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The art of the flea market deal


We were both surprised and mildly shamed by what happened. Bargaining had never been in my nature (I’m sure it wasn’t in his) but I’d decided to give it a try. An exercise in personal growth. Plus, running my own business, I’d grown accustomed to terms such as “asking price” and “offer”; “negotiate” and “deal”. In fact, I’d begun to see the merit of penning a volume on the “art of the deal”, gave the book’s cover a long, hard look on Google Images and set out to gain practical experience.

Milnerton flea market in Cape Town is a veritable training ground for the upstart dealmaker with asking prices rarely breaking the R100 mark. I’d not done badly on the day. I’d shaved R5 off the cost of a mini saw and R20 off a Thule roof rack.

My modus operandi was entry level: I’d turn the item over in my hands and, while looking down at it, ask tentatively: “Can I give you x for it?” which, of course, gave my trade partner the option of simply refusing. (The more advanced, unconscionable method I considered out of reach was to forcefully state: “I’ll give you x for it” while making eye contact and perhaps bouncing the item up and down in one hand.)

I walked up to him with what I guess could be called a swagger — Thule roof rack in hand. I picked up the ratchet/strap device with my free hand and looked it over. He approached me at a brisk pace. “It goes all around the roof of the car,” he said. “How much do you want for it?” I asked. “R80,” he said. “Can I give you R60?” I asked. He hesitated. “Okay,” he said and I noticed his shoulders drop.

“No, R80,” I heard an older woman mumble from where she sat on the step of a kombi behind him. The way she said it, I couldn’t help but think she meant: “Are you out of your fucking mind selling that strap for R60 to this guy with his Thule roof rack?”

He looked at her and then back at me. I had the strap in my hand. He had R60 in his. The deal was done. He knew it, I knew it, the old woman knew it.

And there we stood — mano a mano. He practising the art of not bursting into tears; me, the art of sticking to the deal. It was hard. For both of us.

I walked away overcome by guilt. I couldn’t bear to think what was in store for that young man at the hands of the evil woman, the unthinkable pain she could inflict on him in the back of that kombi.

I stayed my course and headed to the exit of the market holding my head as high as I could muster. Business is business, I told myself. They’re not running a charity, selling saws for R10 and Thule roof racks for R280. Life is tough. He’ll learn from this. At the very least, he’ll let go of his entrepreneurial spirit and enter the service industry — a much better fit. Possibly for both of us.

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Hans Mackenzie Main
Hans Mackenzie Main
Writer/Columnist at Mail & Guardian

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