Marc Herbert is the last in a long line of market traders. Herberts have run stalls across the East End for almost a century, selling on Bethnal Green Road, Brick Lane, and in Hackney since at least the 1920s. Marc’s father, Leslie, founded Herbert’s in 1974 and it has sold fresh fruit and salad in Globe Town Market Square ever since.
The Herbert heritage is rich, but it is increasingly past. Marc’s uncle used to sell seasonal vegetables in a stall next door. Not any more. Wally Herbert’s fishmonger in Hackney, founded by Marc’s great grandfather, closed in 2017 after 77 years in business. ‘It’s been a long tradition of the family to be store holders,’ Marc says, ‘but I think I’m the last one left now.’
Marc was 15 when he started working at the stall with Leslie on Saturdays. When as a younger man no other profession clicked, he returned and they ran the stall together as father and son. Since Leslie passed away, Marc has run the business on his own.
Not that Marc’s life in Globe Town Market Square seems terribly lonesome. We choose a ‘quiet’ time of the week to chat, but he still has to nip off regularly off to serve customers, some of whom he’s known half his life. ‘I see people who were 18 or 19 when I started and now they’ve got kids. They’ll come by and ask how my children are,’ Marc says. ‘Some of their mums and dads used to know my dad.’
The sprawling Herbert’s stand has almost as much history as it does fruit and veg. Its Hiller Bros barrows are from the 1940s, while its hand painted sign was made by one of Leslie’s customers around 1980. Marc still only accepts cash, dealing out change from tubs on the rear barrow. The stall whirrs along like a well-oiled machine.
Is it all as easy as Marc makes it look? It’s around seven degrees as we’re talking. ‘Today’s quite a mild January day really,’ he laughs. ‘It ain’t that bad.’ He’s found customers brave the elements when it’s cold and dry, and he has adjusted over the years. ‘I actually do think my body has adapted to it. I don’t really wear gloves or hats.’
Rain and snow are the only real real pains. There’s no escape from rain. ‘There’s literally times when I’m in the van driving home and I’m shaking from getting so wet.’
Sometimes the fates are kinder. During last summer’s heat wave Marc was quite content with his lot. ‘Everyone was coming by saying “morning” and I’m all suntanned and they’re all jealous because they’re working in the office and I’m out in the sun. Then this time of year they can’t wait to get to work. This time of year people don’t envy me being out here.
‘Welcome to the greengrocer life.’
The greengrocer life on Globe Town Market Square isn’t as bustly as it used to be. In Leslie’s heyday there were four or five greengrocer stalls in the square. Today, apart from Herbert’s and Downey Brothers fishmonger, it is empty. ‘I never had the chance to experience this place being busy,’ Marc says, scanning the square. ‘When I first started with my dad there used to be a few more stalls, say five or six about fifteen years ago, and now there’s just two.’
The store holder life in the 21st century, for all the pleasure it brings, does not promise a great deal of security. ‘Everyone needs money to survive,’ Marc says. ‘If you’re not busy you’re not going to earn money, then you can’t pay your mortgage, you can’t pay your bills, and then you don’t get holiday pay, you don’t get sick pay, you don’t get maternity leave. When my daughter was born I had a week off to help my partner and I had to close for the week.’
It leaves Marc wary of bringing the next generation of Herberts to market life. ‘I probably wouldn’t advise my children to come into it.’
Still, he sees great potential in the spacious 1950s square. ‘It’s missing out on a bustling area, lots of people with different stalls. You might get the the Bengali community, the Somalian community. There’s a lot of Spanish and Italian student who have come into the area, I serve a lot of them. They might open something up here. There’s a chance to have a lot of different people here.’
That social core is what seems to give Marc the most joy. Every passerby is met with a bright ‘morning’, and every one is returned. ‘There’s something about a market environment,’ Marc says. ‘You don’t get that kind of atmosphere in a shop.’
For some, Marc has noticed, market stalls become a kind of extended family. ‘Some customers are 80, 90 years old. They’ll come up here, buy some fresh fruit, have a chat with me. Then they might go to Derek and buy a bit of fish, see how he is, and that could actually be their contact for the whole day.’
It’s a responsibility Marc Herbert assumes effortlessly. Though thermals help, his natural warmth surely goes a long way to keep the cold at bay. Early mornings and days in the rain are comfortably outweighed by the feeling of being part of the community. ‘This doesn’t feel like work to me. It doesn’t feel like a job.’
You can find Herbert’s in Globe Town Market Square every Tuesday to Saturday from 8am to 12pm
If you liked this article you may be interested in our piece on Roman Road’s Downey Brothers, the oldest fishmongers in East London