In my home city of Halifax, in Canada, there is only one market: Farmers’ Market. It opens on Saturdays only. You have to get there early; by 11 am the market is crowded and even elbow room is a luxury. The Farmers’ Market offers fresh fish, meat, fruit and vegetables of all kinds, along with local art, craft and clothing. Once an item is made or grown locally, it inevitably finds a place at the Farmers’ Market.
What makes the Farmers’ Market particularly appealing is the fact that it offers great trading opportunities for small businesses and local farmers. In fact, a trading table is so in demand that the market has had to be expanded recently to meet the growing trading needs.
Part of the success of the Farmers’ Market has to do with the way in which it is perceived. Visitors regard it as a quaint, exotic place to shop. In Canada, small businesses with local owners are becoming increasingly rare. Much of the shopping is done at large chains, ‘big box’ stores like Walmart. These are massive establishments, some of which can measure about the size of a city block.
I visited Bourda Market in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, recently. In Canada, the days of intimate trading establishments like Bourda Market are past and gone. This is only my view, but I have a feeling that Bourda Market too will go eventually.
When I visited Bourda Market and talked to the business owners much of the conversations centred around dwindling sales. I was told that whereas, trading drops off in September but picks up again in October (closer to Christmas) that has not – at least so far – happened this year. Some of the owners of the smaller businesses told me that there are days when they do not make enough money to pay their stall rents. One trader told me that his takings for the day amounted to around $900. It had cost him $600 to get to the market with his wife and children. That day he had suffered a considerable loss. He was not the only one. A female vendor told me that business used to be much better when her husband was alive. Once they were actually able to visit the United States for a month. In recent years, however, she has been reduced from a large stall to a small one and sometimes doesn’t even make enough money to pay for her transportation. “Business used to be business,” she said, “but now it’s just stupidness.”
The vendors furnish various explanations for what the widowed woman described as “stupidness”. Some speculate that it might reflect a temporary slump in the economy. Others are hostile to the municipal administration. They say not enough is spent on the security and maintenance of the market. Others still, complain about the homeless people who have taken up residence outside the market. There are other complaints too that have to do with things like flooding, garbage and lack of parking facilities.
The traders running the variety stores are fretful about the competition from the larger downtown stores that continue to mushroom on nearby Regent Street. There are signs that Georgetown is breeding its own ‘big box’ stores, like the US and Canada. There are ways in which larger businesses are more efficient than smaller ones. They can buy goods in greater bulk and for larger discounts. Many of them are more resilient in tough times. On the whole they offer more conveniences to customers, goods at cheaper prices. Smaller businesses, like some of those in Bourda Market cannot match them. Even when they manage to grow somewhat, the competition from still larger businesses is there. At the end of the chain there is the local ‘Walmart’ Some families only shop there.
A trend, it seems is emerging here. If that is indeed the case, Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, may be in the throes of a transformation of its own. Businesses like those in Bourda Market, establishments that have been handed down for several generations, appear mortally threatened. Some of them have been there for more than 40 years. The woman who once vacationed in the US set up her business with her husband in 1971, 42 years ago. Other business owners told me they started in 1972, 1974 and 1978. Dinesh of Dinesh Button World inherited his business from his mother, who started it 20 years ago. Rocky at Rocky’s Grocery told me that his father still runs a shop there. He said, “it’s where I grew up and what I know about. I’ve spent most of my life in Bourda Market.”
The owner of Brother’s Variety Store said his greatest joy was getting to know all of his customers. He has served three generations during in the 35 years he has been in business. He knew the parents and grandparents of his current patrons and he looks forward to getting to know their children. All of the vendors cherish the control which they have over their own lives on account of running their own businesses. “You get a feeling of independence,” Rocky said. All of that may be under threat.
Perhaps Bourda’s survival might depend on its capacity to transform, perhaps into a trading space like Halifax’s Farmers’ Market. There are not many differences between the two. It has to be said that in Halifax they are bigger on sanitation. The vendors there use a lot more ice to keep their meat and fish fresh. Whereas there are lots of variety stores in Bourda Market, in Halifax’s Farmers’ Market there are trading positions offering paintings, carvings, handmade furniture and artefacts of one sort or another. Perhaps there is market for those types of goods here too. Perhaps, I say perhaps, diversification could be the key.
Ramesh Sunich, the proprietor of the Trophy Stall changed. He opened a variety store in Bourda Market in 1974. Afterwards, he discovered a demand for trophies. He has expanded several times in recent years.
Both Bourda Market and the Farmers’ Market are large maze-like structures. If you are a stranger it takes time to navigate the structures. It makes for wandering around, a pursuit that goes with visiting such places. People who visit markets like those in Halifax and Georgetown look forward to the adventure of wandering blindly; stumbling into pleasant surprises. Both markets have a chaotic attraction about them.
Bourda reminds of a small, roofed town. I could happily spend a whole day watching the activity and exploring the many twists and turns of its narrow streets. The trading that is Bourda may be at risk but you get a feeling that these traders are not about to give up. Too much of their lives have been invested here.