image: Graham Young / BirminghamLive)

John says: “I’ve got to be a bit optimistic (about the impact of Covid this year). We’ll have to see what we get.

“Can’t be any worse, but hopefully it will be better. I suppose we won’t find out until we get there.”

Will the Commonwealth Games boost trade?

“I don’t know… we’ll have to see when we get there.”

J&M Harris Eggs & Cheese sells 30 Class ‘A’ large eggs for £3.50 or you can have 20 Jumbo Eggs for £3. View up Edgbaston Street towards Debenhams, now closed. (Image: Graham Young / BirminghamLive)

As John’s stall proves, there is still great value and quality to be had on the market – which should be good news for traders if people are feeling the pinch elsewhere in their lives with higher fuel prices etc.

Chairman of the Bull Ring Open Market Traders’ Association Nigel Harris wasn’t on the family egg stall when we called, but his decades-old family firm is still cracking on with life on a stall where you can buy a tray of 30 large eggs for £3.50.

Elsewhere on the market, an employee says: “There are a lot of empty stalls at the moment. This place used to be really busy – even seven, eight years ago.

“We’re up at 5am to be here, but it’s very quiet. Hopefully things will improve.”

Lorette Galena has been on the current Bull Ring Indoor Market for 21 years with Galena Giftware but would like to see Birmingham City Council doing more to promote all three of its markets online and elsewhere (Image: Graham Young / BirminghamLive)

Indoor Trader

Lorette Galena has been on the Indoor Market for 21 years, ever since it moved to the new Edgbaston Street ahead of the Bullring opening in September 2003.

With the market having no significant internet site compared with the likes of Leicester, she’s not the first trader to call for Birmingham City Council to invest in its future – both by upgrading it and giving it a modern, online presence to make the market’s history since 1166 something to be truly proud of.

Lorette, who also worked at the previous indoor market for years, said: “People are still coming out, they still want to buy.

“They like to see it, feel it, touch it, smell it.

“There’s still interest… we have to promote the interest and we do need help from the Council to promote that.”

Galena Giftware se;;s framed Peaky Blinders’ posters for £20 and says: “I am so proud the series is from Birmingham.” (Image: Graham Young / BirminghamLive)

Will the Commonwealth Games make a difference to trade in 2022?

“It would do if the Council promoted the market but they don’t seem to want to promote us a lot.

“They should be advertising us more and putting us on the internet more and raising their game as far as the market is concerned, doing the market up and discussing how to improve things with market traders because after all we’re the ones who are here all the time. They should be more proactive.”

With a number of empty stalls around, should they drop the rents?

Lorette said: “I think they should. Any businessman would say, ‘OK, if they can’t get the rent at the higher price, we’ll lower the rent and at least get something as opposed to nothing.”

BirminghamLive has asked Birmingham City Council about the number of stall vacancies and if there are measures in 2022 to help new starters.

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