Market research: Shop your way around London

Just for the record, I'm not an acquisitive person: When I travel, I like to check out a city's museums, monuments, and cafes - and maybe buy tokens like a $5 "Guinness for Strength" mug (Ireland) or, on a trip to Germany, a gray lump encased in plastic that's an alleged piece of the Berlin Wall for $2.

But sometimes shopping in an unfamiliar place can offer a window on a culture, a way to mingle with the locals, and a chance to find souvenirs more memorable than a plastic three-inch replica of the Eiffel Tower.

I learned this on my most recent trip to London, which is teeming with interesting markets - some hidden and expensive; some big, noisy, and cheap. Many are highly entertaining and worth a visit - even if, like me, you've got only a long weekend to soak them up and not much more than $100 or so to spend.

The key to getting the most out of London's quirky markets is timing. Many are outside, dependent on halfway-decent weather, and some are open just a few days a week. Spitalfields Market, with its secondhand clothing and organic foods, is fully operational only on Sundays. Other markets have become too popular - Covent Garden, for one, sees 30 million visitors a year - and probably should be avoided on a weekend afternoon.

I set off on a Friday morning for Alfie's Antiques, an inauspicious-looking, blue-painted building on a quiet street a few blocks west of Regent's Park.

Alfie's claims to be the largest undercover antiques market in Europe, and the chaotic maze of tiny "shops," most of which are the size of a very crowded bathtub, gets busy. Show up before 11 a.m. if you want a chance to talk to the chatty shopkeepers ("costermongers" in old London lingo).

You may run into Colin Thompson, who specializes in old books and, of all things, Golliwoggs - strange brown-skinned dolls with big red grins and dark yarn for hair. "Oprah collects them," Mr. Thompson says, as I look at them dubiously. They sell for around $20 to $70 each.

And meet Sparkle Moore, who sells - and enthusiastically wears - American collectibles and vintage clothes from the '40s and '50s, and boasts that hip designers such as Stella McCartney often comb through her racks of fox-fur capes and sexy pinup-girl skirts. Alfie's, she says, fits her eclectic tastes: "I like that someone can come here looking for a chandelier and end up buying a dress."

It's truly diverse. Do you need a mod blown-glass vase from Milan or a gold-flecked plastic handbag decorated with a hand-painted poodle? Well, they've got them here.

Alfie's more sophisticated relation is Grays Antiques, just off tony Oxford Street. Benjamin Gray, Alfie's son, opened Grays in the 1960s, hoping to create a grand-style antique market. Here the jewels are real, and the shoppers - dealers buying from other dealers, wealthy-looking couples - are not thrifty.

I walk by one woman who's transfixed by a diamond ring from the 1920s that's on sale for 2,950 (about $4,900). "I'll give it to you for 2,100," the owner, John Joseph, offers. Ten minutes later, she's still deliberating.

At Grays I also see old perfume bottles, antique pistols, toy cars, and, most memorably, a two-foot-tall kewpie doll priced at $1,310.

The next day is Saturday, and Saturday in London means one thing for shoppers: Portobello Road. It's the long stretch of market in Notting Hill, the neighborhood made famous by the Hugh Grant movie of the same name. I start early at the top of the lane. Looking through a table covered in musty-smelling vintage handbags, I pick up a brown purse from the 1920s with a tag reading "38," about $63.

"The best I can do is 25," the woman behind the table volunteers.

"No, thanks," I say, knowing that what seems cool in London can lose its luster once it's in my American closet.

The fact is, it's hard to tell what this stuff is worth. Would you pay $585 for a German teddy bear from the 1930s? One long-time Londoner later tells me that he suspects that much of what's for sale in markets like this one is stolen property. He claims to have a friend whose fireplace, of all things, was stolen; the friend scoured the markets and actually found his hot property for sale.

No ethical dilemma for me, as I end up buying stuff that's too cheap for a criminal to have bothered with, including a sparkly necklace "from the 1950s," for $16; old black-and-white postcards of London for around $3; a $7 pair of earrings; and, best of all, a $16 suede coat.

This find is at the farthest end of the long market's road, whose wares change from silver and jewelry, to fruits and vegetables, to cheap T-shirts and funky clothes.

Sunday morning, I step out of the Camden Town Tube station, and plunge into the weirdness that is Camden Market. The adventure for most visitors begins with Camden Lock, a mall of sorts, whose entryway is a psychedelic, fluorescent-painted hall that leads to a bonanza of multi-colored bongs, concert videos, candles, leatherwear, and old Pink Floyd albums for sale.

What decade is this?

The other massive indoor market along the main drag is Stables Market, where you'll find designer dresses, antiques, furniture, and rockabilly clothes. My most memorable shopping experience along this stretch turns out to be the Electric Ballroom, a cavernous space that serves as a nightclub when it's not stocked with racks of wild 1960s- to '80s-era clothing on market day.

I join the crowd of young, black-clad shoppers - some with hair dyed pink and orange - with no intention of buying anything, of course. The fun, as at all these markets, is in the looking.

***

Market rundown

Alfie's Antiques: Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 13-25 Church Street; Marylebone or Edgeware Road Tube stations.

Grays Antiques: Open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 58 Davies Street; Bond Street station.

Portobello Road: Saturdays, from around 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Notting Hill Gate station.

Camden Markets: Buzzing between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays; Camden Town station.

Spitalfields: Organic food, soap, candles, vintage clothing. Best on Sundays, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Commercial Street; Liverpool Street station.

For more information on visiting and buying in London, see the British Tourist Authority's site, www.travelbritain.org, or consult the London Tourist Board at www.LondonTown.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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