Alfie's Antique Market in Marylebone celebrates 40 years in business

Alfie's Antique Market in Marylebone celebrates 40 years in business

Alfie's Antique Market in Marylebone celebrates 40 years in business - Credit: Alfie's Antique Market

An antiques market that first opened its doors in 1976 and is celebrating more than 40 years in business has a fascinating history, with foundations in the late19th century when its premises were originally a department store.

Alfie's Antique Market in Church Street, Marylebone was founded by Bennie Gray in 1976, when he bought the Jordan's building, and has significantly contributed to the neighbourhood's unique character.

For nearly a century Jordan's was a rambling old department store, where four generations of the Jordan family had sold haberdashery.

It was staffed by a small army of benevolent white-haired ladies who operated an amazingly elegant cash system which might have been designed by Jules Verne, and predated Elon Musk’s Hyperloop by at least a century.

Alfie's Antiques Market, Church Road, Marylebone

Alfie's Antiques Market, Church Road, Marylebone - Credit: GOOGLE STREET VIEW

If you bought a pair of bloomers for 10 shillings and gave the sales lady a pound, she would put the note into a metal canister which would go whizzing through a system of burnished copper tubes snaking around the building to the cashier who sat in a kind of money cage. The cashier would take the pound and send back the change using the same system.

Sadly, together with other bits of charming archaic retail technology in the building, the copper tube cash system was doomed. In the 60s the demand for darning wool, knitting needles and knicker elastic had been waning fast, the competition from cheap imported throwaway underwear was accelerating, and the days of this dignified old department store were numbered.

At the same time, the entire eastern half of Church Street fell on hard times. Shops were boarded up, many of the buildings were vandalised, and the gathering social problems of the adjacent Lisson Green estate, a giant somewhat Stalinist 1960s Westminster City Council housing estate, didn’t help.

In 1976, the Jordan brothers, who were in their 90s, decided to sell up. Despite the area's problems, founder Bennie Gray, because he had grown up in there and loved Church Street, decided to buy the building and turn it into an unpretentious antique market with low overheads and an emphasis on catering to the fast-growing nostalgia for mid-century objects.

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The Jordan's building didn’t need much work - it took less than six months to convert the building into an antique market.  Bennie called it “Alfies” after his father. When the word got out, more than 200 dealers, far more than he could accommodate, asked for a space.

On a hot summer afternoon in the middle of the heatwave of 1976, Alfies opened with a party in the car park, with a folk band to entertain the guests.  Bennie says his memory of drunk and rather portly silver dealers trying to Morris dance will remain forever.

Almost immediately, Alfies exuded energy and bustle. To begin with, it occupied only the ground floor of the building, but within a few months had expanded to fill all four storeys. For some reason, perhaps its unpretentiousness, Alfies attracted celebrities. Sometimes it also discouraged them. On one occasion, Manley - a highly talented but outrageously out there gay Jamaican furniture dealer, spied Rod Stewart and followed him around in the market singing “Do you think I’m sexy”.  Stewart never came back.

Subsequently quite a few of the dealers who started off with a modest stall in Alfies moved into the derelict neighbouring shops.

As a result, over the years, not only has Church Street become one of London’s best enclaves for antiques, but the whole area has become revitalised.

Old buildings have been renovated, all sorts of small businesses have sprung up and there is a buoyant mix of people living and working in the area. It’s an interesting example of how a working community of small businesses can trigger urban revitalisation.

Sadly it also led to gross gentrification - just across the Edgware Road there is now a massive residential development underway in which a one-room flat will cost £1 million.