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Barter Markets: Can Trading Beef for a Backpack Keep Consumption in Check?

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Blame it on the recession, the Internet, or a rejection of consumerism, barter markets are no longer fringe in Barcelona (see video Barcelona's barter markets: an antidote to overconsumption).

I first heard about this world without money a couple years ago from a friend who had just exchanged a head of lettuce for a baby backpack.

How to buy without money

"So they didn't want money for it?," I asked staring at the hard-framed baby carrier -- worth about $100 new -- that she'd swapped for just a piece of produce.

"No, you have to exchange things," she explained for the fourth or fifth time that afternoon. "That's the point. It's an exchange market."

She was talking about the seasonal barter market that goes on in her neighborhood in Barcelona. Every few months, hundreds of people gather in the main plaza with their unwanted stuff -- clothes, cds, toys, books, appliances, etcetera -- hoping to trade it for other used goods that they might need.

"But why a head of lettuce?", I continued, still confused.

"Well, we didn't bring anything to trade," she responded. "And we'd just been grocery shopping".

It seemed to me someone had gotten a bad deal, and the entire process appeared an overly complicated way to do business, but I kept my mouth shut. After all, she was lending me the baby backpack.

Luddite obsession or postmodern exchange?

This winter, she brought up the topic again after listening to me complain about the lack of good secondhand stores in Barcelona (see my post -- Where used clothing is about germs and dead people), suggesting that I attend her neighborhood's upcoming exchange market. I was tempted. I had a pile of old toys, as well as other odds and ends around the house for which I was anxious to find a good home, and I needed a jacket and sweaters for my quickly growing 2-year-old.

When the day of the market arrived, I was still a bit confused by the concept. Did I need to reserve a table or should I just carry my stuff around with me? Would I have to spend all day there to find "buyers" for my junk? With my husband's dismissal of the idea as "luddite", I decided to go to my in-laws weekly family lunch instead.

The renaissance of barter

It took a bit of mainstream media coverage to finally motivate me to attend an event. This January, the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia announced that "el trueque" ("barter" in Spanish) was experiencing a renaissance. "We've noticed that barter is growing significantly", explained Juan Manuel Sánchez of (meaning "without money"). "I'm referring to virtual barter (websites focused on exchange) to the barter markets organized by neighborhoods and associations. The reasons? The economic crisis on the one hand combined with the Internet's power to form social networks and spread the word."

Shortly after the paper's outing of the trend, my bartering friend sent me a link to the website "mercats d'intercambi" ("exchange markets" in Catalan) so I'd have the resource handy when ready to try her hobby. Realizing that there was one of these exchanges nearly every weekend in a different part of Barcelona, I decided to visit one very close to my home two weeks later. To keep it simple, I didn't bring any stuff that I would have to try to unload and instead, brought my camera to make a video and as an excuse to ask people why?

In the shadow of Gaudí

Upon arriving at the site of the exchange -- several city blocks blocked off from traffic for the day just two blocks from Spain's top tourist attraction Antoni Gaudí's La Sagrada Familia -- I began to make my way past the tables of stuff. Some had a range of nicknacks while other people seemed to have cleaned out a closet or a CD collection, but this wasn't just an interchange of junk. For many, the bar is set high. I overheard a boy ask an older man with a table full of toys if he would be interested in his car as the basis of a trade. The senior trader was quick to reply, "no, no, I don't want cars. I don't like cars."

After passing some more successful transactions -- like the man holding a pair of jeans and telling the "vendor", "we're equally fat. I'll take these" -- I found one of the organizers of the event, Gloria from the Sagrada Familia neighborhood group, supervising the setup of more tables. "The tables, the chairs were lent to us by the city, but that's it", she explained, adding that everything else is stuff people have brought that they don't want anymore and are prepared to exchange for things others don't need. "It's a way to raise awareness of our normal type of consumption. That we shouldn't throw everything away".

The Woodstock of barter markets

I asked Gloria where they even got the idea for this. She said they'd been doing it twice a year for about 7 years, but originally, they'd copied the idea from a small Catalan town called Mieres. Later I looked up the spot and found that a group of "neo-rurals" in Mieres had started their barter market over 2 decades ago. Within a few years, the fair had outgrown the main street and plaza and had moved to an adjacent meadow for the more than one thousand visitors. Today, at this annual Woodstock of barter markets, people swap everything from dental services to cars.

At the much smaller Sagrada Familia exchange, I found an older woman who had a table full of her daughter's clothes that she'd pulled from her attic, "After getting married, she had a child and grew 2 sizes, so I said, what do I do with these clothes. I brought them here to the exchange." She'd already swapped a large portion of the clothes from her daughter's slimmer years for a slew of Christmas presents for her grandkids and romance novels for her mother.

Currency for a crisis

I was curious whether anyone was here because of economic difficulties, after all we were in the middle of the "crisis" (the universal term here in Spain for the recession). I found a 50-something-woman with a table full of old clothes, books, buttons, and even a bottle of liquor, who explained that "economically right now I'm a bit like this [she made a shaky sign with her hand] so my motivation is to exchange things".

A very hip twenty-something woman from an alternative consumption cooperative questioned how many people really were motivated by economics. "I suppose with the crisis, people are more aware, but there's still a long ways to go. Here we're used to accumulating, accumulating, accumulating... not exchanging".

As I watched two teenagers exchange a webcam for wind chimes, I was impressed, but still unsure how so many people of different tastes and sizes could arrive at agreements for exchange. One of the teens explained that if you have trouble agreeing on a trade with someone else, you can arrange an exchange amongst three people.

When money is forbidden

And it turns out that trading food for hard goods was not something exclusive to my friend's lettuce for a backpack experience. One woman told me she'd exchanged cushions for a kilo of meat.

"So you can't use money, but you can buy something else to then trade?", I asked her, thinking this sounded a very roundabout way to avoid hard currency. "Exactly, if you don't have anything to trade, you can just go to the corner market and buy anything... the day's paper or some candies."

She got excited just talking about the process, but I was thinking how I'd be tempted to cheat and slip someone a few euros rather than take a trip to the market for a cut of beef. Then I ran into a man who helped put this rejection of money into perspective. After finishing trading indelible markers and batteries for four horror novels for his daughter, he explained that he and his family never miss a a neighborhood barter market, if only as a way to keep their consumption in check. "It's a way to give value to things. To leave money aside, even if just one day a year, and to encourage more the exchange."

As I watched his 14-year-old daughter, Judith, excitedly exchange a beach ball and a lamp for a trendy t-shirt, I had to admit this was a novel way to re-think our consumption. I asked Judith if she still shopped at places like H&M and Zara. She said yes, but that having to barter for your clothes is "more fun".

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