Archiving the Wholesale Market

The Wholesale Market covers 0.5 square miles in the city centre

Birmingham rag market, indoor and outdoor market are easy to find, but the Wholesale Market, the mother of all Birmingham Markets, not many people seem to know about, or that it will be demolished in early 2018.

It’s Sunday morning at the Wholesale Market. Friction Arts have leased the top floor of the building in the middle of the precinct, where one of the banks used to be a decade ago. Around us is the carboot sale in full swing – the smell of fried onions and a reggae beat is wafting in through the window. Following a tour of our exhibition, documenting the Wholesale Market through interviews, artefacts, photography and charcoal portraits, the participants of our unique walking tour are given a pound and half an hour to find something from the car boot sale to contribute to our exhibition.

Now, you could argue heritage shouldn’t cost anything, I know, but the best way to experience a carboot sale is with a tight budget. Everyone returns having had a good chat, haggle and mooch in the car boot.

Birmingham-made King Dick spanner

The objects they bring back vary from vintage soup bowls to fidget spinners, cuddly reindeer to shiny washers, a remote control ‘Brum’ to wire cutters. After all of our tours, we have biscuit, tea and a chat – everyone has a story to share to why they brought back their item, and each tour goes well over the allotted hour, as the group shares their experience. We have documented the individual stories and placed on our tumblr – – But the conversations are not just about documenting the stories; the people who took part have found out about each other and there are further exchanges:

James and Adam love shiny things – James brings back a box of knurled brassy washers. No one knows exactly what they are, not even the person selling them – perhaps typical of many of the items you might find at a carboot. Adam takes them away and creates a unique necklace for Lee.

Hear the Gucci sock story

The conversations wonder across topics and issues, global and personal. Unusual fidget spinners for under a pound – the latest trend already at the carboot, and for a fraction of a shop bought one. We considered national car boot identity, comparing it to our love of tea and teapots. Some identify a personal link, like a love of Bangra or a Toby mug that reminds them of their family home. Yet more stories led to discussion on what was happening in the carboot, for example, a pair of Gucci socks:

‘I’m an Italian working in the UK for an Indian Corporation. I’m buying from a guy, probably middle eastern I guess, socks made in India, pretending to be Italian, cotton maybe from Uzbekistan… They say they’re Gucci and they’re not, they say they’re Italian and they’re not. 100% cotton which I doubt, but it is so unashamedly not true, I mean no one can be fooled.’

The socks lead to a discussion on the globalised economy and the questionable quality of some goods at the carboot.

Nikki felt drawn to a porcelain egg:

‘ that interaction with a stall holder, Arthur was saying there’s a really nice lady at that stall, and that’s a big part of it. An older Caribbean lady with lots of fashion things. You want to buy something from her anyway, and it reminded me of my Grandmother and her mantelpieces. All a bit of a trip back in time for me, really.’

Observations of traders and punters were equally revealing:

‘You see people carrying sacks of stuff that they’ve bought. It’s a microcosm of Birmingham. You’ve got people newly arrived in Birmingham buying new stuff relatively cheap to help them get set up, and you’ve got the house clearance guys who’ve been in at the other end of people’s lives clearing away, but also in a way completing that circle because they’re providing cheap stuff again for people who are starting out and so it goes round.’

From the people who took part in the walking tour most were new to the car boot sale and to the Wholesale Market precinct. All wanted to find out more, joining our mail list. Additionally it sparked an interest in the Wholesale Market as a whole, and a quarter of walking tour participants have volunteered to support ‘Wholesale Memories’ in the future as we approach a closure date.

The London buses are coming

The walking tour is just the latest of a whole series of activities collating the history of the Wholesale Market and the Car boot sale. What they all share is a focus on genuine exchange.  Trading and exchange runs through every aspect of the ‘Wholesale Memory’ project and is shared with many other Friction Arts projects. We value the time spent with us at the Car boot sale every bit as much as the time Wholesale traders, staff who work at the Wholesale Market, and the visitors to the Market are increasingly spending with us to document the history of the Wholesale Market, adding new layers and depth to our archives. As visitors come they respond to the interviews, photography, artwork and art installations, and so grows our ‘Wholesale Memory’ challenge.

In many ways the Wholesale Market precinct is not an obvious venue for an arts or heritage exhibition. It’s hard to find and little known about. There are safety aspects to consider, as it is in the middle of a working Wholesale Market. The building itself is due for demolition and has been little cared for for many years. Not least of our problems has been the uncertainty in terms of timescale for our work – the Wholesale Market and Sunday Car boot Sale has been threatened with closure throughout 2017.

Despite the difficulties, moving into the precinct has been our priority. It brings us physically closer to the people in the Wholesale Market. The stories belong to the people in the precinct, so being there is the most obvious place to be. But as always it’s about a genuine exchange – trading is something the people in the Wholesale Market understand more than most.

Wholesale Markets are not generally regarded as part of our ‘Heritage’. Our trading roots are ancient, but historically overlooked, given that they are driven by commercial concerns and logistics rather than ‘cultural significance’. The history of trading may be commonplace, but also essential. Birmingham Wholesale Market literally feeds the West Midlands every day.

The Wholesale Market is at the heart of the trader’s network, where most trade is not directly to the ‘consumer’. For a city like Birmingham, the Wholesale Market is particularly significant to our own identity as ‘the city of a thousand trades’. Through Wholesale Memory we hope to bring to life the stories of Birmingham Wholesale Market, but it will remain an exchange: We, as people living in Birmingham, need to recognise and value the contribution still being made, and throughout our history, at the Smithfield Wholesale Market. As Carl Chinn, says:

‘We don’t discover markets, they’re a part of us…Markets are vital to who we are. Without the Markets they would never have been a Birmingham.’

For more please see Wholesale Memory.

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