how to shop with one pound

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The Independent Culture
The very thought of going to a south London multi-storey car park at six o'clock on a Sunday morning is enough to keep any right-minded individual well under the duvet. Why then do I find myself on the top floor of one, in near darkness, and in possession of a pounds l Fred Perry tracksuit top and a 50p Keith Chegwin Jogger radio bought with hours to spare before even the local clergy has stirred? The Sunday boot fair in Lewisham is no ordinary jumble sale, but London's largest covered boot fair - a weekly shrine for the capital's dawn patrol of bargain hunters.

As early as Saturday afternoon the mile-long queue of vehicles forms below the towering modernist car cathedral as the mobile traders vie for the best pitches, situated on the lower floors, from the 200 parking spaces available. Market organiser Jean de Vandiere lets them in any time after 6.30pm and by 5.30am the next morning tax-free trading is in full swing as the drivers unload their wares in front of the hawk-like punters. "How much is that dog?" asks one. "A pound, just washed it again," replies the seller quickly handing over the cuddly toy. "This is from Coles," says another trader proudly in an effort to sell a dishevelled-looking tweed jacket.

A budget-priced music system deafens the third level with Bonnie Tyler singing "I need a hero" while a cluster of men crouch over some cumbersome looking computers and fax machines. "I'm robbing myself to be giving them to you for pounds 9," swears one stallholder as he forces two spotlamps upon another browser.

Here, a mere handful of change can fill a large shopping bag full of clothes, books, paintings and electrical goods and, as if by way of endorsement, antique dealers from the pricier Sunday markets at nearby Greenwich and Bermondsey arrive as early as seven o'clock in the hope of finding a rare Victorian cabinet or a set of original Sixties Habitat chairs. Paul Smith, Ralph Lauren and Katherine Hamnett regularly put in an appearance too. If not in person, certainly by label.

Business in the upper five floors of the car park has not always been quite so brisk. "The car park used to have such a terrible name," explains Lewisham Centre manager Richard Merry. "It was always left unattended and the lifts didn't work, so we took it over from the council in 1991 and did it up. Since then, we haven't looked back."

For de Vandiere, who previously ran boot fairs in his native France, the opening was more problematic. "It was a nightmare to get off the ground as nobody knew it was here until we started advertising."

More recently, with the ban on Sunday trading lifted, the Lewisham boot fair traders now face competition for parking space, with the customers of Sainsburys and Marks & Spencer, with the likelihood of an earlier midday closing time to make way for the anticipated deluge of cars. "We'll have to turn down some people who want stalls," admits de Vandiere, faced with the prospect of losing a level.

For the moment the car park will continue to be the backdrop to some of the craziest activity to be found anywhere in the small hours of Sunday, as hundreds of buyers rifle through a living history of British pastimes and latter-day cultural icons. For, among the stomach strippers, trouser presses, keep-fit books, Gazza games, Billy Joel LPs and Jason Donovan videos, there really is something there for you. Set the alarm early.

DANIEL SYNGE

The Lewisham Centre car park boot fair, Molesworth Street, London, SE13 (01426 924201) 6am-12pm every Sun

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