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Bargain paradise

By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, November 18 2012

With the Christmas season in full swing, shoppers venturing into Port-of-Spain will more than likely visit Charlotte Street, long regarded as a bargain hunter’s paradise.

It may be an amalgam of crowded sidewalks, makeshift wooden stalls, over-zealous vendors and excrutiating traffic, but to those who ply their trade along the popular shopping destination, Charlotte Street is a way of life.

“We are a family here,” president of the Charlotte Street Vendors’ Association, Melba Boxill, told Sunday Newsday last week, shortly after unpacking some of her merchandise.

“Everybody want to do business on Charlotte Street because of the atmosphere, which is like family.”

Having worked on Charlotte Street for the past 15 years, Boxill, 57, is a household name among shoppers and vendors alike.

A single mother of three grown children, Boxill began vending some 37 years ago, selling clothes that she sewed at her home. She recalled having to assist her children with their homework while selling on the street.

And while she taught them the importance of earning a decent living through hard work and sacrifice, Boxill lamented that many people in society still frowned on those involved in vending.

She said, “People tend to look down on vendors on a whole and when they get vex with them they say, ‘You (vendor) will stay a vendor till you dead. It is such a bad thing.’”

Easily recognised through her tuft of blonde, wavy, hair and stylish, brilliantly-coloured outfits, she is referred to by several terms of endearment, most of which allude to her warm, nurturing spirit and tutelage of those who have dared to vend on the bustling street.

In fact, so comfortable is Boxill with her fellow vendors, she often leaves them to tend to her stall when she has to conduct business outside of the area.

“I have no problem leaving them to sell. It’s no big thing. We live as one on Charlotte Street,” she said.

One such vendor is Sergio Llewelyn. Regarded as one of the ‘babies’ of the street, Llewelyn has been selling vegetables on Charlotte Street for only a year and a half, but is already a part of its family.

“He still on on-the-job-training,” joked Henry Alexander, who also has a thriving vegetable and provision stall.

Like Boxill, Llewelyn also noted the family atmosphere on Charlotte Street, suggesting the situation augured well for the established businesses along the street.

“Without the street market there will be a small flow of people,” he contends.

Another relative newcomer, Simone Smart, told Sunday Newsday she always wanted to become involved in sales and looked forward to the experience during this Christmas season.

“It (selling) is not a problem for me to do at all, but I am longing to see how it will be,” said the young mother.

Since she began selling vegetables on Charlotte Street, Smart joked that she has experienced the feistiness of some of the vendors.

“Them vendors have a hot mouth. They not easy. But it is a nice atmosphere,” she said, bursting into laughter.

Long before she became president of the association, almost four years ago, Boxill had experienced the highs and lows of Charlotte Street.

“It used to be a dead street with shoplifters and pick-pocketers. Nobody wanted to do business on Charlotte Street,” she said, alluding to its reputation for crime and untoward activity.

Boxill claimed, however, that crime no longer affected the street in a major way.

“Long time that was a problem but now all we have is a little snatching chain and they run from Charlotte Street to Nelson Street. Right now, Charlotte Street safe for everybody,” she said, recalling that the street was also notorious for hustlers and prostitutes disguising themselves as vendors.

Boxill said from a commercial standpoint, the area no longer specialised in the sale of mainly plastics, but now enjoyed a wide variety of merchandise.

“We sell everything except refrigerators, stoves and furniture,” she boasted.

This Christmas season, she said, is no exception.

“There are good bargains on everything from clothing and wares for Christmas, to provision and vegetables,” Boxill said. She noted that many of the vendors who usually sell vegetables throughout the year, have opted instead to sell wares during the festive season.

“Wares is a new look at Charlotte Street. A lot of people sold vegetables during the year, but switch to wares for the season.”

And while business has traditionally been good for some vendors, the effects of the slump in the global economy is still being felt in the pockets of her regulars, Boxill observed

“The economy has gotten so bad and people are not really buying, but we still have to make the money to pay for our rental of the area,” she said.

Vegetable vendor Henry Alexander, who sat in on the conversation, agreed the downturn in the economy has significantly affected commercial activity on Charlotte Street.

“Over the past two years, there has been a decline. There are no jobs, like in construction, so people not buying,” said Alexander, a former long-distance runner.

Alexander has dabbled in the sale of provision and vegetables for the past 25 years, five of which have been as a full-time vendor. He regards Charlotte Street as the “main street” in the capital city by virtue of its status as an unofficial marketplace, through which passers-by and longtime customers can engage in social commentary about politics and other pertinent issues affecting average citizens in the country. Currently, vending on Charlotte Street is allowed for three days a week. However, Boxill said members of the association will request from Port-of-Spain Mayor Louis Lee Sing, an increase in the number of days for vending to meet their fees. According to Boxill, fees are determined by the size of the stall and other specifications.

A small stall — usually set on one sheet of plywood — is rented for $600 a month, while vendors with larger structures are required to pay either $1200 or $1500. Payments are made to the Port-of-Spain City Corporation.

Even so, vendors have, over the years, continued to play a cat and mouse game with the police. Many of them have had to flee from the authorities and suffered the indignity of losing their hard-fought merchandise.

One such confrontation, two years ago, saw six vendors face the courts on various charges ranging from the illegal pitching of stalls and offering for sale marketable commodities, to obstructing the free passageway, using offensive language and resisting arrest. They were each allowed to take their own bail.

Boxill lamented that the development of a proper plan to address street vending remained elusive, not only on Charlotte Street but throughout the country.

She called for the establishment of a vendors’ association as a representative body for vendors.

“I wish the powers that be could do more so that vending can take place in the correct manner,” said Boxill. Lee Sing could not be reached for comment on the corporation’s plans for vendors on Charlotte Street during the Yuletide season. In the meantime, Boxill said the vendors — mostly single parents from deprived districts — have agreed to beautify the street for the season. The vendors have already met with Lee Sing, whom she described as accessible, and are hoping to put colourful lights on the street as they had done under the stewardship of former mayor Murchison Brown.

“We have not done it since Mr Lee Sing took control, but the beautification programme used to be funded by the corporation during the time of Hazel Manning (former PNM Local Government Minister). We were doing it comfortable,” Boxill said.

Boxill said the Charlotte Street vendors, proud of the area’s contribution to the development of the nation, were also very much involved in activities to commemorate the country’s 50th Anniversary of Independence.

She said banners bearing the pictures of the nation’s leaders and icons — including TT’s first Governor General Sir Solomon Hochoy, Miss Universe 1998 Wendy Fitzwilliam, retired West Indies batting star Brian Lara and 2012 Olympic javellin gold medallist Keshorn Walcott — were erected at strategic points along the street.

Boxill said, “The vendors did that for themselves and did not get a decent highlight. Not one compliment and I am a little disappointed.”

Nevertheless, Boxill has vowed to soldier on and she also encourages vendors to continuously seek ways to better their lot. Her own daughter, Crystal Daniel, a 2008 Digicel Rising Stars entrant who placed third in the competition, is a case in point. After selling clothes and other merchandise in a stall for several years, Daniel now has her own business on Charlotte Street, Melb’s and Pink’s, which specialises in trendy ladies’ undergarments.

Daniel is also completing a broadcasting programme at COSTATT (College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago).

“There is a positive vibe on Charlotte Street. We encourage entrepreneurship,” she said. In spite of its limitations, Boxill is aware of Charlotte Street’s appeal to shoppers throughout the country.

“When the normal stores close, you are sure to meet a vendor outside on Charlotte Street,” she said.

Sociologist Ronald Marshall acknowledged the historical antecedents which gave birth to areas like Charlotte Street. Vending, he told Sunday Newsday, had to do with the acceptance of relations in an informal setting by both the buyer and seller — a practice which emerged from what he called the “George Street phenomenon” of selling fruits and vegetables on the street instead of in the Central Market.

Marshall, lecturer in the Department of Behavioural Sciences at the St Augustine Campus of The University of the West Indies, said vendors and buyers exchanged pleasantries, but also voiced concerns about issues of the day.

Regarding the often combative relationship between the vendors and law enforcement authorities, Marshall stressed the need for both groups to work together, recognising each other’s limitations.

He said policy makers must be aware there are some conventional or traditional behaviours that cannot be “pushed easily into formality”, Places like Charlotte Street, Marshall said, thrived on its informality.

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