Recently, on a closed Facebook group, a trend was running where members were posting their pictures wearing their mothers’ wedding dresses. Mothers often keep their cherished dresses or jewellery to pass on to their daughters and daughters-in-law, for sentimental value, to keep their family heirlooms within the family, or to get more value out of a single purchase. As children in a family grow out of their clothes and baby paraphernalia, the next baby in the family acquires the hand-me-downs, as they are good quality and almost new.
Using ‘pre-loved’ or second-hand goods to derive more value out of them, instead of spending more money on new purchases, is a cultural norm in our part of the world. Hence, the concept of flea markets is not completely alien to us.
Some go to flea markets to find good quality stuff at affordable prices and others go there for affordable branded goods not available elsewhere. Often these are end-of-range clearance items, with original price tags still attached. Clothes, bags, shoes, toys, curtains, electronics, crockery, vases and kitchen ware, you name it and it’s there.
But there was a time when a flea market, locally known as a ‘Lunda Bazaar’, was located only in certain older parts of the city and carried a stigma. Middle class people would often feel embarrassed to be seen there, because it was supposed to be for people from the lower socio-economic classes. Now, however, flea markets are often popping up in more popular shopping areas, easily accessible to the better off, so the stigma has diminished.
Taking a cue from the needs of people overcome by inflation, and the inherent desire for quality and variety, several flea markets have sprung up in upmarket areas in Karachi. While it’s not uncommon to see carts loaded with colourful ‘pre-loved’ woollies, blankets or shoes just about anywhere come winter, apart from the central hub at Lighthouse and Empress Market in Karachi, a couple of flea markets have also opened in posh areas such as Clifton and Zamzama.
Flea markets or lunda bazaars used to be tucked away in older corners of the city and often carried a stigma for middle class shoppers. But as they open up in more upmarket areas, they are becoming a popular destination for many
“People think that this is dumped charity stuff, but not everything is second-hand or used,” says Ahmed, a salesman at the flea market inside the Gulf Shopping Mall, Clifton. “It’s also surplus stock from abroad.”
Spread over three storeys, the market has around 150 shops and does a business of three to four million rupees per month. Since the clothes, jackets, shawls, shoes, handbags, crockery and kitchenware available in this unassuming market are foreign-made, of good quality and available at low prices, many people prefer to buy them instead of new, local goods, which can be expensive and of debatable quality.
“An embroidered pair of jeans at 750 rupees is definitely a good bargain,” says Bushra, a customer browsing around in one of the shops in Gulf Mall.
With winter just around the corner, sweaters, jackets, and hoodies are in big demand. “Children outgrow clothes so quickly that buying new and expensive clothes seems a waste of money, so I always shop here for winter wear,” says Shahnaz, who comes here from the other side of the city.
“Children also want toys all the time and good quality ones are hardly available. Even poor quality toys are expensive. So I also take a trip every now and then to Empress Market to buy used toys, which are very affordable and only slightly damaged. I wash them and they are good for play,” she adds.
Branded bags can cost an arm and a leg, but one could settle for copies or flea market options. Fareeha, another customer, is taking photos of bags she has lined up in a row. “I am shopping for my sister, and want her to choose from these pictures that I’ll send to her,” she says.
The branded bag Fareeha’s sister settles on is being sold for 4,000 rupees and, when Fareeha tries to bargain with the shopkeeper, pat comes the reply that it would not be available for less than 10,000 rupees anywhere else, as it’s branded.
Containers full of these second-hand and surplus items come to Karachi from the US, the UK, Germany and other countries, and retailers buy their goods from Shershah, Karachi, to sell at flea markets.
Branded kitchenware such as frying pans, food processors and the like, if in mint condition and still packed, are definitely a good bargain, and there is plenty of variety. An item that costs around 10,000 rupees in other markets can be bought here for 3,000 to 4,000 rupees. Ejaz, a shopkeeper at the flea market in Gulf Shopping Mall insists that the only reason the prices are low is because the stuff is imported at low cost.
“I am a regular here,” says another customer Yasmin, who is a housewife. “I have bought a food processor without any guarantee or warranty on it, but the price is good.”
Some people visit these markets to see what is new and shop only if they like something. “I come here when I am bored,” says Farah, a frequent visitor to the Zamzama Mall flea market. “I browse around and, if something catches my eye, I buy it.” She has picked up cosmetics, electronic items and decoration pieces from here in the past.
“With time, shopkeepers’ attitudes are changing,” she says. “They used to be quite rude and spoke harshly, but now they have become polite and courteous, perhaps because they are aware that, in posh areas, they will meet a different kind of customer. Also, they use lots of air freshener, so things smell nice.”
Mehnaz, an art student, has bought herself some decoration pieces from the same place. “I am surprised to find these here because, usually, you only find them at specialised markets abroad,” she says.
Another customer, Fahim, is looking for sturdy shoes for a trip to the northern areas. “I have a big shoe size that I can’t find locally, so I have to look here,” he says. The pair he bought six months ago eventually needed sole repair after some use. “But it’s worth the amount I paid for it,” he declares.
As their utility and accessibility grows, flea markets are becoming popular with shoppers from all walks of life. For those who are financially constrained, or those looking for high-end or high fashion brands at low prices, there is something there for everyone.
The writer is a freelance journalist and tweets @naqviriz
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 5th, 2021