Is it ever too early, or too cold, for a bit of banter? A freezing December morning shortly before Christmas, and the streets across The Barras market are covered in ice. Out come the shovels. “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off tae work we go,” sings one digging trader at the top of his voice, inviting the first groans and wisecracks of the day. “Thinks he’s bloody Mario Lanza…”
The Barras still trades on its legend as the archetypal Glasgow talkfest, but sadly the wit, wisdom and friendly repartee are no longer enough to pull in the punters. Even by lunchtime, with the ice cleared or melted, only small groups trickle through streets formerly accustomed to heaving throngs.
There’s plenty of room to examine the fading wall paintings detailing some of The Barras’ fabled characters: the ball-and-chain strongman, the Indian snake oil salesman, the Italian chestnut seller, the fiddle player tapping false teeth on his feet, and Maggie McIver, who founded the market back in the 1920s.
Conversation with strangers is still easy to come by, but it so quickly turns to the past. It remains impossible to ignore the sense that The Barras labours under the weight of its celebrated history, a living exhibition of yesteryear.
At the Square Yard, one of the quietest markets, Rose Bell blames the weather for a particularly slow day, but is not the only person to tell me that “the place is not quite what it was”. She’s been enjoying herself anyway, leaving her shop – a typical Barras mish-mash of rare jewellery, old gramophones and postcards – to watch the snowball fights with a German trader. “Someone said, ‘That’s for the Clydebank Blitz’,” she laughs. “All good fun.”
At 59, Rose has The Barras in her DNA. Her grandfather sold junk here from a horse and cart. Her father operated out of a suitcase.
Will her place still be around in 10 years’ time? “I’m not sure if this part of The Barras will still be here unfortunately – developers will no doubt have their eye on it, so we’ll have to see if it can all be kept together.”
One of her neighbours, who tells me to “keep her name out of it”, disagrees. “No, no, I don’t think they’d ever shut The Barras down, and I don’t think anyone’ll ever manage to redesign it. You have to let it be what it is. These council guys sitting in an office planning things don’t really know the place well enough to change it for the better.”
If it seems unfair to raise casual questions about The Barras’ future, it is something the traders have been pondering more seriously of late. The death of Paddy’s Market in 2008 was a reminder that the grand old ‘Glesga’ institutions are far from immortal. A more concerted effort by police in recent years to crack down on pirate goods has solidified The Barras’ present-day image as a haven for crime – the reason the council offered for closing Paddy’s.
In an effort to retain control over the market’s fate, a small team of enthusiastic traders recently reformed The Barras Trust. They are working hard to identify ways in which business, and reputation, can be transformed.
Trust member Nicola Duggan, who owns a handmade toy shop on Bain Street, concedes the place is not as dynamic as in decades gone by, but is assured the council remains committed to a thriving outdoor market in the area. “The problem for us is the difference between the perception and reality,” she says. “When people do make the effort to come down here, they really like it.
“The feedback we get from people here for the first time is all about the great Glasgow people – warm and friendly. I definitely feel there is a growing demand for niche things, and there’s still a great mix of people coming – Africans, Poles, millionaire builders coming for materials, west-end people coming for antiques. And new people are coming in with real enthusiasm. We hope we can build momentum. But we know that if we don’t get fresh blood and we don’t try to get the public to notice us again, it’ll die.”
Some newcomers are comfortable seeking out attention. New Yorker Camille Lorigo offers fresh ideas at The Barras Centre on Bain St, a venue in search of a purpose for over a decade now. Instigator of fashion shows and music performances in the courtyard, Camille has encouraged a series of bright young things to ply their wares – everything from cupcakes to illustrated ceramics – each weekend.
She also runs her own boutique store, studio and modelling agency, and enjoys the buzz generated around the market by her outfit’s photo shoots – scantily clad girls posing at the butcher’s stall.
“The guys loved it – wolf whistles and all that,” laughs the 34-year-old. “We were made to feel welcome straight away and it was nice to hear things like ‘You guys could be the ones to get the market moving again’. The place has got so much history, which is why people like it. So if it’s going to change it has to have a natural evolution – most people would dread it being polished up and redesigned artificially.
“People used to do one job for living, but now they’re getting interested in running business online, or making their hobby earn a bit of money, and maybe running a stall here at the weekend. It might seem like we’re up against the odds, but there is a great chance of building something unique here.”
Gregory Chauvet is another young Barras convert. The 32-year-old Frenchman gave up lucrative work as a financial analyst in Edinburgh to devote himself to cycling projects in Glasgow.
“The stress was driving me crazy. Maybe it was a midlife crisis or something like that, but I wanted to do some thing that might help people,” he shrugs.
Gregory’s Glasgow Bike Shed repairs, rebuilds and sells old bikes, and stays open during the week for workshops for the unemployed. “We want to give people the skills to fix things themselves,” he enthuses.
“People said don’t do it in The Barras – it’s not for this kind of project – but people have been really nice to us. It needs new life to keep it alive. If young generations don’t come in and do things then the council will want to come up with their own plans and we don’t want supermarkets or flats to take over.”
A few stalls along from Gregory, designer Juan Fuente is busy tinkering with wires and wood. The 23-year-old customises old CD players and Playstations with scraps of plywood, giving dying machines a strange new lease of life. Juan left Mexico City to study in Scotland a couple of years ago, but missed the lively second-hand trade back home. The junk economy of The Barras made perfect sense to him.
“I loved discovering this place,” he grins. “You could find whatever you wanted. I don’t think people realise what potential this place has. Why do you need another TV or CD player and all that unbelievable waste that comes with it? If you use old stuff again you can make something really interesting and new.”
While Camille believes she can attract people sick and tired of the hegemony of high street brands, Juan and Gregory hope they are tapping into concerns about sustainability.
Val Pearson, owner of another Barras legend, has seen more than a few consumer trends come and go, and is not so sure people are willing to let go of mass-produced tat. Val, 67, runs Bill’s Tools, first opened by his father William sometime in the 1930s.
“Unfortunately, all the stuff coming from China these days is so cheap that people throw it away and get a new one rather than fix it up,” he explains. “They’ve lost that habit. I remember a time after the war when people couldn’t afford stuff so much – they had to repair things, take better care of them.”
Still, Val is no pessimist. He’s grown fed up of rumours about the transformation or demise of Scotland’s most famous market.
“I’ve been hearing about big plans about this and that for decades. At one point the M74 was supposed to be coming through here. People have come up to me and said, ‘Val, you heard The Barras is coming down?’ I always say, ‘Well, let’s just wait and see about that’.”
Over at Glasgow Café, Patsy Woodward is finishing the last fry-ups of the afternoon. The 60-year-old was a fixture at Paddy’s Market until 2008 and is still livid at the council for forcing her and her neighbours out.
“For some people that came with us, trading is all they know – it’s their livelihood, so The Barras has been a good fit. They said Paddy’s was a crime-ridden midden full of drugs and that wasn’t the case. Every market in the world will have an element that’s a wee bit dodgy.
“People here are after a just poor people trying to look out for each other by selling stuff cheap. There’s no drug dealers – the drug dealers would get chased away like we did with them at Paddy’s Market.”
Architecture and planning expert Dr Ombretta Romice is an unlikely fan of The Barras. The Italian came to Scotland 13 years ago and warmed to the place immediately. “But I noticed how fast it seemed to being going downhill over the years,” she notes.
Her team of Strathclyde University students has now been tasked by the city council and Barras Trust to come up with solutions. Having so few remaining residential flats in the area may be a problem, but Romice believes the market still has a good location close to the city centre.
The academic also points out there is no reason The Barras cannot aspire to novelty and offer the cheap necessities – most successful markets do both. And there is also no reason to be overwhelmed by the mighty legacy of the “good old days”, captured in all those books of black-and-white photographs.
“There are fantastic examples of declining markets turning things around,” she explains. “The Barras hasn’t yet offered an alternative to some of the online trends with something special, even if there are still exquisite pockets of antiques and some great new things are happening.
“But everyone seems to have The Barras at heart. It used to be a place you wanted to take the family and it should be that again. It really was a fun place to be. It needs to find these things again, so the past needn’t be a burden. The past can be something it builds on.”