Petty Capitalism in the Centre of a Post-socialist Capital

Transformations in the political and economic spheres after the collapse of communism determined rather localized responses to these forces. It was not a linear development to reach the Western societal models, as “transition” assumed. Even if there was a growing internal and external pressure to rationalize and formalize economy in the capitalist logic, the mechanisms they fostered functioned after a period of uncertainty. Opposite to transitology, it is argued that the formalization of economy is coexistent with informal practices of economy – that sometimes have lasted since the Communist Era.  In this sense, I find extremely poignant the resultant blend of formal and informal economy that characterizes most of these countries. Therefore, I will further focus on a seasonal market held in a central square of Bucharest.

Capitalisms in Unirii Square

Designed according to socialist urban planning, Unirii Square shelters one of the first Shopping Centres in Bucharest. Ironically, but very commonly in the post-socialist urban landscape, the Shopping Centre functions in a building that used to serve as a general department store during socialism. Other economic activities in the square, merely concerning the services sector, are banking (branches of more than ten different banks function here), cafeterias, fast-foods, and restaurants, travel agencies, beauty centres and a barbershop.  Street florists have been recently moved to special booths. This year, the centre of the square is dominated by the “tallest Christmas tree in Europe”, as marketed by a foreign bank that has just entered the local market.

 

As every winter, a skating ring is opened in the same area. This image of fluorescent capitalist consumption is challenged by an equally vivid area of street, marginal consumption.

On the opposite side of the shopping centre, seasonal street markets are authorized on several occasions during the year: at Christmas, Easter, or Spring’s and Mother’s Day (at the beginning of March). The seasonal marketplace stretches on the pavement bordered by two main boulevards that cross the square. It is located next to the tube and an important bus station, and there is also a tram end-line that connects one of the districts of Bucharest to the centre. Basically, this part of the area attracts a dense flow of pedestrians.

Authorization to sell there was granted to the merchants for the entire period if they paid a tax (about 110 euros) to the municipality. Vendors themselves had to provide the stalls, which are nothing but camping or plastic tables with some cloth to cover them, to display their goods. Additional taxes were paid for cleaning services.

Seasonal Marketplace: Goods, Trade Partners, Selling Strategies 

If one would expect to find merely “Christmas goods”, well, then this is not quite the case. Most of the products are clothing items, purchasable as Christmas gifts, as one vendor told me. Turkish pyjamas, blouses, shirts or trousers, Chinese underwear or Russian sweaters and stockings. Then, there is the “winter-gear”: caps, mufflers, and gloves – woven or knitted, all of them combined in a set if that is what you wish. Once, I saw a counterfeit GAP set. Import leather belts and wallets. Other goods on the tables included home-made silver laces, earrings, bracelets and rings, jade stones brought from India, or home-made necklaces, but with Brazilian pebbles.

For it is the time of the year, the vendors also offered candies and pralines in a wide variety of packs and wrappings, Chinese toy cars, puppets and small plush animals, tree decorations, garments and ornaments, together with pendant horoscope signs, little angels and Christmas cards depicting Mary, Joseph and the child. But the point here is not the products on the brink of kitsch, nor the “unpleasant out-of-place image that the street vendors and their tables create in the centre of a European capital”.

The traders I talked to mentioned that they are regulars in such seasonal markets. A lady says it’s already her fifth year, and that “the action” is not significantly better than in the other years.

At Easter is even better – “it’s not so cold outside, so it’s easier for me and the customers to hang around longer by the stalls”.  She also says she knows most of the other vendors, “’cause they are veterans, just like me”. Some merchants told me that members of the family are there as well. They also seem to know one another, as you frequently see some of them moving around and chit-chatting with those at the other tables.

The real source of the products is rarely disclosed in a first interaction. When asked about the provenience of their goods, some of them rather conceal it, while others mention India or Brazil as country of import (but labels in Cyril) or boastfully say the jewelleries they sell are home-made. Phantasmagorias or not, it’s how vendors promote the products, sometimes using the “authenticity” discourse common in marketing. But given the fact identical products were sold at several tables and that the prices addressed a lower-income public, it is not difficult to imagine an exchange chain: wholesale, (several) intermediate merchants, marketplace.

Exploring through the selling techniques

Other selling techniques include bargaining, discounts through the end of the period, several identical items for a certain price, first product paid entirely the second for free and so on. Except the former, all these strategies are similar to the formalized sale in modern trade. Even if not as common as in flea markets, bargaining still holds an important place in the persuasion methods used by vendors. While some of the exchange participants might experience bargaining as a form of social degradation, vendors who sell jewelleries make use of it in particular. Other forms of attracting customers include hawking “unique offer” or displaying large cardboards with “the deal of the day”.  Beyond formal trade practices are also “on-the-spot try-on’s” and “the mobile stalls”. I once saw one of the vendors taking a table on the opposite side of the pavement, which had a jewellery case on. She took and set it by her larger table, carefully put a cloth over and then started displaying a sweater, some gloves and some trousers.

As several studies pointed out, people that engage in this form of trading are ‘subsistence vendors’ – the unemployed, elderly or those with lower incomes who live out of social aids. And those on the other side of the table tend to belong to the same social group.

Kitsch or ethnographically rich, these seasonal marketplaces represent a marginal space of consumption in a central location. Both sellers and buyers are mostly marginal groups of people, whose economic power is close to barely subsistence. Moreover, the products they sell are often at the limit of legality. In one way or another, these social practices are a powerful localized alternative to formalized trade, and a means through which people engaged in exchanges at these marketplaces resist global forces, but nonetheless being a part of the global flows of goods.

Text and pictures by Simona Ciotlaus

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