I don’t really mind admitting this: I like outdoor markets. Not the shopping aspect(honestly this is as enjoyable as a prostate exam from the Spanish Inquisition), rather it’s the discovery that I enjoy. Any outdoor market in any city anywhere in the world is an exploration and discovery of a city’s soul. They are places where small shops cater to two very specific and enourmous groups of people: tourists and the 99%. These shops range from phone accessories(lets be honest, iPhone/iPad/iMac accessories make up the vast majority) to clothing stores both of which sell nothing I am remotely interested in spending money on. But hidden between these shops are a few hidden gems, stores that sell a few things that are a little different from the trend.
Let me paint you a picture(I’m sure I could show you one and save myself a thousand words, but you’re not here to see me post pictures all day): imagine a sea of tiny tent pavilions of white cloth with small alleyways weaving between them. Under each tent are cardboard posters acting as walls holding up t-shirts and hoodies with funny phrases and pop cultural references. And in the center stands a young man or woman whose only interest is getting as much money as possible from you using as little as possible merchandise. No fake sincerity, no “it’s supposed to be a little tight” or “it won’t shrink in the wash”. Across the way, you see some tiny food shops selling some local cuisine, perhaps tandoori or obscure ethnic Chinese food. At five in the afternoon the small signs get replaced with 2 for 1 deals enticing your pallet and forcing you to drool.
Welcome to the Camden City Market.
When you go there, you first notice primary needs shops(food stalls). At the Camden City Market I saw twenty different food stalls selling waffles, Chinese food, Japanese food, pizza, curry, fish and chips, vegetarian food, Thai food, Vietnamese food, sandwiches, baked goods, burgers, Korean and Mongolian bbq, North American bbq, fried chicken; you name it, they’ve got it. The variety is astonishing and my compatriots who’d never seen markets like this had what can only be described as a foodgasm.
Next, you find the mass consumerism shops. These typically sell t-shirts, jumpers, bags, phone accessories, jewelry, and hats. These are for the tourists who want a shirt commemorating their trip to the city, some local earring that have that quaint and cute charm you only find on vacation, the fake brand name bag that makes you feel a little more classy and those cheap phone cases that are guaranteed to break before the vacation is over.
And lastly, you find what you really wanted to see, even if you didn’t know it: the unique and obscure. Shops that probably couldn’t survive anywhere else in the city, but are odd enough to be popular in a very niche market. Chances are if you enjoy these shops like I do, then you’re a hipster.
The Camden City Market is a sprawling outdoor market that stretches across several areas that used to be streets at one point, waterfront property that was probably a park at some point and buildings that almost certainly had noble intentions before becoming the grounds of a curry shop. It’s a glorious example of London’s true soul. The consumer retail stores of New Oxford Street and the coffee shops of Soho and Picadilly feel empty in comparison. As do the endless pubs that all share the some store front: identical black wood facades with hanging flower pots and windows that can only be seen through with a flashlight.
However, Camden is London unedited, undiluted, undeterred. Cities have a mask of civilization that they want visitors to see and be comforted by. I would venture that knowing there is a Starbucks in a foreign city has a calming effect similar to smoking a joint or watching Peter Mansbridge. But outdoor markets straight up want your money and they want you to buy stuff. No smoke and mirrors, no lies and deceits. It’s here that you’ll find the soul of the city you’re visiting.
For me, Camden revealed its soul with a guitar shop where I couldn’t get service because both shop owners were giving a gorgeous Spanish girl guitar lessons, with a record shop that I couldn’t get into because they’d closed for a joint break and the windows were so fogged up I thought there was a fire, and with a camera shop where the owner took apart modern digital cameras and rebuilt them in cases of cameras predating the Vietnam War.
This was London’s soul. I hope you find it as well.