Calcutta, India – A new shipment of replica sports shirts arrives at a market stall in Maidan, one of the largest sporting goods bazaars in India, located in the heart of Kolkata city in eastern India India.
Mohammed Nadim, who has worked at the booth for over 23 years, pulls out a plastic stool from under a hidden rack with cheap football shirts and begins to examine the shipment.
“Uhssee, theek-e ache (80, the count is fine) ”, he mutters in a mixture of Hindi and Bangla before giving the bearer the consideration of a signed receipt.
The shipment consists of 10 replica jerseys from each of the eight teams participating in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the largest national Twenty20 league in the world.
The 2021 edition of the IPL begins next month and Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, is one of six host cities.
Nadim says the booth typically ordered 10 times that number before the tournament each year.
It was in the pre-pandemic era. Now, he adds, his store is unlikely to order a refill before this year’s contest.
“Due to the pandemic, we still have some stock left last year,” Nadim told Al Jazeera.
“We are restocking them at a minimum as there has been a slight increase in activity in the market lately. But storing in bulk now is beyond our means because the virus has drastically reduced our income. “
Established in 1954 for fabric merchants and artisans who migrated to the divided western part of Bengal after the partition of India in 1947, the market, officially named Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy Market, gradually evolved into an arterial center of sports products in the country.
Home to 449 stalls – 80% of which only sell sporting goods – the bazaar, nestled a short walk from the iconic Eden Gardens cricket stadium near the Maidan, has witnessed several period changes that are integral to the identity of Kolkata.
The market ships most of its products – raw materials and finished goods – from cities in northern India, and the suspension of trains for months has hampered supply and demand.
With the stall owners remaining inside, another misfortune hit the market.
Amid the pandemic and the exodus of migrant workers that the lockdown sparked, Kolkata also suffered from catastrophic Cyclone Amphan, which hit the coasts of eastern India and Bangladesh last May.
“The congestion in this area was so bad after the storm that the local police let us open our stores for a day so that we could save our goods,” said Sumojit Pradhan, who runs her father’s store.
“Cricket bats and shoes worth over 500,000 rupees ($ 6,900) were damaged in our one store,” Pradhan told Al Jazeera.
Last November, Nadim lamented how the pandemic had brought the market to its knees.
“The fall in our sales has been so terrible that I am drowning in debt,” Nadim said at the time.
“I pushed my kids to drop out of school and if a family member gets sick, I don’t have enough money to pay for a doctor.”
A year after the lockdown, more and more customers are frequenting the market and it has returned to its usual hours of 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., abandoning the six-hour window it remained in for several months after it reopened.
“I’ve been printing around 120 jerseys a day since January,” said Sunny, who runs a vinyl printing office at Maidan Market.
“This was about 40% of the daily orders I received before the pandemic. Things could be better or worse in the months to come. For now, I’m just relieved to be earning an income again, ”Sunny told Al Jazeera.
Kolkata’s thriving shopping mall culture had slowly eaten away at Maidan Market’s business.
With the pandemic leading to lower spending on non-essentials and an accelerated shift to online shopping, the lack of a digital presence is hurting booth owners as well.
“The loss suffered in the last 12 months … we may not be able to recover even in five years,” Cheikh Nazimuddin, co-secretary of the merchants’ association at the market, told Al Jazeera.
“And such is the nature of items in demand like cricket bats, helmets and guards, customers hardly prefer to buy them online. That’s why this market has never felt the need for a digital presence before. “
Since the onset of the coronavirus epidemic, Pradhan, 24, has been among the few traders in Maidan Market who have devoted time and effort to establishing or increasing the online presence of their physical businesses.
From listing their stores on Google to posting some samples of in-store stock on Facebook and Instagram pages and taking orders on WhatsApp, the pandemic, Pradhan admits, has forced a “deep rethink” of approaches. customer engagement.
Despite the changes in spending habits, several longtime Maidan Market devotees believe the bazaar’s enduring charms will help sellers overcome current adversity.
“Maidan Market is a great leveler. Players of all social and financial levels gravitate towards this place, ”said Jhulan Goswami, cricketer for the Indian women’s team who learned her trade at Vivekananda Park in Kolkata.
“The affordability, variety and year round availability of its products are its USPs. E-commerce sites fall short when it comes to these attributes, ”Goswami told Al Jazeera.
Manoj Tiwary, the male cricketer from Bengal and India who also played in the IPL, agrees.
“Since I first visited the market at the age of 15, I have witnessed first-hand the kinship that every young athlete who comes here thrives with the market, starting with the buying equipment, ”Tiwary, now 35, told Al Jazeera.
“This relationship is then nurtured by the goodwill of traders who go to great lengths to help you choose what is best for you.”
For the first two months after the market reopened last June, sellers with stocks of fitness equipment made a lot of money while others struggled to keep their heads above water.
“With gyms closed and outdoor activities banned, dumbbells, resistance bands and dumbbells are sold like hot cakes,” Pradhan recalled.
“Flag vendors, printers, shirt vendors, and bat merchants were deprived of income.”
For vendors like the Islam brothers, Rafique and Nurul, who operate the oldest trophy store in the market, there was virtually no business until December.
“Offices, academies and schools have been closed. Who would buy trophies or medals if no sporting event takes place? Said Rafique, 64, who was one of the first exhibitors to test positive for COVID-19 after the market reopened.
“It was only after a few local clubs started to organize small sporting and social events, for example to congratulate the frontline workers, that we noticed a slight increase in sales in December and January”, a- he declared.
With most of the city’s sports coaching academies and local Bengal Cricket Association tournaments resuming at the end of February, several old and new buyers have since visited the Maidan market.
“The ongoing vaccination campaign has lifted the spirits of the common man,” said Somenath Das, while helping his 14-year-old daughter try on a new pair of cricket shoes.
“We took all possible safety precautions and entered this market. Growing up, I bought all my football gear from here. Now it’s my daughter’s turn.
But an air of resignation hangs in the market as a new wave of nationwide cases has unfolded in recent weeks, reaching record levels.
Many exhibitors fear that the gains Maidan Market has made since the start of this year to restore some semblance of normalcy to the way it conducts its business could be ruined by the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak.
Most admit that apart from relatively better psychological preparation, they have little or no measures in place to counter the economic costs of a possible resuspension of all businesses if the infections get out of hand as they used to. a year ago.
Most booth owners are hoping for a smooth IPL in April and May to increase sales.
“With the IPL’s move to the United Arab Emirates last year due to the COVID crisis in India, the enthusiasm on the ground has waned, which means virtually no business for us,” Nadim said.
“But even if the next tournament takes place entirely behind closed doors, the return of top-level cricket to Eden Gardens could create enough buzz for fans and owners of malls, restaurants, to buy us merchandise.
“Ummeed by duniya kayam hain (Hope is what keeps people alive), ”he added after the fact.