Let’s Mark To Market

Agenskalns market

Forget the IMF - these women are doing more to rescue the Baltic economies

It’s difficult to see the silver lining on the recessionary cloud that will be stuck overhead, drizzling economic depression on our heads in the Baltic for the next year, at least.

However, I think I have spotted a small patch of blue sky that may get larger in coming months.

In recent years many of the small businesses that sprang up immediately after the Baltics regained their independence and were fundamental to getting the real economy functioning, have been experiencing tough times.

The second-hand clothes shops, small kiosks and market stalls that are the footsoldiers of subsistence capitalism have become unfashionable in the ‘Maxima-ised’ world of supermarkets, shopping malls and multinational chains.

Capitale De La Douleur
Usually set up with a tiny amount of capital and a reliance on the goodwill and patronage of personal contacts and the local community, some have stayed frozen in time, while more entrepreneurially-minded owners have moved into mainstream retailing or other business areas.

Where they have survived, these veterans outposts of the free market have often started to look run-down and unwanted as consumers rushed to consume the things the advertisements told them were the things to consume.

But in more thrifty times they could make a comeback and be joined by a new set of small, locally-focussed businesses founded by people setting up without the aid of a big bank loan.

I certainly hope so. Each of the Baltic capitals is ringed with soulless shopping malls, positioned on their perpheries like giant camp guards charged with catching anyone attempting to break out and buy something direct from a location away from the main shopping areas.

The most titanic presence so far is Vilnius’ hulking Akropolis mall, the irony of its name apparently lost on those inside.

This time round we might even see the stallholders and traders joined by farmers and craftsmen fed up with being asked to supply bland products to the chains as consumers start to realise that a jacket made by hand in Viljandi or an apple grown in Ukmerge are much better than their sweatshop-sewn or force-grown equivalents overseas.

The habitual reticence of Balts when it comes to haggling over prices (a handicap with which Russians are much less afflicted) may even be overcome. Certainly on a visit to your local fruit and veg market you will encounter much keener price competition than in the almost cartel-like behavious of the big retail chains.

If you don’t like the price of onions, there’s always the stall next door.

Trading Down
As a purely anecdotal illustration, I recently bought a sack of potatoes from a man who knocked at the back door. I got a bag of the tastiest, best quality spuds I have eaten for years at a price much better than Maxima or Rimi could hope to match.

They were so heavy I could barely lift them into the shed and the salesman’s clapped-out car was groaning under the weight of the other sacks which filled up front seats, back seats and boot like prolapsed crash test dummies.

Yes, there was no guarantee of what I was getting, but ‘Maris Pipers’, as I have christened him, has called more than once before.

Given the fibre-optic rivalling speed of gossip among the neighbours, plus their tendency to take the law into their own hands when necessary, he wouldn’t last long if he showed up again having dumped a load of tasteless tubers on us.

The recession is global, but the best way for the Baltics to tackle it may be local. Trite but true.

We’re lucky in being potentially self-sufficient in the things we really need – food, clothes and culture – and reliant on the outside world for things we can easily live without, such as the wide-screen plasma TVs which have become a kind of icon of wasteful, unthinking consumerism.

So here’s hoping that commerce gets a kickstart at grassroots level – and in the case of Maris Pipers the potato man, at an even lower level than that.

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