What do you get the person who has everything? A 2,500-year-old oil lamp from Palestine – its edges only roughly worn down by millennia? (Remarkably, priced at £150 ($183) each.) A £900 earthenware fertility goddess from the third century BCE, which could be perfect for a baby shower? Perhaps a £350 wrought-metal camel saddle, with back rests included, for your next desert jaunt?
Since it opened in 1978, the labyrinthine London network of antique stalls known as Alfies has fished out the odd and lovely from the past, selling items to interior designers, tourists, television and film production crews, and local passers-by.
Even as the antiques trade was convulsed by the move to online auctions, Alfies has remained a standby for those we want to explore specialist (and ad hoc) collections of the past. Now, in response to the large Arab community along the adjoining Edgware Road, it has opened Al Fayez, a Middle Eastern-focused grouping of galleries selling fine artefacts, rugs and Islamic material from the past three millennia.
“It’s quite extraordinary how this area has changed, starting with Marble Arch and then gradually moving up the Edgware Road,” says Bennie Gray, the proprietor of Alfies, which lies on Church Street in London’s Marylebone area.
“I knew a few people who specialised in dealing in Middle Eastern artefacts and thought it might be interesting to see if we could accommodate them here ... I say, ‘Do what you think is right over time. And if you're lucky, it works out'.”
Gray set up Alfies in 1976, buying an old department store that sold the kinds of haberdashery items that were then going out of use – knitting needles, wool, “knicker elastic”, as he says. He had modest hopes for the project, expecting to fill the first floor and open on weekends, but it was an immediate success: stalls quickly populated all three floors, and then the basement, and Gray extended opening hours and built a rooftop cafe that is still a regular haunt of Marylebone locals. Celebrities, then as now, are frequent: Kate Moss, Noel Gallagher, David Beckham, mostly coming on a Saturday afternoon.
The character of the street also changed. When Gray bought Jordan’s department store, half of the street was derelict and boarded up. Now one half is an open market, with abayas, house dresses, linens, and fruit and vegetables on offer, as well Sara Falafel, which is often described as the best falafel stand in London. The other end is taken up by high-end antiques and retro furniture shops, with wares starting in the thousands, many of which started as stalls at Alfies and spread to their own premises.
Gray, now in his 80s, grew up in the area and revels in his eventful life. His father – Alfred, or Alfie – was a jazz musician and worked in the antiques trade. Bennie Gray followed suit in antiques, except for a five-year stint in the late 1970s when he dipped into what he calls a “dodgy profession”, journalism.
Working for the Sunday Times he covered the revolution in architecture and urban planning that was under way at the time. After years of lionising modernist towers, public opinion around architecture was swinging the other way, valuing street-level commerce and community enterprises.
After writing about the importance of small-scale communities, Gray decided to try his hand at creating some. A year after launching Alfies, he set up Gray’s, serving a higher-end antiques community in Mayfair. Later, in Birmingham, he launched the Custard Factory, a group of architecture, design, and music studios in the former Bird’s custard factory in the Digbeth area of the city. And he developed elaborate means to market his ideas – he hired the Pearly King and Queen of Peckham to drive their horse-drawn carriage up to Church Street, capitalising on the folk attraction to bring people into the warren of stalls.
Not all his schemes were successful. At some point in the 1970s, he says, he attempted to open another antiques market on the fashionable King’s Road in Chelsea. To market it, he bought a London double-decker bus that had recently been decommissioned and painted it in psychedelic colours, to try to bring customers in.
“I even hired a newly retired bus driver,” he recalls. “The idea was he would drive it around London to the big hotels, picking up people to take them to the antique market. In the end, the only people who ever rode on it were my children.”
There are now about 80 stalls in total at Alfies, ranging from a specialist Christmas ornament seller, all year round, to a cheerful Turkish clockmaker, who recently moved to London to be closer to his first grandchild.
Al Fayez is in some ways another of Grey’s manifold ideas. It’s not particularly authentic: the logo for Al Fayez has four niqaat that are randomly placed over the English letters, and Gray admits he got the name Al Fayez off a Waitrose food menu because it sounded like an Arabic version of Alfies. But the stalls that have arrived are serious, with joyfully painted tiles, intricate astrolabes, carved Quranic boxes and other high-level antiquities from the Arab and Islamic worlds.
The dealers' expertise is such that professors from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies now take their students to the Al Fayez stalls to learn from them about the Islamic art and artefacts they are selling, or to study unique finds they have come across. Most of the dealers have been working in the fields for decades, or are in a family business.
Bakhter Art, which has also established an online auction house in their Alfies studio, was launched by the current dealer's grandfather, who has been buying collections of beaded jewellery, suzanis and other textiles from Afghanistan since the 1970s. His son, Abdul Hadi Noori, and grandson, Ahmad, run the stalls most days, and have recently launched an online auction house operated from Alfies basement.
Family businesses are common at Alfies: upstairs, Robin Reyhanian, the Iranian shopkeeper at Rare Rugs, also took over from his father; Beth Adams, who sells porcelain at B&B, took over from her mother. The global scope might be expanding with Al Fayez, but the Alfies tradition remains the same.