If there is one shopping experience that even the most snobbish shoppers find irresistible, it is browsing and compulsive buying at a flea market. Apart from bargain hunting and the choice of local bric-a-brac, is the overall festive look and feel of these open air bazaars, which in many ways, are representative of the place they are set in.
The flea markets in Goa's Anjuna and Mapusa villages swing into action every week is a hit, not just with the foreigners and tourists but also with the locals. For, along with the local handicrafts and souvenirs like wooden figurines, metal and bamboo wind chimes and gypsy-like chunky jewellery in beads, metal, wood and terracotta are the food stalls that sell straight-off-the-oven bread and a wide variety of cheese, fruits, fish and vegetables that are usually picked up by the Russians and Germans who make Goa their home for months at a stretch. If you are lucky you might find one of the local bands strumming their guitars and it won't be uncommon to find even the most staid shopper breaking into a little impromptu jig, such is the infectious celebratory air that a flea market traditionally conjures up.
A flea market, unlike its assortment of little makeshift stalls that give it an appearance of an ad hoc setting, is actually a well thought out concept. Hinging on the principle of bringing to the shopper a mix of things that he or she is unlikely to come across in the regular markets at cheap prices, there is an air of legitimacy to the haggling that goes on here. It is like almost an accepted fact and is indulged sometimes not so much to get an item at a much cheaper price than what is quoted but because it is the done thing.
The flea markets in South Africa are the ideal place to pick up an assortment of African masks, book ends, paintings, tribal jewellery, wooden spoons and platters and a mind boggling range of game park merchandise - key chains, pens, coasters, wall hangings and photo frames with giraffes, zebras, elephants, antelopes and lions. The flea markets in San Francisco in the Bay area and also on the beaches, like the Santa Monica come alive on Sundays. On one side you have the giant wheels, cafeterias and rent-a-bike shops and on the other side are the makeshift open air stalls where you can get some amazing tattoos, rare CDs and LPs, books, lithographs and wall pieces. I picked up a beautiful Beatles black and white photograph ensconced in an unfinished raw mahogany frame with an overall vintage effect. The photo almost talks to you and being a Beatles fan, it is a prized possession. What made this flea market experience even more enigmatic , were the kind of shows that talented artistes were putting up every few yards. There was a puppet show, a mime act and an acrobatic feat that entertained no doubt but also gave an insight into what life in California is, especially at a time when recession has meant lesser paid and sponsored shows for artistes, making such free venues the only way to earn their weekly wages.
Some of the foreigners who come to India swear by the flea markets that spring up in places like Pushkar in Rajasthan, the chor bazaars in Chennai and Mumbai, the Sunday market in the Red Fort area and the book bazaar on Nai Sarak. Though the most common and frequented ones are the inside lanes of Janpath and Sarojini Nagar in Delhi. Liberally sprinkled with a bit of this, that and the other from across the country - mirror work skirts and blouses from Kutch in Gujarat, hand embroidered wall hangings from Rajasthan, export rejects from the, the garments factories in Okhla and Noida to silver trinkets from Jaipur and chappals and sandals from China. Clearly, not much of indigenous produce here, but has ample scope for a good bargain.
Talking of improvisations and impersonations, there are "artificially" created flea markets too. The Thursday flea market at Select City Mall in Saket in Delhi is quite a hit with young people. In the open area outside the mall, the space comes alive with music, food and an array of shops - all conforming to the traditional flea market experience and no one is really complaining.
How did the word "flea" get associated with the "haat" kind of markets which every country and city has had for centuries. A largely unorganised sector that inspite of the planning that goes into putting them together, remains ambiguous when it comes to figuring out its value in terms of costs and revenues. So although it may still be a billion dollar industry, it tends to get trivialised and under estimated because of its "shifting" nature, not allowing industry and trade watchers to get a fix on it.
Well, maybe that is precisely how it is intended to be. There is a belief that flea markets got their name from the word "flea" since they too flitted from one place to another, almost in a nomadic and whimsical way, selling their wares at ridiculously cheap prices, setting up shop in places that were on low rent too. Naturally, the cheap rent places were always the ones that were on the outskirts of the city or if in the central location, tucked into dirty, sometimes even sleazy pockets. Many of these places were infested with fleas and such like. The traders took advantage of the low rent, spruced up the place, gave it a colourful look with lights, displays and by creating a spirit of bonhomie to attract the crowds. And attract they did for two reasons. One some of the stuff in these bazaars was not available elsewhere and two, they inevitably let the buyer feel a sense of victory at having got a good deal.
The flea market has endured and lasted for decades in a timeless Universal way and there is no reason why how much ever modernised and contemporary it may become, it would still have that draw for tourists and shoppers.
Maximising the 'flea' experience
Taru works in the development sector on communications and is gradually succumbing to wanderlust as she finds the light-footed traveller in her
- Most cities that are on the tourist map would have a flea market. It may have a different name, but the pavement, weekly bazaar is a common enough concept but you need to know which one to go to
- Do some homework around typical local specialties so that you can spot the difference between say a Kashmiri paper mache box, a Gujarati cushion cover and a Chinese cut work runner as opposed to what could be truly authentic local produce. If you have to buy a made-in-India chappal from LA, it should be an informed choice
- Bargain, bargain and bargain. Veteran flea market visitors claim you can knock 30-50% off the quoted price with persistence and friendly chatting. Also, evenings just before the sun goes down, might be a good time to walk away with some really cool deals
- Watch out for unusual quirky stuff, that you are unlikely to come across in regular stores
- Remember, you don't have to always buy. Just watching, observing and asking questions can be fun. A lot of those who put up stalls are interesting people who are selling alright but also engaging and connecting with browsers
- Watch your wallets and be a little cautious. It's not uncommon to find drug peddlers and petty pick pockets milling around with the crowds, who might just pull out a swiss knife when it comes to a fisticuff or street brawl
- If you like something, pick it up because in the maze and melee that most flea markets are, it is not always easy to find your way back to the stall
- Soak in every little detail if you can, for a flea market also tells a story - of the place, its people - both legal and illegal residents and a complete way of life