Till a decade ago, the Mehar Chand market in Lodhi Colony was called a “wonder market”. It earned the curious sobriquet because of tailors who specialised in altering and refitting old clothes, and attached the word “wonder” to their names to enhance their image.
Old timers say people not just from Delhi but as far as Jaipur and Jammu would come here to get their clothes altered for their sons and grandsons. “I had about 200 stitching machines, and we were so good in altering clothes that our clients considered it a wonder. But our business is now dead. The market itself has altered completely — it now has a whole new kind of visitors,” says Om Prakash, the 71-year-old owner of Om Tailor, First Wonder, a tailoring shop in the market.
The place has transformed itself over the past couple of years from being a market of tailors and tent-wallahs to a tony street boasting of independent design stores selling home decorations, gifts and memorabilia, boutiques, specialty bookstores and modish cafés. Om Prakash has put his shop on sale, as have most of the old shopkeepers.
The transformation that began a few years ago with the arrival of Café Coffee Day continues quietly, and old tailoring and grocery shops are giving way to fancy showrooms. In the past two years, half of the market’s 152 shops have been taken over by new stores. Take a walk in the market and you will see several signs pointing to where an old shop has shifted.
Inderjeet Singh, who diversified from tent to realty business in the market a few years ago, is a busy man these days. Every day, he takes about a dozen people around to show them shops on sale. “Most old shops are on sale or are available on rent. Among those who are looking to open showrooms here are young entrepreneurs, many of them designers,” says Singh, sitting in his plush office, done up recently to suit the taste of his new clients.
Old shopkeepers are happy with the transformation — they have either put their shops on sale or wish to let them out. The going rate for a 400sqft shop here is over Rs. 12 crore, while the rent for a shop of a similar size is Rs. 2-2.5 lakh. “Most of my old customers from Lodhi Colony have stopped coming. But I don’t mind. The money I will make by selling the shop was beyond my dreams,” says Mahendra Kumar, who runs Gujral Brothers, a general store started by his father in 1968. His brother sells undergarments on a makeshift stall in front of the shop.
Ashok Sakhuja, president of the Mehar Chand Market Association, is happy with the elevation of the social and economic status of the shop owners. “Their families came from Pakistan after Partition and were given the plots by the government to help them settle down. They never saw big money because all these years, the market was just a neighbourhood shopping centre catering primarily to government servants living in the area,” says Sakhuja.
Those who are setting up shops here swear by the potential of the market, and believe that by the end of this year the transformation of the place will be complete. “In a city increasingly dominated by malls, the Mehar Chand Market is all set to become a unique marketplace with an eclectic set of independent stores with distinct identities. The Hauz Khas village is turning into a food and beverage place, while the Mehar Chand Market will become more of a design-centric destination,” says Gautam Sinha, a product designer. Sinha opened his store Nappa Dori, specialising in handcrafted home and fashion accessories, six months ago in the market.
His view is echoed by another young designer-entrepreneur, Him-anshu Dogra, who opened Play Clan, a store which combines fashion, art and design, in 2011. “Most of my clients are those looking for exclusive products and like to patronise independent stores in high streets. A lot of my clients are foreigners,” says Dogra. Most of the owners of new stores say that one of the reasons they chose the market is its proximity to places such as Chankayapuri, Golf Links and Jor Bagh, that is their “catchment areas”.
The sudden demographic shift in the area has led to tense undercurrents between the dwellers in a slum settlement behind the market and owners of new shops that come to the fore once in a while when burglaries take place in the area. “We have been asking the government to remove the slum,” says Sakhuja. Manish Kumar, an artist from Mumbai, says the market presents fascinating urban contrasts. “Currently, it combines the poor and the posh, downmarket and upmarket. I like the quaint appeal and retro charm of the market. Every time I visit, it surprises me with a new quirky store. It is a work in progress.”