When I moved to Mansfield 28 years ago the first thing which impressed us was Mansfield Marketplace.
We enjoyed browsing among the many stalls, sorting through the bric-a-brac and coming home with bargains.
Sadly, that has markedly diminished over the past decade. It seemed that a market culture was a thing of the past.
However, on 24th July 24 visited Chesterfield Flea Market; it was like going back in a time machine. It was as good, varied and packed as anything you’d find in Europe.
This begs a question; why? Our market’s decline has become a local political football in recent years with all manner of reasons given for its decline, such as the fee for booking a stall.
However, Chesterfield’s fees, ranging from £16.60 to £27.40 (depending on the size of the stall) exceed Mansfield’s lower rates of £10 to £26.
Does Chesterfield have more customers? It would seem not; their population of 103,800 is lower than Mansfield’s 106,000.
Perhaps the reason for Mansfield Market’s decline lies more in unexamined psychology. People browse in markets as a relief from the regimentation and organisation of 21st century supermarket retailing. In an open air market we enjoy the exuberance of the search for goods and the available interaction between the sellers. Yet once you impose the physical organisation, symmetry and ‘neatness’ of modern retailing on an open air market, something is lost. In Chesterfield, which, admittedly, is lucky in having two open-air areas (although Mansfield does have Westgate and the market place), the stalls have not been modernised and ‘gentrified’. They are still packed tightly together in straight ranks, the spaces between them retaining all the intimate charm of a Moroccan bazaar. Compare the new lay-out imposed upon Mansfield’s market.
We have the ‘performance area’, the concrete balls and seats, the space-gobbling arc of the submerged fountains in front of the old Town Hall, and the lay-out of the stalls at a strange diagonal angle, with much wider walkways. Anyone coming to Mansfield for a market experience could easily imagine that market trading was dying a death.
It would be easy to suggest in a modern retail environment with everything pre-packaged with sell-by dates and automated check-outs that the captains of retail capitalism have defeated public tradition.
Yet markets in cities like Amsterdam, Bruges, and Munich are as vibrant as they ever were.
Even in the epicentre of world profit, the USA, open air markets grow annually. In Florida, flea markets alone account for $170 million in trade per month, and in California, San Jose’s market has over 60,000 visitors every weekend.
Granted, we’re not in America. But we had marketplaces for a thousand years before the Pilgrim Fathers. The words ‘boutique’ and ‘designer’ have nothing to do with an open air market.
They are not corporate places paying dividends to shareholders. They are civic areas where people sell to people. If we want Mansfield’s market to survive, we need to emulate Chesterfield’s success.
It’s time to straighten the place out, rough it up a little, and put some character back. Maybe then we can all rediscover an enjoyable aspect of our heritage.