Who needs shopping malls?

By Ton Salman

There are markets. There are big markets. And there is the superlative degree of market. Arguably, that is the Feria de 16 de Julio, in El Alto, Bolivia. We are talking here a genuine street market: it has the stalls, the ambulant system, the vanishing of it all in the evening. The 16 de Julio is claimed to be the biggest in the Americas. It occupies a big chunk of El Alto, the new, still rapidly growing neighboring city of La Paz, on the highlands adjacent to Bolivia’s governmental seat La Paz (which is not Bolivia’s official capital; that is the smaller city of Sucre). It is said to cover more than 2000 urban blocks. Enough to get lost, and enough to look in vain for your purchase if you do not know where to go.

It is an endless bazaar. What can one get here? Well, there is not much you could not buy. From a large variety of potatoes and all sorts of fruits and vegetables, a wide and puzzling range of spices and herbs, to just about everything grocers all over the world might have for sale. Furthermore, there are shoes, new, used and counterfeit clothes, pots and pans, plush toys, furniture, tools and everything ever invented in plastic. Also for sale are sweets, cigarettes, razor blades, almost-genuine digital watches, perfumes, pirated books, audio cassettes, CDs, shampoo, firearms, pens and pencils. Also to be had are construction materials, all kinds of used glass bottles, essentials for white and black magic and other rituals, lama-foetuses for libations, and talismans. Additionally, one might buy any electric appliance ever thought off, computers, iPhones, tablets and software –either official or pirate versions, Windows Server 2022 Standard respectively for about 900 or 10 dollars– and any component or spare part for all the objects you never ever even considered purchasing or believed existed. And also Paracetamol, sports equipment, prostheses, trinkets, and Van Goghs (“not just as good, but better than the real one”). There are puppies, goats and cows, plants and university titles. Oh, and Volvo trucks, lifting cranes (any size), tractors, busses (also toy versions), and of course needle and thread.

Street vending is an important livelihood strategy for thousands of Bolivians. Small scale trading is a way of getting by in a country where the official economy offers little contract employment, less labour stability, low wages and, on top of that, tax obligations. Informal, small scale vending does not have all these disadvantages and can thrive because part of the merchandise is obtained through smuggling, which brings down prices.

No one knows how or why this market, in a city where approximately a million people live, grew to be so big. It takes place on Thursdays and Sundays and attracts people from all over Bolivia. Its attractiveness is of course a growth factor, and the breadth of its offer draws clientele from all walks of life. It prospers because it prospers. And makes one think about the formulas and forms of buying in, for instance, Europe. So much more predictable and boring, one would think. But possibly, things there too have become more volatile. Shopping areas in city centres feel the competition of new, suburban shopping centres and malls. But these, especially since Covid-19 upset our societies, are being hurt by the exponential growth of online buying (and sometimes trying, using and returning, according to journalists….). The processes stand for an increasing detachment of the places and physical presence of the displaying and the very objects to be purchased. The Feria de 16 de Julio does the opposite. It overwhelms you with the amazing variety of its offer, the extension of its grounds, the closeness, colours, smells and voices offering you special prices. It is a surrealistic and bewildering experience to try and stroll through at least a part of its extension, and consider obtaining a pair of jeans, or a loudly screaming pig. In the meantime closely watching one’s wallet, of course.

Ton Salman worked at the Department until his retirement in 2018.

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