Inside Glebe Markets: History, Community, and the Inner-West

Alice and Shania go to Glebe Markets.

Nestled in the inner-city, a world away from the polished lawns of suburbia, the early days of Glebe Markets were a hubbub of young adults seeking out the latest cultural trends. Students roamed the avenues, thriving in an atmosphere fuelled by dissent and alternative culture. Vitality sprung from every corner, and whispered its way through the streets. 

In the time immediately after its conception, Glebe Markets was the young person’s market, the place to be. “I worked there in my early twenties, and the culture was different then,” said owner David McCumstie as he sipped his morning coffee. “But it has always belonged to young people. Glebe’s culture has always evolved to fit the whims of newer generations, and I think that is spectacular.”

David is a tall, chatty man with salt and pepper hair, usually dressed head to toe in vintage finds. He sits up the back of the market, coffee in hand, watching the passing parade. Gaggles of teenage girls walk by, clutching bags overflowing with bargains. Young mothers scout for bohemian baby clothes and a group of musicians make their way to the grass. David reflects on the trends of recent years, with the Markets now selling vegan and cruelty-free products, upcycled and recycled clothing. Blending bargains that you can’t walk away from with collectables that you could cherish forever, Glebe Markets has it all. 

Glebe Markets was born of a middle-class dream to do more, started by Bob and Judy McCumstie in 1992. The pair owned a coffee shop over the road and spent their Saturdays peering across at the empty schoolyard.  “It was unlike anything they’d ever done before,” said David. “My mother was a high school teacher, my father was an agricultural economist and a farmer. It was an exciting adventure.” 

Judy could spin a great yarn. In those early days it was her tough exterior and gift of the gab that got the markets going. She rallied 40 stallholders from the competing Sunday market down the road, chatting to different artisans around town and encouraging them to pack up their goods and head to Glebe Public School. “She has an amazing ability to be feisty and stand up to people,” David gushes. “She’s incredibly intelligent and determined.” 

On the other side of the coin, Bob was the strong, silent type. He was the financial brains behind the operation. “She’s the vocal one and he’s the quieter, more thought-through side of things,” said David. “He brings the maths and the business, and a more peaceful and gentle energy. I’ve always really appreciated that about him.”

Together, the duo were a force to be reckoned with. “When it came to dealing with the stallholders they were a unified force — you couldn’t lie to them and get away with it,” said David. “It’s nice to see a husband and wife team working so well together … that’s what marriage is all about.”

Glebe Markets was more than just a business for the McCumsties. “The markets are about family, they’re my parents’ legacy,” said David. “Even before I owned the markets I was invested. It was their creation, it was ours.” When David is out of town, his niece manages the markets, fielding calls and chatting to stallholders. “My daughter jokes about how she may own Glebe Markets one day,” he laughs. “I give her complete freedom not to, but who knows what the future will hold.”

Over the years, the McCumsties have watched on as Glebe erupted with youth and life, bringing new people and new stories to their doorstep. In the early 1990s, Glebe was populated with, in the affectionate words of David, “wild and crazy people.” Glebe was a hub of youth counterculture in Sydney. University students flocked to Badde Manors for late night coffees and Nirvana played the Phoenician Club on the corner of Mountain Street and Broadway. Twenty-somethings in flannel shirts flooded out of overcrowded share houses into the markets every Saturday morning. Anarchists drove cars filled to the brim with punk paraphernalia. They would tear through the lawn, doing donuts in the parking lot with no care for those in the vicinity. There was even a time when the market was overrun by groups of young people who would set up tables and declare themselves a religion, attempting to convert passers-by to pray to newly-minted gods.

“That was the time of a different generation of people, of those unburdened by the precarious future we face now. They did not have to worry about HECS, or the job market or climate change,” David mused. 

Though Glebe has since evolved, caught up in the flow of a changing world, it has always been a place for people to sit on the grass with their friends, an alternative metropolis and escape from suburban mundanity. Author and academic Vanessa Berry would religiously catch the train to Central Station almost every weekend as a teenager and walk up the hill to the corner of Glebe Point Road. “Being in Glebe and absorbing the culture surrounding the markets and the records stores and book shops, I always felt like I was a part of something,” she said. “My friends and I would buy petticoats from the markets and dye them in the backyard. You could buy cheap clothes and play around with them,” she adds, “discovering what worked for you and what didn’t.”

If you have ever been to Glebe Markets, you will surely find that the main attraction of community markets is the sense of anticipation — not knowing what you will find. When people go to Portobello Road and The Grand Bazaar, when they go op-shopping, they go for the thrill of discovery. Perhaps there is room for a decorative oil lamp that summons out a genie, or a rare collectible, waiting to be found under a giant pile of clothes. 

That feeling of discovery and wonder can be felt in Glebe today; the stall-holders have made sure of it, ensuring that the past is not lost as it has been in many other pockets of the city. “There was a symbolic aspect to the place as well,” Vanessa reflects. “It was going somewhere which collected all these interesting people and objects. It seemed to suggest a lot of possibilities.”

It’s this air of possibility and a sense of romance that nourishes the market, more so than the handmade emerald sweaters and butterfly hairpins. Indeed, for some the Markets are a place of love.  Sitting at a nearby coffee shop, rumours swirl about the early days of the market, and Bella and Robert, whose fairytale starts at Glebe Markets — or so legend claims.

The story starts in the early 90s, on the corner where the Four Friends coffee shop now stands. Bella was sitting at her stall when she met a very flustered Robert, who had been tasked with finding a last-minute gift for his mother’s birthday. He happened upon the sweet smell of the candles, and the sweet face that sold them, and left with two tealight holders, a coconut candle, and a little strip of paper with a phone number. Their child told us the story excitedly before rushing off with her friends, their canvas totes filled with wonderful wares. 

So you see, there is a rich history to be unravelled here, if one would only take the time to listen. As we wove through the market, we found ourselves at the stall of Jacki Pateman, who has been selling clothes at Glebe Markets since the very beginning. “I came from the Northern Beaches, so to be amongst it in Glebe, which was just such a happening place at the time. It was hugely instrumental in informing who I became as a young adult.” 

Her stall, Jacky LeStrange Vintage, is a treasure trove of 1950s and ‘60s lingerie and white cheesecloth dresses. For Jacki, the 9-to-5 life that most people are content with wasn’t an option. When she was nineteen, she sold all of the vintage clothes she had gathered out of the boot of her car. “I had been op-shopping for years at that point,” she said. “After that, I quit my office job. I had decided that this was what I was going to do for a living, and I have never looked back.”

But the thrill of the buy isn’t the only thing that has kept Jacki in the business. “The people around me have kept me going like nothing else. I mean, people come and go. There are people from the very beginning that aren’t around anymore. They’ve moved on or passed away. But there’s just a camaraderie between stallholders. There’s rarely any anger or animosity or jealousy or backbiting. It really is just a community of people who are all in the same boat,” she said. “While the COVID lockdown was on, there were a bunch of us that were very in touch and checking in on each other. People seeing if anyone was able to get JobKeeper and seeing how everyone was staying afloat. It comforted me to know I had these people in times of crisis as well.” 

The community at Glebe Markets has been a constant pillar in Jess Pisanelli’s life. As a loyal customer for many years, she was welcomed in with open arms when she started Marlow Vintage about a decade ago. “There are some people at the market that have been there since it started, and there are people who have been there for two years,” she said. “You get to know their family, you get to know when someone gets married or has a baby. It does have a really beautiful community.”

Jess told Honi that the community doesn’t only share celebrations, they mourn together in times of grief. “When my dad passed away, I was away for a few weeks. I only told one friend at the market but by the time I came back, word had got around. The outpouring of love and condolences and really lovely kind words was so beautiful.”

As we reach the top of the main aisle, we come across the tree community, a group of stallholders bound together by their prime location and love of a good puzzle. It took years of hard work and dedication to get in this prime position and now they reap the benefits of the steady flow of foot traffic and perpetual shade. Every Saturday morning, Liz Sledge, a loyal member of the tree community, parks herself under the large, leafy tree with the Good Weekend Quiz. Fellow stallholders make their way up to her shop, Sappo Trading, to lend a hand. First, Peter joined from his t-shirt stall across the aisle. His knowledge of Oz Rock has become indispensable to the operation. William and Chai, renowned for their cookies and cakes, began to contribute, and now Karen, purveyor of sugarcane juice, wanders up from the food aisle to help out. 

It becomes clear as we talk to stall-holders across that market that David is a beloved icon within the community. David bought the business from his parents about a decade ago. The sense of community cultivated by Bob and Judy still forges on, with stall-holders praising David’s commitment and spirit. Every weekend before Christmas, David braves the sweltering heat and delivers fruit cake to all the permanent stallholders. Multiple people told Honi that he is the true heart of the community.

“David has let the market evolve organically,” Jacki said. “Some markets stipulate you have to have excellent presentation. And David encourages it — but doesn’t require you to have a  slick operation. It keeps us homespun.” 

Because of the ways community markets have evolved, mainstream brands have filtered in and co-opted stalls from small business owners who sell authentic vintage clothes. Kara Otter looks like she just stepped out of an early Britney Spears music video. She’s been attending Glebe Markets for over a decade, and sells authentic early 2000s pieces under her brand Karamelon. Kara airs her grievances about the mass-produced brands infiltrating community markets and selling lesser-quality products for cheaper. “It is hard to compete with clothes that are sold for $1,” said Kara. “When something is so cheap, you can’t help but wonder what sort of profit one could possibly make.”

While other markets have strict rules for stall holders — stipulating presentation and the products sold — Glebe keeps its stallholders at front of mind, giving them a sense of creative liberty and freedom over how their stall appears and what they sell. “It allows for a more vibrant way of being, and we’ve always been like that,” David told Honi. “You can end up with exploring and finding a new thing in every nook and cranny.”

From the outside, Glebe Markets looks almost identical to how it did in 1992. While the carloads of anarchists, cult leaders and punk-rockers blasting Smashing Pumpkins are all long gone, the air of vitality and wonder remains; it lingers in the brickwork, carried on in the chattering voices of the market-goers. If David (and even one day, maybe his daughter) has his way, Glebe Markets will continue to shape-shift and reflect the culture of future generations for decades to come.