I first discovered Camden Passage and its antiques shops years ago when I was living in Hendon and decided one day to take a look at Angel, never suspecting that I would one day live there.
I was entranced and returned many times after that, not to buy—having neither the room to keep antiques nor the cash to buy them—but to look and admire.
Though I love antiques, and especially old clocks, I know nothing about the antiques business or the economic pressures which drive it. I think, though, that there is an abiding interest among people for beautiful objects whose charm is only enhanced by their age and “provenance”.
The antiques market of course shades imperceptibly down through “collectibles” to “secondhand” and finally to “junk”. Yet there is interest in all levels and as I observed again this morning, one person’s junk may turn out to be another person’s treasure.
Why this morning? Well, because every Wednesday, Camden Passage comes alive and the shops are supplemented by open-air stalls, selling a mind-boggling array of articles. It’s fun to wander along looking at the stalls, going into the shops, watching the people and listening to the chat between vendors and between vendors and would-be customers.
Unfortunately, Camden Passage seems to be experiencing a slow decline. It isn’t as it once was. On days other than Wednesday, it is very quiet. Many of the shops are closed and those that are open can be accessed only by ringing the bell to be let in, something that deters the casual browser.
Why are the shops so often closed? I think it is because a lot of business in the antiques and rare books market is these days done online. I see many antiques shops with notices indicating that they open only by appointment.
Apart from this, the Passage itself is slowly but surely changing its character. The lovely old Tram Shed used to be an antiques emporium, with two floors of little antiques shops and a cafe. The owner has evicted the dealers in order to develop the building. There was of course resistance but the owner eventually got his way.
Grave as the loss of the Tram Shed is, it is but a symptom of the decline. The Angel Arcade used to house an antiques shop and some boutiques and, on Wednesday, opened the basement for stalls. It has now closed or, rather, has mutated in a chain furniture store.
Another sign of decline is that one by one, the shops are turning into cafes, restaurants and wine bars. I see this happening in other areas that were once lively and popular shopping streets, such as Exmouth Market just down the road. Pleasant as it is to enjoy a meal in good company in a well-run restaurant, you can have too much of a good thing, especially where catering is concerned.
Still, there is no point in commanding the tide to retreat. All we can do is accept the inevitable, sad as it is, and enjoy the Camden Passage antiques market while it still exists. And, in any case, it is always possible that a fight-back will occur and the tide will, against all expectations, be reversed.
My visits to the Wednesday market contain a mystery. I face this mystery every time I go. I will explain what it is.
Along Camden Passage there is an open area when, on Wednesdays, some stall holders set up. Among these is a small stall run by an elderly lady. She sells cheap jewellery. Nothing odd about that but what is curious is that every time I approach her stall she stares at me with an expression of great hostility. As I move around the stalls, her eyes follow me with the same hostile gaze.
I have never spoken to her; never bought anything from her; never had the least to do with her. Whence, then, the hostility? Each week I am drawn to her stall as by a magnet. I don’t want to go and yet I do. I only spend a few seconds there, so she can never claim that I am harassing her or “stalking” her. One day, she was standing in front of the stall, arranging it. I approached to look but wherever I stood, she moved to put herself between me and the stall. Again, why? I wonder whether it is a case of mistaken identity or perhaps that she has a dislike of certain sorts of people and that I somehow fit into this undesirable category.
Perhaps I should try to get into conversation with her by asking after some item such as a silver bracelet or ring and either improve her opinion of me or ask what is wrong. I fear, though, that she might construe this as an attack and call for help. Maybe some mysteries are best left as mysteries.