Norwich Free Market

Norwich Free Market all began in lockdown when we were providing soup to the homeless, local community and friends, neighbours and anyone who wanted a proper cooked meal. After Ramadan we wanted to be able to do more than just ‘rescue’ people as it was clear that COVID was going to play havoc with peoples finances long term. Hence we came up with the Islamic market which offers free space for all stallholders.

The market has three areas, one in the main car park for general traders, we have such a variety of stalls, from ceramics, to jewellery to eco-conscious products and clothing. Then in the central area we have all the food stalls which again changes monthly, but they range from the usual burgers to vegan and wings, Caribbean, Moroccan, Malaysian. whoever makes it in.. And then of course there is the inevitable baking stalls which always go down a treat. In the Wellbeing Centre garden we have music provided by local artists to give them a platform as well as tables for people to eat at.

We are part of the Ihsan Mosque community in Norwich, so it was clear that we should help those around us. When the Norwich Theatre Royal offered us their car park to hold the market in, it was a natural relationship of neighbours helping each other. They have been super kind and on market days they even open the main theatre doors to allow access from Theatre Street.

For us it’s all about what can we do to help others. We feel that in this really difficult time that it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to help others and to show that there are other ways of doing business which free all kinds of people to trade. The importance of the market is that it is free, which means really small businesses who are just starting out can start trading, get feedback on their products from the public and see which products are most appealing. It also gives people a social outlet as it is outdoors so that shoppers and traders meet other people in the safer outdoor environment, which is good for everyone’s mental health.

The second aspect is the first come, first serve which means that we only accept the first 38 traders to apply at a given time. This means that we are liberated from favouritism and the politics that come with that. It simply is the luck of the draw. No more of the ‘choosing the team’ nightmare that so many people experienced at school! And it seems to work as we have a changing list of traders each month, some are quick off the mark and make it back whilst other new traders make it on. It’s quite an exciting way to work.

It’s so touching to read some of the traders’ stories of how lockdown affected not just their financial situation but their mental health. Providing them with an outlet for their products and a safe outdoor shopping environment helps one feel that someone is in a better place today because of the market.

This all came out of the lockdown. Small businesses were so affected, especially small traders who had many markets cancelled and so had no income. Small inessential shops that sold their goods were also closed. By providing shopping in an outdoor space we enabled the small businesses to get back in the market.

We’d like to expand from the Theatre Royal as we have many times more traders registered than we have space. We are hoping that Norwich City Council will take up the banner of this important initiative for the local people and offer us a space for it. I think the future of shopping will maybe be more outdoor – we are going to have to embrace the tempestuous English weather, but at least we get to socialize in a ‘socially distant’ outdoor way and enable small businesses to maintain an income all year.

Norwich Free Market is every 2nd Sunday of the month, 10am to 4pm, at Norwich Theatre Royal Car Park.

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