Derek’s Books: legendary Preston Market trader talks learning the ropes, Covid, and 45 years’ trading
When Derek was but a baby, Fred would take him to the market each week, placing him in a box under the stall and giving him a handful of toys to keep him occupied as he went to work slaking the city’s literary thirst. As Derek got older, the market naturally became his second home.
Growing up amongst the stalls
Dashing amongst stalls that were once his playpen as a toddler, the six-year-old Derek began earning a few coins as an errand boy, buying cigarettes for the market traders and doing countless odd jobs here and there. When he was a little older, he started helping out at The Book Exchange, the sights, sounds, and rhythms of the market drummed into his blood.
“Thinking back to the early times conjures up images of the old outdoor market before the indoor market was ever envisaged,” says Derek. “It was a hive of activity back in the mid-’60s - all the fruit and veg outside, I’d go down with my mum and dad, and I was under no illusions that I had to do what I was told! No doubt about that.
“I used to get dropped off at the Odeon with a shilling - sixpence to get in and sixpence for an ice-cream - and then make my way back to the market,” he adds. “I can remember always going back via the fish stalls to look at all the fish. It was an assault on the senses, but what made it really special was all the different characters.
“We lived in Kirkham, which was a very white place, but Preston had every race and creed,” continues Derek. “As a child, I remember having bagels for the first time from Mrs Greenberg on the stall next to us, and they used to have these storage boxes, so they’d pop me in their box when my parents were busy. It was my playpen.
“The West Indian community in Preston at that time was phenomenal as well. I remember befriending two West Indian families and just being surrounded by all this cooking I’d never seen before. And I thought my mum and dad were strict! If someone said ‘sit down there now, boy’, you did!”
That Sunday feeling
Derek lived for Sundays. Even when he was able to slip away from an afternoon’s work, he’d stay nearby, exploring and playing with his mates. He recalls vividly the tongue-lashing he received one day after heading off to play in the building site sand when the indoor market was being built, returning to his angry father looking somewhat dishevelled.
“From an early age, I’d do the odd job on my dad’s stall,” Derek says. “The traders would give me a few coins to get them a pack of fags, a brew, or a paper, so I was absorbed into the daily life of the work. When I left school, I wanted to be a joiner or a carpenter, because that was my passion, but there was a downturn in the building trade and I couldn’t get a job.
“My dad still tried to persuade me to get what everyone there classed as a ‘proper 9-5 job’, because he knew what it was like on the market,” he adds. “It was a way of life. But it was what I knew best, so I started my own stall from scratch in ‘78 because my dad had finished by then. It was just short of my 18th birthday.”
Learning the ropes
Derek made some of his fondest memories throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the community forged under the canopies strong as iron. An unspoken hierarchy based on traders’ longevity was set in unspoken stone: if a new stall became vacant, the longest-serving market fixtures had first refusal.
“It was hard - you were on your own,” Derek explains. “I wasn’t Fred’s lad running errands, I was a stallholder and everyone treated you a little differently. You had to grow up, but I enjoyed it. One of my favourite stories was over in Chorley. I packed everything into my little van, went over, and set up next to this chap who was the archetypal Del Boy.
“He ran a big bedding stall with towels and everything and he even had a lorry, so he was massive. He came to me and, in his gruff voice with his flat-cap and sheepskin jacket, said ‘you’re a good worker you, keep your head down and you’ll make something of yourself; not like my lad, my lad messes about, always on his guitar until god-knows what time of night.’
“Turns out, his son became Lol Creme out of 10cc!” Derek says with a laugh. “And his father wanted him doing a proper job instead! The characters were here, there, and everywhere because you had to be larger than life to stand out. While it can get a bit EastEnders, there’s a real camaraderie and generally it’s a good laugh.
45 years in the business, Covid, and the future
In March this year, Derek celebrated 45 years as a trader on Preston Market. He received a visit from the Mayor of Preston Neil Darby and Councillor Carol Henshaw, who presented him with a bouquet of flowers, to thank him for his long service. Looking back over the years, the sentiment that shines through is pride: in the work and in the friendships formed.
“There’s a lot of pride in what we’ve created,” says Derek. “But it’s not always been plain sailing. One of the biggest downfalls which hit my dad was TV coming on hire purchase, because everybody could suddenly get ahold of a telly. That was a big kick in the teeth for him, while for me it was the supermarket’s net price book agreement.
“We used to do a lot of new books, but we just couldn’t compete at all - they were virtually selling books at wholesale price, so that caused a bit of a blip. Then we had the Kindle and lockdown. I thought it’d be the end of us - who’d want to buy a second-hand book during Covid?’ But we sanitised everything and, on the first day back, it was pandemonium.
“There’s been a boom in reading again,” Derek continues. “I’ve been stunned at how busy it’s been, but a lot of people got into reading in lockdown. As long as I’m still making a few bob, I’ll keep going. I turn 63 in a couple of months, so it’s also about whether the spirit falters on those mornings when you wake up at half-three and it’s howling outside!”
Revelling in running his own business and cultivating strong relationships with his regular customers, Derek says it’s the people who have kept him going over the years. Well, the people and his wife. And he’s never deviated from his father’s famed mantra: it can take months to get a regular customer and minutes to lose them.
“I just want to say a big thank-you to all my customers,” says Derek. “And to my family for putting up with me for all these years!”
Preston’s Outdoor Market trades every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday with second-hand markets on Tuesday and Thursday. Visit www.prestonmarkets.co.uk for more information.