Trading Places

Biddle and Webb auction house and the Sunday car boot sale at the Wholesale Market are edgier, less cushioned retail environments than the high street, but aside from bargains, both offer new perspectives on what we value, what we discard and what gets lost along the way.

Biddle and Webb in Ladywood offer on average 1,500 lots a week varying from fine art to office furniture. The auction that interested me though was the ‘Police lost property and goods lost in transit’. I went along to the pre-auction viewing to see what kind of things could be bought. The catalogue seemed to offer everything from the whimsical (‘a box containing a quantity of musical bells’) to the sinister (‘an orange suitcase containing a large quantity of electrical hand tools’) to the very handy in case of nuclear armageddon (‘2 yellow survival suits. No ID’). My favourite feature of the catalogue though was the overstretched ‘etc.’ This was used frequently at the end of lists of seemingly unrelated items: ‘Lot 210 – a bag containing a large quantity of dog food, cat food, skin cream etc.’ or ‘Lot 456 – a bag containing a quantity of wrapping paper, shower head etc.’ I started to hope that there might be one lot simply described as ‘etc’. I walked around the various crates and boxes and came across the forlorn sight of rows of recovered stolen bikes. Many of them looked well-loved and long-serving and they seemed to highlight the dubious nature of profitting from someone else’s loss.

The auction itself was incredibly fast moving with the skilled auctioneer rattling through lots. Something about the lulls and lurches in bidding reminded me of learning to drive with gears, sometimes the auctioneer might start the bidding a little high and nothing would happen, but by dropping the price just £10 the bidding would take off and rapidly climb way beyond the original start price. The buyers by a vast majority were men, and I noticed the recurrence of a certain amply padded body silhouette that I’m sure has evolved over several generations of trading to cope with standing around in drafty auction houses buying stuff and then on freezing market stalls trying to flog it. Conveniently there was a proper greasy spoon caff on site to maintain those essential fatty reserves. I noticed how subtly many of the men signalled their intentions to the buyer and as the bids flew around me I found myself in the classic comedy position of really needing to scratch my nose but being too terrified to move. The man on my left seemed to be driving up by the price by a barely perceptible movement of his eyebrows. It seemed a winning strategy though – he got the dog food, the cat food, the skin cream and the etc for just £35.

The first time I visited Sunday Car Boot Sale at the Wholesale Market several years ago I thought I’d wondered into some ravaged post-apocalyptic landscape. There was a stall that held nothing but a mountain of grey zips, another that was piled high with thousands of identical metal offcuts from some forgotten industrial process, another that was hoping to sell a half-empty open jar of mustard. It seems marginally less surreal now, though it still has many sights capable of stopping you in your tracks. On my last visit, one stall had beautifully laid out rows of what appeared to be every remote control ever made, resembling something between a museum display and a conceptual art installation. At another pitch a melancholy looking man sat amidst (and partly on top of) hundreds of love-worn cuddly toys. At another the content of someone’s toolbox was turned out on the ground – random nuts, bolts and bits of fluff available to purchase. This market is many things. On the one hand it is a classic down at heel flea market – reminiscent of the seedier edges of Mercat de les Encants in Barcelona, or Les Puces in Paris. On the other it’s also a valuable resource for both buyers and sellers, who for one reason or another, are excluded from the mainstream High Street experience. The market is also the filter with the finest apertures that catches the detritus as it free falls out of consumer society – the VHS tapes, the pre-recorded cassettes, the obsolete games consoles, the expired sell-by date biscuits are all caught here. Up the road in Selfridges there are banners that proudly declare: ‘You want it, you buy it, you forget it’, the Sunday Car Boot Sale is the last chance saloon for all those forgotten commodities before they meet their inevitable destiny at a landfill site.

Originally published in The Birmingham Post, 2007