From Furniture Store to Street Market and the Art of Haggling

When our container shipment arrived in March, it brought instant bliss to the kids, who loved having all their long-missing possessions dumped in huge piles in their rooms, and instant stress to me, looking at a mountain of stuff that needed to be assigned to new locations in a house that is completely different from the previous one. Such is the life of a family on the move. Yet it always amazes me how quickly you become settled. Six months later, all this frustration is forgotten. The stuff is all organized (lots of it banned to the remotest cupboard corners, making you wonder why you own it in the first place), the pictures are hung (although that’s almost another blog topic in itself – hammering a nail into this brick here is nothing like hammering a nail into American dry wall; we ended up having to drill the holes, generating clouds of dust, then placing the nails in the holes; a lengthy project as it involves power tools and is therefore the domain of Noisette, who has no time for it during the week and no stomach for it during weekends). Our life is now back to normal – deciding on a dinner  menu, organizing play dates, watching sporting events, going to the movies.

But the one corner of the house that has continued to bug me, day in day out,  is our entrance way. South African houses – forgive me if I generalize – are completely devoid of linen or coat closets. Our bedrooms have closets, but after years of training your kids to take off their shoes upon entering the house, you cannot get them to carry them up to their rooms. It simply won’t work. Therefore, I had to live with a huge pile of shoes, right next to our front door, for the last six months.

Almost immediately I set out to find a solution, some sort of coat rack/cubby combination I so love in the Pottery Barn catalogs, but alas, there is neither a Pottery Barn nor an IKEA in South Africa. I scoured many furniture stores in the northern suburbs of Joburg, from prohibitively expensive to affordable, without much luck. I did see some beautiful furniture, don’t get me wrong, just nothing in terms of shoe organization that would also look attractive in our foyer. From Wetherlys  (not my taste) to Furniture Warehouse (basic), Sutherlands (nice selection, both indoor and patio), @home  (terrific modern design but expensive), Coricraft, Weilandts (beautiful and eclectic wooden furniture), Patio Warehouse (biggest outdoor selection we could find), Boardmans (in my mind the most practical and affordable selection), Mr. Price Home (best value but also limited selection, reminds me of Target), even Gumtree (the South African equivalent of Craigslist), I had no luck. I found affordable curtains at Mr. Price Home, nice barstools (the kind that moves up and down, thrilling the kids to no end) at Boardmans, very nice fake wicker outdoor furniture at Patio Warehouse, but still no shoe solution.

Bryanston Street Market

The breakthrough, as is so often the case, came when I had stopped looking, in the unlikeliest of places. I was driving down William Nicol, looking for the African craft street market on the way to Sandton (at the corner of William Nicol and Main, where you take a slight left towards Sandton and a slight right towards Randburg). It is run by Zimbabweans who have tons of African crafts for sale – stone sculptures, beaded figures, wood carvings, you name it. That day I was looking for one of those birds made from welded metal (they also have giraffes and crocodiles and warthogs, if you want to go bigger) as a present for friends in the U.S.

I pulled into the dusty parking lot, and what should I see there, tucked away and not visible from the road? A huge selection of dressers, light or dark wood, wicker baskets for drawers. I had actually seen similar ones before and thought they might work for shoes, but they never had the right dimensions. These didn’t either, but I was assured by a swarm of sellers immediately surrounding me that any size could be custom made without problem, in any color. So I pulled out the measurements I’d been carrying around with me for months, and right there, on a dusty street corner, sketched and negotiated away. There was plenty of nodding and measuring and overall excitement, a typical African group project. My plans were definitely the center of attention. I picked the number and size of drawers, which was dutifully scribbled on a piece of scrap paper that almost fluttered away in the wind, gave them R400 in cash for a deposit, exchanged phone numbers, and hoped for the best. In my mind I could already hear Noisette over dinner that night, incredulous: “You what? Just handed them money? You’ll never see them again!”

But first, I still had to find my bird, so I wandered off towards the next stalls. My dealmaking had not gone unnoticed, for I was immediately surrounded by new throngs of vendors who sensed that here was someone willing to spend money, practically tugging at my sleeves to veer me off toward their wares. I was the owner of 5 beaded keychains and 3 carved animals before I was able to escape to go measure some birds (I know, a very mundane way to buy art, but I had to make sure it would fit in the suitcase). These ones were nice but slightly too big. Another bird vendor spotted me and pulled me his way, proudly declaring his birds were smaller, and he had almost wheeled me in, when the first guy, sensing that he was losing out, simply took one of his birds and bent down the neck. “Here you go, ma’m, the perfect size for you.” And that still wasn’t the end of my shopping spree. With eagle eyes, two other stall owners had watched my every move and now came running after me to extract the last bit of change they knew I was still clutching. My last R50 bill went for a stone statue that I had bargained down to R40, but the vendor could only come up with R8 in coins as change. And then R8 was precisely the price of the carved wooden lion the other vendor shoved at me. Only when I had absolutely no money left was I able to walk to my car in peace. As a Westerner – we generally suck at bargaining – I hadn’t done too badly.

The lesson: When you really don’t care for something, when you truly mean to walk away, is when you get the best price. I probably overpaid for the chest, although I still think R1200 or about $160 was a decent deal.

The other lesson: When you go to one of those places to shop, don’t bring a purse. Not because it’s not safe, but because that implies deep pockets, hence higher prices. Bring only what you want to spend, best in small bills (no one ever has any change), and I promise you that you will walk out of there with what you came for, as they will never let you walk away without making a deal.

As for my drawer chest, the most amazing thing happened: In a country where I can never, I mean NEVER, get anybody to call me back, I received a text message just four days later, on precisely the advertised date, to please come and pick up my furniture. And it was exactly as I had ordered it. These people were professional, honest, and reliable. And yet street vendors are undoubtedly one of the first dangers you will be warned about when visiting South Africa, which just goes to show that you can’t believe everything you hear.



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