Snoopers Paradise; the long view

Snoopers Paradise Exterior: Photo by Lisa Båtsvik-Miller

Snoopers Paradise Exterior: Photo by Lisa Båtsvik-Miller

Snoopers Paradise Interior: Photo by Lisa Båtsvik-Miller

Snoopers Paradise Interior: Photo by Lisa Båtsvik-Miller

Snoopers Paradise
Kensington Gardens
Brighton, East Sussex
Photographed on 14 January 2016
Frequent visits since 2001

Snoopers Paradise is an indoor flea market made up of over fifty individual stalls, varying in size from one IKEA display cabinet to fully-individuated and merchandised “corners”. The stalls sell a mixture of old and new goods, some handcrafted others mass-manufactured, from around the world and across the centuries. From jewellery to furniture, ephemera and books, china and glass, fashion and accessories, from toys to art and that catch-all, the “collectible”.

The building was once a department store; when I was an undergraduate living in Brighton I remember it selling household goods, the sort of cookers and chests of drawers that furnished student houses back in the 1980s. The history of how it morphed into a paradise for snoopers is a little mysterious and depends on who’s telling it.

These two images, by graphic designer and web developer Lisa Båtsvik-Miller (the designer of this website), were made by stitching together a series of photographs taken, one morning around opening time, at Snoopers Paradise. The exterior shot shows the full extent of the facade before the outside stalls have been set up on Kensington Gardens, the pedestrianised retail parade at the heart of Brighton’s North Laine.

The interior shot necessitated standing on a stepladder by the till and shows the entrance on the ground floor, the front window following the corridor to the left. The sales floor extends back from the facade and to the right into four separate rooms. The stairs lead to the “Attic”, one room that runs the full length of the shop’s front section. The rest of the ground floor is one storey, a mishmash of extensions seemingly added at random with varying ceiling heights and a roof that leaks at the joins. This erratic floor plan inhabits the space between two terraced streets and some of the “rooms” may have been gardens. A “back-stage” (staff and stallholders only) corridor exits into the street behind.

The market is staffed by a select team of stallholders; they congregate around the central till and when summoned by a bell are available to help. Staff are kept busy opening locked cabinets for customers to inspect goods and fetching items that are hung out of reach. Customers browse the open shelves, hence the “snoopers” tag, and bring their “finds” to the till. Larger items can be delivered.

The aim of showing these two images is to indicate the extent of the space and the visual chaos that is part of its charm. And charm it does, as the behaviour of customers attests to. Overheard conversations from awed out-of-towners invariably include, “I wish we had one of these in (add name of town or city)”. For Snoopers is a rare, alternative retail environment, an antidote to the sterile, replicated branded spaces of the high street. For some people it’s the first time they’ve been in such a place and reactions vary from: overwhelmed “too much stuff”; to visibly excited “you can find anything in here”; a minority are disgusted “it smells funny”. Families, couples, gangs of friends, work colleagues, students, mums with babies in prams, dog walkers, school parties; every social group demonstrates a different dynamic. Meanwhile, solo customers, ear-buds in, tend to wander trance-like enjoying a world of their own making. If someone happens across a stallholder they might stop and chat, or back away as if they’ve encountered the undead. Stallholders too have a range of attitudes to the public; they might feel it’s an inconvenience to find people on their stall when there is so much to do (dusting, arranging, and they’re in a hurry). Or they’re glad of a chatty distraction, discovering shared tastes and similar object obsessions. “Regulars” breeze about, often in their lunch break, confident in the knowledge that they will find a new treasure or bargain, as they have so many times before. Dealers, stylists, photographers, artists and designers all visit in their professional capacities, looking for inspiration, props, “found objects” to incorporate into new work, or simply something to sell on for a profit.

The next post takes a closer look at the objects, stalls and merchandising methods that make the most of the available space. Most stallholders aim to achieve a balance between accommodating abundance (required for profitability) and staging a cohesive and enticing display using whatever eclectic mix of objects they have on sale at any one time. Imperatives include tidying up, searching for items that “go walkies”, picking stuff off the floor (where it’s been dropped), or rearranging stuff to “freshen it up”. But there are stallholders who simply pile it up and leave it there, which must appeal to customers who prefer the chaos and the hunt; others appreciate the well-edited selection and say so. Either way, Snoopers Paradise is forever in flux, although an accretion of dust attests to the passing of time…

The snooper at work...amid the icons. Photo by Liz Farrelly

The snooper at work…amid the icons. Photo by Liz Farrelly