Benches 70 - 73: Market Place
Around the corner from Bench 69 and we're right in the centre of the town. This is (the) Market Place; the definite article is always used as a prefix here. We'd hate for you to think that there were other market places (even though there are). Maybe the definitional aspect is there to prevent folk from wandering up to the cattle market thinking that they'll get cheaper veg and a better range of second-hand books there.
Market Place got remodelled what feels like only a few years ago. Four benches, fancy paving, a market square kinda olde-worlde streetlight affair with stepped risers up to its base. Bollards around the outside. Easy short-term parking in the evenings and on non-market days. Stalls and stallholders Wednesday, Friday, Saturday.
The newest addition is the map dispenser. A quid gets you a cartoonish map of the town. It's somewhat self-defeating as there's a map in plain view to the left of the machine. There are several of these coin-operated devices around. One day I'll slide a coin in and get a copy. It seems an awful lot of trouble to go to just to earn a pound though.
This end of the market, which extends into Cornmarket behind, is generally the busiest. The centrepiece is the fruit and veg stall. Brassy women up from Boston. Efficient banterers, fast with onions, ornate tattoos (one stall-worker has a back-piece that looks like a corset being laced up), a constant ferrying of paper cups of tea. Good fruit and veg; plenty of choice. Nothing too exotic mind.
Sharon - who drinks in the Masons - runs the DVD and CD stall with her partner. They trundle the stock over from their house on sack-barrows early doors; they don't use a van. The flower stall; expansive and territorial. He gets tetchy if there's competition. The bloke with the books; three paperbacks for a fiver, but top sellers like Lee Child aren't included in the offer.
Stu's Watches. Stu replaces batteries, sells straps and lighters, little radios, smoking paraphernalia. Tins with cannabis leaf logos. His illuminated sign has a few of the diodes out.
Alan's Cards. Been on the market decades. I used to live a few doors down from Alan when I was in Grimsby. A friendly bear of a man; always moving. Look at his signage; rough around the edges, a tad old-fashioned, but it's got bright colours and what's more, it's still there. That's not bad going for a market stall on a town like Louth. There's no shortage of card shops here. One of the perils of towns like ours is the drift towards twee. A chintz derive. Helium balloons? Banners? Frozen? Those in the know shop at Alan's.
There's others too, but these are the ones that stick out for me. People and stalls without whom the market wouldn't be quite the same. Others come and go; usually there's a bakery stall, others selling wooden things, allotment and smallholding produce. Farmers' markets bring out the butchers and piemakers. The fella who flogs ostrich burgers usually rocks up.
Some no longer here are missed. Take Stan, for example. Technically, the business was called Flinttstones (the extra tee presumably insurance against Hanna-Barbera's suits coming down hard on him), but everyone knew it as Stan's.
Stan ran a tea van. Bacon buns and sausage baps. Tea and coffee (instant Nescafe, spooned from the catering drum); mugs available on request. Sossies that had been on the grill a while got kept warm in the bain-marie and then sold off cheaper in hot dog buns. Coke and Fanta in the fridge.
Stan was a focal point; everyone gravitated towards Stan. A meet-up spot. A wedding reception venue once. A loose crew of regulars; Robert and Alfie, Joyce. It was like a pub, but outside, and more savoury. And at the centre of the wheel, the hub around whom the market turned, the steady unflappable figure of Stan. Always the same greeting: "What'll it be?"
Stan left the market three, maybe four years ago. Health problems plus some family issues (don't ask, but it was in the papers, even made the nationals). Attendance became sporadic, then Stan faded away.
Others tried in his place, and you'd have thought it would have been a straightforward thing to do. Get a van, sell burgers and rolls, drinks hot and cold. Money for old rope. But it's not. Stan made it look easy, and did it without fuss or glamour, which is the mark of any true artist.
Some say they've seen Stan - still in the van - at the big Sunday car boot sale on the Laceby side of Grimsby, but I like to think that's a phantom. A mirage of an oasis, nothing more.
This is a good place to watch the world go by. You can kill an easy hour, market day or not. Someone you know will come by every few minutes. Sometimes it gets a bit cramped, what with the busyness, but that's part of the experience. Besides the market's soon enough gone. Up and running by eight, packing up by three. Clear by five.
The council leave the stalls up overnight on Fridays, but Wednesdays and Saturdays they're soon enough packed away. A park-up spot in the summer for boy racers. Mopeds, rust-red Peugeot 105s. Gawky hangers-on, fagging away cockily, crouch on the steps up to the streetlight like safari park capuchins, egging on racing laps of the one-way system till someone rings the cops enough to have them moved on. Sometimes there'll be a run out to the nearest Maccys. It might be sixteen miles to Cleethorpes, but there's no chain fast food in Louth if you don't want Subway.
The shops are a patchwork of charity outlets (Cancer Research, Oxfam, the Grimsby hospice), banks and building societies, Spar, a Greggs. The Spar's got a steady crew of folk who've worked there a while; always a subtle sign of a well-enough run place.
Bargain Buys took over the old Woolworths building and inherited its function of selling slightly randomised household goods, toiletries and toys. A bakery and an opticians. A thin WH Smiths. Louth's not quite big enough a town for the high-street big boys; their occasional presence feels diffident, half-hearted, impermanent.
I did five years in the Oxfam. A couple of hours on Saturday mornings sorting out books in the basement. That building's got five floors if you include the undercroft. A plaque outside reminds us that it was here that Tennyson's first poems were published. If you go upstairs you can see where the printing press stood. The floorboards are still shaded with spilled ink. There's a novel to be written about the internecine workings of a charity shop. Maybe one day.
A few tips if you're donating books.
1) If they're not clean and in saleable condition then they're off in the bin. Too many carriers full of dog-haired, nicotined, sticky and/or moist Alastair MacLeans have passed through these doors. Stick them in the recycling.
2) Check for bookmarks. We do. Photographs, foreign currency, till receipts. A school report once.
3) Readers Digest condensed books. Best not.
4) Ditto "Microwave Cooking For One".
4) The big paperback of the year before last. We've got plenty, thanks, of your well-thumbed EL Jameses.
5) Annuals and TV tie-in books featuring disgraced celebrities of a previous era. Most charity shops have ethical policies that don't extend to having a dark irony section.
6) Humorous stocking fillers.
7) Celebiographies. You didn't want it for Christmas, did you? See us, six months later.
Here's what sells:
1) Good quality, newish non-fiction. Can't get enough of it.
2) Genre fiction: historical, fantasy, thrillers, romance.
3) Mid-list literary fiction, especially early novels from someone who's just hit big/won an award.
4) Anything even vaguely occult. Stick a tarot card or Stonehenge on the cover, and it's off the shelves before the book's settled into place.
In short, think about what you might buy from a charity shop. Not the books you'd gladly pay full price for on release. The stuff that catches your eye. The books you didn't know you needed. That's what we want. So donate that.
I miss working there, but I've done my stint for the time being. Maybe another time. Still, it's good to reflect on; my time was worth more than the sporadic coppers I'd otherwise have donated. I just hope I did some good.
The Google Street view is from the point where Market Place becomes Eastgate. Look up above and between the shop fronts for Clinton Cards and the Co-op pharmacy, you'l see the evidence. The image is from May 2011. A typical market day; all of a bustle as you'd hope.
Here's the updated Benches of Louth map on Google Maps.