Steve Garrett, the riverside market man

September 22, 2011 § 6 Comments

Steve Garrett © gwionthorpe

There are a few things that make Cardiff extra special. The Riverside Market is one of those things.  Every Sunday morning, for a few hours, a stretch of pavement opposite the Millenium Stadium is transformed into a bustling local food market, selling all sorts of lovely stuff, from fresh apple juice, award-winning meats, awesome coffee, French patisserie, proper veg with mud still attached and probably the best hangover-cure ever, Kimi’s curry van.  It really is a lovely experience and Steve Garrett is the man we have to thank for it.

Born in Wrexham, North Wales, Steve was educated in Liverpool before leaving for Canada, where he lived for fourteen years.  It was here that he found his inspiration. “I felt a real kind of freedom in Canada to do exactly what I wanted.  I lived on a communal farm for a while and got in to growing food, working on alternative energy schemes and actually trying to build a different type of life model. I got really involved in farmers markets and I was drawn to the whole idea of bypassing the big supermarkets and seeing local farmers sell directly to local people.  I loved the atmosphere, it was really social, and I thought “I really want to set one of those up when I get back to the UK”.  And that’s exactly what he did.

In the mid-nineties, Steve returned to Wales and settled in Cardiff where he got involved, voluntarily, in two things at roughly the same time – the Riverside Festival and setting up the Riverside Market.  Both of these have now become a key part of the City’s cultural make-up.  “The market was originally just ten stores in the little park at the end of the road (Despenser Gardens), trading no more than once a month. It was one of those things that I thought I’d never make a living out of it but I was determined to make it work. I never expected it to become something that totally took over my life”. Cardiff’s Riverside Market is now the oldest and, arguably, the most successful farmers market in Wales.  It attracts hundreds of visitors each week, from all backgrounds and ages, and it has quite deservedly won numerous awards.

There are now five farmers markets operating across Cardiff, all run by the Riverside Community Market Association (RCMA), of which Steve is a Director.  The newest of these markets, which started in August, is perhaps the most exciting development yet.  It is situated right in the heart of the City, on High Street, opposite the Castle and is running for an initial 12-week trial period until mid November, every Thursday between 11am-3pm.  The initial signs are good.  “It really works. It’s a lovely social space there and the market is creating a kind of piazza. We’re hoping to work closely with Cardiff Market to create a proper market quarter in the center of town.  The potential is definitely there”.

On the back of his hard work and success with the RCMA and other projects, Steve is now an influential and respected voice on local food and sustainability issues in Wales.  He also uses his knowledge and experiences to help other groups start their own projects and is keen to see more encouragement and support for budding entrepreneurs.  “We should really be trying to encourage people to start things.   If you try to nail it all down and try to make it all safe you hinder creativity.  But I know that Cardiff is really promoting itself as a can-do City, it says it wants to be helpful to people with ideas”.

Further afield, Steve has recently become involved with a group of women, all HIV widows, in Western Zimbabwe, helping them set up a local food cooperative.  “The first time I spoke to them about my ideas I felt a bit embarrassed.  I didn’t think I’d have anything to teach people who invented the whole notion of markets. But the cooperative model seems to be something that could really take off and be quite a life changer for them”.  You can watch a video documenting Steve’s work in Zimbabwe here.

Steve clearly has a love of food, people and community but his other big passion is music.  “I have always been well into music.  My alter ego at the moment is Stainless Steve.  I sing and play guitar with a little band and write songs.  It’s just for fun but it’s a bit more than a hobby.  It’s always a lovely feeling when you perform something you’ve created from nothing and people like it, and they laugh, which I particularly like. I’m trying not to be taken too seriously”.  Through his company, Cultural Concerns, Steve also aims to “provide practical activities, advice and support to community artists, funders and policy-makers to support the development of better links between the arts, personal development and community regeneration”.

How does he find the time to do all this? “I do move a bit fast, but you’ve got to learn to manage it because there are endless things you could be doing every day.  I try and savour each day and spend it with people I like”.  But Steve is not one for too much reflection or self-congratulation.  “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking back about what I’ve done or achieved.  Pride doesn’t really come into it.  I spend more time thinking about where I want to go.  It’s good to know that I can put effort into things and it bears fruit. That’s a good feeling”.

Steve explained that when he moved to Canada it felt like he was breaking away from all the expectations in Britain that he had to have a certain type of job or a certain type of career.  Looking back, he now admits “I’ve completely failed to have any kind of career in the normal sense, but the consolation of that is that I’ve done a lot of interesting things”.  If Steve Garrett is an example of what you can achieve if you don’t conform to expectations, then it is a practice that should be heavily encouraged.  See you on Sunday!

Steve Garrett is Founding Director of the Riverside Community Market Association (RCMA) and a Director of RCMA Social Enterprise Ltd. He is also the founder of Cultural Concerns, a small company focusing on culture and the arts as a means of empowering individuals and communities.  Stainless Steve performs original and wryly observant songs about the ‘big issues’ of our times at venues across the country and can be booked via his agent.

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