What What What What…Does A Thrift Shop Look Like In Germany?
Back in 2012, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis vaunted the greatness of second hand bargain hunting in their hit single ‘Thrift Shop’. The song took us through a labyrinth of grandma and grandpa’s hand me downs, via urine stained tracksuit bottoms, before loosely settling on the message that the guys who had individualised their image thanks to second hand stores brought more game to the nightclub than the ‘ignorant’ label-hunting wannabes. But what did people do before thrift shops (or charity shops/second hand stores to fellow tea-drinkers) came into existence? Well, the chances are they visited the flea market (Brits see also ‘car-boot sale’ or ‘bring and buy’).
A flea market, like a journey through the looking glass into the arse end of wonderland, is quite simply incredible. Walmart et al might think they have managed to eliminate the competition by having everything under one roof; however, the flea market makes them look about as diverse as an X-Factor final. Where else, in the space of 50 metres, can you find items as eclectic as a Betamax player, a sculpture of a cat crafted out of a car engine, a 19th century fire-heating iron, and of course a 1m x 70cm painting of a vagina that was clearly lovingly crafted before the concept of ‘having a Brazilian’ went mainstream? But even more impressive than the array of goods for sale is the cornucopia of characters that populate the flea market, each with their own distinct shopping style and plan of attack.
This week it was my pleasure to play the role of custodian and salesman at a flea market in Heilbronn in Germany. The three hours spent trying to sell our wares (clothes that we are too fat to fit into now, hideous ornaments that seemed a good idea whilst we were on holiday, and old mobiles big enough to function as The Terminator’s heart) allowed us an insight into the categories, shopper profiles and stereotypes that most of our customers fell into. Know thy customer and read on for the inside track on the movers and shakers of the second hand universe…
1. HELGA HORNSKIN
A Helga is a woman who looks about 150 years old. She has skin the colour of weak custard and her default facial expression is a withering scowl that permits her to showcase her contempt for the shit that you have had the temerity to sell, and the prices that you dare to ask for the aforementioned detritus. She will normally be dressed as if she is permanently expecting a text message to tell her she is needed at a funeral, being resplendent with black garb and crucially a hat adorned with fur or feathers (also black). Haggling is not in her lexicon – her iron will makes it appear that she would be able to withstand Chinese water torture before she would concede 5 cents for the empty Hello Kitty mint holder she is after. She is too old to get cross with, despite the fact that she may be the rudest person you have ever met. In essence, a power-player of the flea market who is likely to leave with unparalleled value for money.
2. WALTER WEIRDBEARD
A Walter is a middle-aged man who probably has an allotment where he grows his own hemp and sits in tie-dyed dungarees remembering the days when he used to attend nude-sculpting classes. The desperation to appear as an artisan is Walter’s primary motivation for visiting your stall. He will definitely sport some form of eye-catching facial hair, ranging from a Salvador Dali twisted moustache complete with wax, to a ten centimetre long goatee that would only ever look cool on a Tibetan ninja sitting on a stone chair in a mountain citadel. His clothing will be anything that makes him stand out without looking cutting edge, think Lederhosen, Bermuda shorts, neckerchief, Jacobean ruff etc. He is looking for any item that will fuel his delusion that he is a creative impresario; colouring pencils, finger paints and lurid materials will all be bought whilst he drops vague hints about an incredible project he is working on. If you make extended eye-contact with him and engage him in conversation then your day will begin to feel like setting clay and you will wish that you were born without ears.
3. HERBIE HAWKEYE
Very few people will come into contact with Herbie, primarily because he knows exactly what he is looking for and he won’t waste his time sifting through your porcelain salt and pepper shakers shaped like Prince William and Kate Middleton. He is on the hunt for an item that he knows is of enormous value; he also knows that if you have the item then you also have no idea about its enormous value. He is cool; he may be the coolest person at the market. He is tall and slim and has an eye that is curiously alive in comparison to the dead-eyed stares of the zombified masses somnambulantly trudging around the rest of the market – he is Andy Dufrain in Shawshank. He is the pro we all secretly wish we were whenever we have stepped into the land of second hand. It could be the camera lens that he is aware a Japanese collector is after; it could be the LP that he knows was printed with the cover defect that makes it a hipster’s wet dream; it could be the limited edition figurine that your wife said was too ugly to stay in the house. Either way, he will see it, pounce upon it, pay you 2 euros for it and then smile a wide and knowing smile – the kind of smile that someone who has just stolen one of your kidneys during surgery might make. Later that night he will sell your Chewbacca hair-dryer for $5000 to a private bidder in North Korea. He is awesome; you love him too much to hate him.
4. THE CLUTTERBUCK CLAN
This is a collective, some may call it a herd, with a minimum of 6 members who will move through your goods like wrecking balls. Every single one of them is morbidly obese and they wheeze disturbingly after bending over to look at a crop top that clearly wouldn’t even manage to cover one of their monumental arse cheeks. 3 of the herd will be children, all of whom have an indeterminate brown filth (most likely a cocktail of melted ice cream, syrup and chocolate) congealing on their hands; this will inevitably stain any clothes you have on your stall. One of the children will be screaming and crying; the parents will merely stare at them, drag deeply on their cigarettes and cough themselves hoarse as they sigh at the physical manifestation of their failures. Every member of the family heaves to pick an item up, before throwing it back down anywhere but the place that it came from. The women will be wearing strappy tops that are clearly inadequate for housing the set of colossal sagging udders that surely only a dairy farmer would know how to handle; their stomachs will rarely be fully covered and their hair looks like streaks of greasy brown lightning. After running their putrid hands over everything on your stall they will eventually buy a pair of extra-large adult male boxer shorts for their 4 year old daughter, before leaving in a cloud of nicotine, body odour and misery.
5. THE COMEBACK KID
Despite the name, the Comeback Kid could be a male or female of any age. Their key feature is that they make systematic laps of the flea market, waiting for price fluctuations like an espresso-fuelled suit on the stock market. They will secure their favourite items early on to avoid disappointment, but will return again and again and again until they have heard you offer the previously 2 euro collection of VHS editions of Knight Rider to someone else for a euro fifty, at which point they will nip in and offer you a euro. To them, the flea market is a sport, an arena in which legends are made. They are unfailingly polite and have a range of moderately amusing jokes and one-liners about you thinking that you wouldn’t see them again before they come back for yet another purchase ‘my evil twin came her earlier and bought a blue power ranger- strange coincidence hey, hey?!!’. They will be at the market from dusk til dawn and will buy more of your stuff than all of your other customers combined. Later, you will find out that they also had a stall and they have sold everything they bought from you for a 25% mark up.
6. NANCY NICEPANTS
Nancy is your favourite customer. She is the consumer-conscious, anti-capitalist who comes to buy presents for her family so that she doesn’t have to pump money into corporate coffers; she would rather by crap from you and reinvest in the community than spend a few euros extra to get something that somebody won’t just end up selling at a flea market again. She finds almost any manner of tat fascinating, and she is so popular and unfailingly lovely that she always knows someone who would like the Spice Girls pencil case that still has the stab marks from a classroom compass attack in 1997 on it. Most often she looks like a hippy who has moderated their ostentation and she will definitely be carrying a multi-coloured bag that comes from a fair-trade organisation or another flea market. She may be the only person to talk to you that doesn’t make you feel afraid or nauseous.
“I wear your granddad’s clothes
I look incredible
I’m in this big ass coat
From that thrift shop down the road”