A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sold her old stuff at the RAW flea market in Friedrichshain. Although Friedrichshain is my 2nd least favorite place in Berlin (in the tight race for number 1, airport Schönefeld made the cut), the sun was shining and the mood was good enough to bravely stroll across the shit-show that is Warschauer Straße on a Sunday morning.
To my surprise, the RAW flea market is actually… a flea market.
Private people sell their worn-out, ugly clothes alongside self-made rubberband sculptures and tatty furniture from the 80’s (not the cool kind). There are a few unremarkable food vendors that I notice only for their lack of branding and unsexy fare sold on plastic plates, something that would never happen at the bespoke Nowkölln flea market and their counterparts across the city.
It’s refreshing to discover a place in Berlin where the community still vibes. Although markets are always primarily for selling, trading and buying, they’ve grown to become social melting pots in the past years. Markets can still (or again) provide the necessary public place to unify the neighborhood.
Like my friend said, “Setting up a flea market booth is like ending up in the hospital – your real friends always come visit.” It’s true. It’s an excuse to hang around, meet friends and make a little bit of cash on the side.
But that’s changing, and rapidly. Markets are undergoing the same economic streamlining processes that have already reached apartments, cars, bikes, and any other commodity you can name: you’re not just doing something for the fun of it. You are actually competing with the livelihoods of others, for real cash.
Which means that most vendors at the markets (say, Mauerpark and Nowkölln) are now selling new (!) and packaged products – sometimes showcasing them from their online shops or retail stores -, as well as a lot of artisan food and other things that have nothing to do with the concept of trading used objects.
Just think about all of the food markets, flower markets and Christmas markets in the city. The exhibitors are usually professionals. That’s not inherently bad; however, that doesn’t mean that the market promoters are becoming professionals, too.
For example, you can’t just “sign up” for a flea market. In some oddly medieval test of your commitment, you have to queue at 4 or 5 AM in the morning, three Sundays ahead of your planned sale and ahead of everyone else. And there’s no guarantee you’re even getting a booth. Who’s got the time and endurance to deal with such a tedious process if not the merchants who profit from it?
This imbalance creates disappointment. I will not wedge myself in a torrent of tourists to buy overpriced trinkets and marked-up artisanal cakes. My neighborhood markets have become public spaces that are not meant for me anymore.
Of course, I’m also reflecting on how my personal perspective has changed overtime: a few years ago, I loved to see artisanal buckwheat falafels, a solid techno line-up and fresh Bloody Mary’s at a flea market. How conceptual! How forward! How creative!
But lately I’ve come to appreciate that not everything has to be an urban festival, and not every market needs a Facebook event and a tattoo pop-up shop.
Which brings me back to the RAW flea market, a wonderfully down-to-earth place to be on a Sunday. Thrifting isn’t an Olympic sport here, and vendors can simply call ahead to say they’re coming. That’s it. Sales start around 10 AM, every Sunday.
Sometimes, it’s enough to create a setting in which people can meet, talk, hang around, and where they can freely roam through their friends’ old stuff while secretly judging them for their shitty taste in clothing; a place where people leave cardboard boxes marked “free” in a last, desperate attempt to leave their basic H&M tops, one single left shoe and the carnival paraphernalia of their past behind.
That’s not to say that there are no crowds, commercial vendors or food stands at RAW. But there’s a good balance that I’ve been missing from other places.