The winters, apparently, are the worst. Six days a week for the past 35 years, Robert’s been opening up his slim kiosk of magazines, newspapers and, ahem, speciality titles in Sweeting Street – that sinewy passage that burrows its way into the dark labyrinth of lanes between Castle Street and Dale Street.
We doubt there’s many magazine sellers in the city that can match his dogged determination – and devotion – to the periodical.
Robert’s aperture on the city may be slim, but it frames all you need to know about our recent history. He’s seen traders come and go, street widening, street narrowing, banks become Brazilian bistros, fancy new benches and faddy new juice bars. From his vantage point, tucked away from the massed ranks of lunch-time city workers, he’s seen it all. But with Liverpool ONE just a stroll away, is the writing on the wall?
“It’s tough,” Robert admits, “business is slow.”
For Robert, it’s all about building business at the margins. His niche? Vintage body building magazines – Arnold Schwarzenegger and co, with feather cut hairdos and gravy-browned biceps – model railway enthusiast titles and grisly true life crime tales…“I tend to sell the older magazines, those you just can’t find anywhere else,” he says.
We can’t help but notice Robert has a groaning rack of those other special-interest titles, in a discretely partitioned section, deeper into the shadows of Sweeting Street. Hey, it beats a surreptitious lunge in WH Smiths while no-one’s looking.
“Sweeting Street used to be called Elbow Lane,” Robert tells us before we head off down its silent depths, “I”m not sure why.”
No-one’s quite sure what name came first. Elbow Lane is certainly on maps dating to the early 1700’s, but the passageway was officially named after Alderman Thomas Sweeting, Mayor of Liverpool in 1698.
Sweeting was put on the map after he lent the Corporation £600 towards a rather vicious and protracted battle between Liverpool and the cheese-makers of Cheshire, fearing lost business from their River Dee ports (Liverpool lost, and was forced to impose heavy duties on its lucrative cheese trafficking. Blessed are the cheesemakers indeed).
Oddly, for such a slim switchback alley, Sweeting Street is the only remaining road in the city with covered archways bookending either entrance. They form a curiously handsome and ornate overture to what is, by any other standards, a rather silent and silted up backwater.
But Barned’s Building (1840 –main pic above) half way up on the right, is a Grade II listed reminder that these little lanes were once the throbbing heart of Liverpool’s historic commercial quarter. The building is, according to the architectural chronicler Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘a sober, dignified terrace of repetitive bays’. It was the headquarters of Barned’s Bank, a Liverpool bank set up by Jewish émigré Israel Barned.
Barned spent the first half of his career as a watchmaker and goldsmith, gradually incorporating bullion and banking transactions in the early 1820s – in much the same way as fellow Jewish Liverpudlian H.Samuel did, just around the corner in Castle Street, some 40 years later.
In Barned’s will, he set up an annuity fund, to support members of the Liverpool Jewish community – and the fund continued until 1998.
Today, the building is home to apartments, marketing companies, solicitors and tailors. Outside, on the narrow paving are the brightly painted hoisting arms: jaunty reminders that, below our feet, the city’s underbelly was honeycombed with basement warehouses, storing goods from around the world (if not Cheshire).
The period street furniture made the street the perfect location for that Hovis ad which galloped through a hundred years of our history in 30 seconds (you’ll spot it five seconds in).
Sweeting Street was also the first home for the Liverpool Stock Exchange: which, suitably enough, was set up by a wine merchant and a gunpowder trader. The Exchange, opened in 1836, eventually amalgamated and morphed into the London Stock Exchange – but there was still a Liverpool trading floor right up until 1985. A little corner of Sweeting Street high flying with the Yuppies of the eighties.
Next time you pass, do your bit to keep trade alive on this stoic little street, and buy a magazine or a bunch of flowers before you move on…
Main pic: Peter Goodbody