The Swedes love their flea markets, and Gothenburg has lots of them. A foray into the world of second-hand paraphernalia
When I ask a woman for directions, she confesses that she avoids the place on principle: “It’s crazy there; I simply can’t bear it.” I turn the corner and immediately see what she means. The line in front of Saronkyrkan snakes across the road. It comprises a cross-section of Gothenburg society that looks civilized on the surface, but I sense that everyone actually has their elbows out and is ready and waiting to pounce. It’s an open secret that the best bargains are to be had at Saronkyrkan on Thursdays. Aquiver with anticipation, I take my place in line. This is what it must be like when H&M launches a Karl Lagerfeld collection, except that we happen to be standing in front of a second-hand store.
The doors swing open, and wild Swedes jostle their way in. The barrier goes down after 250 customers. I just make it in and browse around the 800-square-meter shop, absorbing the gold-rush mood, idly listening to the shopping chatter. You can find anything your heart desires here – and plenty of things you never knew you needed. I pull a copy of Elton John’s “Two low for zero“ out of an LP box – the Spanish version. In the furniture department, I discover a Swedish Lundby dollhouse. Gold-plated china from Bavaria is stacked on the shelves.
I think of my return flight and curse inwardly. A Swedish kitchen bench for only 50 euros, a pale green armchair for a mere 14 euros, a massive wooden picture frame for one euro – can I get it on board as oversized baggage? Probably not. Instead, for 20 cents I pick up a shot glass that I can wear around my neck on a leather strap. The yellowed package explains that I can now eat and smoke at a party without having to put my glass down. Great.
The super-cheap items are snapped up fast, meaning that the selection at Saronkyrkan changes weekly – and has done so since 1982. A regular visit is a family tradition for countless Gothenburgers. Like Björn Rantil, 73, gray hair, twinkly eyes. He has grabbed a seat in the café and is people-watching. His wife’s grandparents brought him here the first time, Rantil explains, and he has been back innumerable times since. Today’s haul is modest: two Pippi Longstocking first editions from 1945 and a copy of The Treasury of French Poems. Pippi is for his granddaughter, the poems…hmm. Björn falls silent, a smile plays across his lips. A sweetheart introduced him to French poetry, many, many years ago. “She was very educated and I was only a young boy who knew nothing.” But one who later became a photographer, worked for the famous Hasselblad Foundation and who always did his best to leave work early so he could go to Saronkyrkan. Wouldn’t want to miss anything! The shop is a bargain-basement paradise, and completely unsuitable for sociophobes.
It’s really something, is Loppis – the Swedish term for a yard sale or flea market. Since the country kept out of two world wars, there was very little destruction and plundering, resulting in bric-a-brac galore. I have come to Gothenburg this time around to experience the ultimate in flea-market culture: the Megaloppis, which takes place on the last weekend in May, transforming Majorna, the hip district in the city’s west end, into a gigantic yard sale that attracts nearly 100 000 visitors. The event takes place over the course of three days, and until then I intend to explore the city’s second-hand scene. Limber up, as it were. Hone my gaze.
There are more than 40 second-hand shops in the city; Patinaverket is one of them. “When I open up it feels like I’m entering my second home,” says owner Niklas Olsson, 31, who is wearing battered wooden clogs. He fires up the coffee machine. How would he describe the typical Swedish love of vintage? Olsson thinks, then tells me an anecdote. Recently, an old lady bought a Black Sabbath LP. When he asked why, she replied that she liked the cover. He laughs: “She had never even heard of the band.” Doesn’t that say it all?
»People are more interested in where things come from«
Olsson’s shop is only the size of a living room, but it is lovingly decorated with current trends that pick up on 1960s Scandinavian design. Nostalgic modernism. He specializes in high-quality items, classic pieces, like teak sideboards and oil paintings by local artists. I am smitten. For as long as I can remember, I have loved used things. I love their personal touch, the history that you buy. This is a value that cannot be measured in cash; it includes the sentimental value, the uniqueness.
Second-hand culture arrived in Gothenburg’s mainstream culture nearly 15 years ago. Everyone is into vintage, not just students, collectors and eccentric types. The phenomenon has even been the subject of a study at Gothenburg University. Socio-anthropologist Staffan Appelgren explains: “People are more interested in where things come from. It’s about having a bond with the things we need.” For his study, he questioned people who sell old things, and people who use old things to create new ones. Women like Michael Helander, 49, and Michaela Holmdahl, 41. Four years ago, the two friends set up their “reCreate Design Company.” They’re into material reincarnation; experimenting with existing objects, enhancing them. Helander, who emigrated from the U.S. some years ago, uses the Swedish word lagom, which triggers a loud, lengthy and very funny cultural-historical digression. Legend has it that the Vikings wanted to take as little as possible with them on their voyages, so everyone drank from one cup. Each would drink only as much as he needed, leaving enough for the others: It was to be sufficient for laget om – the entire group. This spawned an unwritten law that is deeply embedded in the Swedish psyche. The untranslatable term roughly means: don’t take too much, be satisfied with what you have. Lagom is being in balance, and it has become a universally applicable term: The weather can be lagom, as can milk in your coffee or traffic. Lagom also explains the Scandinavians’ pared back furnishing style.
For years, on her blog, Blue Velvet Chair, Michael Helander showed how to get creative and give old things a new lease of life. It’s no surprise that she is constantly having stuff thrust at her by her young son, who has just handed over a piece of wire. “He knows that his mom will make something pretty with it,” she laughs. Helander and Holmdahl’s studio is in an industrial center in northern Gothenburg. It’s part attic, part workshop, with towers of stuff in the corners. Like a wooden peppermill that has been combined with dresser legs to make a stylish hanging lamp and an old skateboard, sawn into pieces and used to frame a mirror. The two women have made a name for themselves with boundary-pushing upcycling, and they now get commissions from major clients. The passion that shines through as they speak about their work shows that the more intense our relationship with the things we own, the happier we are with them.
Finally, the big day dawns. It’s Sunday morning, the Megaloppis kicks off. In a trance, I wander past the stalls and am overwhelmed by the choice. My first purchase is two large marbles. My daughter loves them. I hand over 50 cents; Alva, who still goes to school, gives me another as a gift and tells me about Majorna. Her family waited for eight years for a flat, which says everything about the evolution and ultimate gentrification of the area. Anyone who feels at home in the alternative scene and appreciates a sense of community feels drawn to Majorna, where the late-19th century Landshövdinge houses with their wooden facades are beautifully preserved. The creative, cool folk all want to live in Majorna, with its small cafes and stylish shops. The area is synonymous with anti-consumerism, sustainability, community. This was the mindset that spawned the Megaloppis in 2009: If you’ve got something you no longer need, then make someone else happy with it. Local residents can sell their stuff outside their front doors without having to pay for the space.
I find plenty of things to buy: A record by jazz duo Satch and Josh, two dark walnut picture frames and a wool sweater for two euros. Also an old wooden duck, wobbly head, crumbling beak: I fall in love on the spot. “I took it with me everywhere when I was a child,” says the old lady behind the stall. When I say that my niece will love it, she beams and says, “I do hope she has fun with it!” The Megaloppis is fundamentally good-natured, without the aggressive bartering you often find on German markets back home.
The narrow lanes fill up after lunch. Many Swedes come here an hour before it closes, hoping to pick up last-minute bargains. I have been here for four hours, have seen enough, and make my escape to Vrångö. Although it is overrun with tourists in the summer, Vrångö is the quietest of all the islands in the Gothenburg archipelago. I look at the water and think of all the things I would have liked to buy. Then I think: you can’t have everything. You shouldn’t have everything.
A food truck serving deep-fried herring with mashed potatoes and cranberries.
Röda Sten Konsthall
Contemporary art and performance art in an industrial setting.
Centrally located with luxurious rooms: a charming 19th-century experience!