Treasure hunting at flea markets

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Sept 21, 2012 - 21:08
  • Updated : Sept 21, 2012 - 21:09

Community-based markets for secondhand goods thrive in Seoul

A riverside park around Han River bustles with sellers both young and old. They sit on mats with their items and call out to potential customers. Many eat snacks or lunch while they wait. Buyers survey each mat and scrutinize the objects on display, while market staffers walk around and monitor the area.

Welcome to Ttukseom Beautiful Flea Market, where bargain shoppers meet hundreds of vendors every Saturday, hoping for amazing deals and great secondhand finds that no ordinary market can offer.

Across Seoul, flea markets ― some big and some small ― are thriving, offering consumers a chance to experience the joy of shopping even in downturns.

For city officials and urban community campaigners, their increasing popularity is a hopeful sign of a more vibrant and people-friendly Seoul.

Here at Ttukseom, eastern Seoul, the market boasts nearly 500 sellers and 10,000 visitors weekly, according to Choi Yun-hee, its administrator. Test-runs of Sunday markets have started this year to provide more opportunities for both sellers and visitors.

“This market was established so ordinary citizens can participate in sharing and preserving the environment, which is more difficult on an individual level,” she said. 
Visitors walk around to the various vendors at the Hongdae Art Free Market, western Seoul, last Saturday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

To stay true to its purpose, the market limits the number of items that a seller can bring to 40 and asks all sellers to donate 10 percent of their profit to charity.

“This is a place where people come and do the sharing.”

Profit was not the main purpose for Ha Yun-jeong, who participated in the market as a seller with her children. At her small stall, children’s books and stationery items were priced from 500 won to 700 won.

“I wanted to clear out the things my children outgrew, but thought it was a waste to throw them away,” she said.

Besides, it is a good learning experience for her children to share things that they don’t need with others, she added.

A greater cause brought young members of the Korea Center for United Nations Human Rights Policy to the market.

Hoping to promote awareness and raise funds for the upcoming forum on child and youth rights, the KOCUN members sold children’s clothing and stationery items, which they had received as donations, for several thousand won.

The atmosphere was slightly different at Seocho Saturday Flea Market at the city’s southern end.

The market, located along an 800-meter-long street linking Sadang and Chongshin University subway stations, has many professional merchants.

“Many vendors here make a living by selling miscellaneous used items. They are mostly from the low-income bracket,” said Chung Hyun-hee, an official at Seocho District Office which operates the market.

Started in 1998, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, it is the city’s largest and oldest flea market. It has about 650 stalls for sellers, with one-third of them set aside for Seocho residents. The rest are distributed to online applicants and the competition is often fiercer than 3 to 1, Chung said.

“A successful flea market has many benefits. One of them is a boost in business at nearby restaurants and shops,” she said.

The place has become a Saturday routine of Choi In-hun and his wife, who live just a few blocks away.

“On Saturdays, I talk a walk along the flea market, sometimes buying things and sometimes not,” he said. “It is very nice to have a flea market near my home.”

Like many other flea markets in Seoul, the Seocho market entertains visitors with various side events, such as face painting and free craft classes.

But for those who would like to feel a sense of community by networking with neighbors, smaller markets may be better.

For that reason, the favorite of Kim Jae-won, a self-proclaimed avid flea-market lover, is one close to his home in Mapo.

“It is nicer and more familiar than any other flea markets as there are fewer merchants by profession,” said the office worker, poking around the market with his family. “It’s also nice to meet all these people from the neighborhood.”

“If you sift through piles of items here, there are quite a few good things,” he said, adding that his main target today was children’s toys.

Kim Jeong-sook, a financial consultant, set up a stall with her husband and 24-year-old daughter. “This is our first time participating in the Mapo market,” she said. “I think we’re selling items at too-low prices,” she said, showing clothes, books and paintings on display at her stall.

“It’s fun, though. We sold a lot in the morning.”

Flea markets are also becoming Seoul’s new tourist attraction. In particular, the Hongdae Art Free Market, located in the popular youth hangout, draws many foreign visitors.

Saidah Saad, a 28-year-old traveler from Malaysia, said she liked the market because the goods are unique and handmade, with reasonable prices.

“I will definitely come here again later, and tell my friends to visit here when they travel to Seoul,” she said.

Derek Adam from Australia, who visited the Hongdae market during his five-day trip here, said he was impressed by the market’s unique, artsy atmosphere.

“I have not been to this kind of market. I have just been to traditional markets around Asia or department stores, but not like this art market,” he said, holding his caricature done by one of the street artists there.

He paid 10,000 won for it, he said.

Seoul City, buoyed by the success of existing markets, plans to expand them throughout the city.

It hopes to open 1,600 “green” markets ― small village markets co-organized with civic and religious groups and recycling centers ― in 2013, up from 1,300 this year.

Mammoth one-off flea markets are also planned.

On Sunday, a major flea market will be held at Gwanghwamun Square. It will not be just a marketplace, but a major cultural event with various performances and a bicycle riding event from the square to World Cup Stadium in Sangam-dong, northern Seoul.

On Oct. 14, the WeAJa Market, the biggest one-off flea market in Korea, will be held in four cities: Seoul, Busan, Daejeon and Jeonju.

The market will take place at World Cup Stadium in Seoul, BEXCO in Busan, City Hall in Daejeon, and the office of North Jeolla Province in Jeonju. 

By Lee Sun-young, Kim Young-won and Sang Youn-joo