The bike market
Every market day, there are old men on the bridge at Maybachufer who sell cheap bikes. I joined them last week to offer bike repairs on the go. My business went quite well, and the bike dealers accepted me somehow, because I offered a complementary service, and I’ve known one of the guys for a little while.
Selling bikes is a job for old men – you have to be patient, vigilant, stubborn, talkative, sceptical. My old acquaintance told me about his legal troubles. He doesn’t get busted for selling bikes, but the cops keep an eye on him. A while ago they caught him with a banned jacknife in his pocked. He said he bought it from a woman whose son was “turning into a big crook.” The fine is over a thousand euro.
The fines for selling bikes are not that high, because it’s not possible to prove that the seller also stole it. You might get fined for trading without a license, but it’s a greeey zone. Especially older bikes might have been registered as stolen a long time ago, but no one can trace the owner anymore. I once got controlled with two old bikes, and the cops let me go, because – as they claimed – the old stolen bike database was never digitalized and they couldn’t match the data.
Also, owners of used bikes rarely report thefts to the police – it only makes sense if your bike is insured, and that only makes sense if it’s new. Buyers like vintage bikes, not just for the looks, but also because there are many generic, compatible parts available for cheap.
The user-friendliness of bicycle engineering has deteriorated since the 80s. The legal retail market consists of fragmented “independent” workshops whose existence depends on the prices of a few wholesalers, whose prices depend on quasi-monopolies of parts manufacturers like Shimano, who use Microsoft tactics – constant upgrades, incompatible standards, planned obsolescence.
There’s an upper limit to what people will pay for a used bike without a warranty, between EUR 80-100 maybe. So good vintage bikes are way better for the hand-to-hand market than fancy new ones.
The dealers try not to touch the bikes they trade; suppliers (often addicts who need a quick fiver) bring them the bikes to the bridge. The dealers don’t pay more than EUR 10 for a regular bike and sell them for at least EUR 50 – preferably to Germans or tourists. They try to avoid “hot” bikes that look first-hand. Some sellers are pretty “discriminatory” against other immigrants, because they’re stingy customers:
While I was talking to one seller, an immigrant asked him about the price of a particular bike leaning on a signpost. The dealer replied, without looking at the guy: “I don’t sell to Ausländer. I know what I’m doing. You always find something wrong and want my bikes for free.” The customer just ignored him, put a 20 euro bill in his hand and left with the bike.
A retail margin of 500%-1000% sounds high, but the business is still just profitable enough to attract poor pensioners and junkies.They have to pay regular fines (instead of a sales tax), they have to fight with competitors and squabble with customers, and unofficial income is not recognized by landlords, so it won’t let you move on up to the West Side. As in all petty business, the landlord and the bank always get their money back, the trader maybe.
The sellers complained about the Rroma, who are selling bikes for half the price – being homeless, they have no rent to pay. When there’s no minimum living standard, there’s no minimum wage. The dealers also hawk each other’s customers and ruin each other’s prices at every occasion. They all have their experience, I guess, and know that you can’t have a golden heart and a golden nose too.
I wonder why the old guys, who work alongside each other for years, don’t set up some sort of cartel. Their territories are already divided – each has his piece of sidewalk. They fight each other for the benefit of the customers – who are mostly naive, middle-class kids. So the real profiteers of this business are, as in the dope business, the consumers. (I wonder why they’re always painted as victims – most are casual users, who lead privileged lives.)
The clever dealers outsmart each other to the point they’d sell each other their own hang ropes. The bike dealer’s biggest fear is “sitting on 20 bikes you can’t sell”:
One of the suppliers wanted to sell a bike for ten; the dealer only wanted to give him five. I found ten a fair price.It’s easy to move to wholesale prices by just standing at the bridge for an hour and buying directly from the junkies.
This pissed off the dealer, who warned me seriously against stacking up bikes in my basement. Not that there aren’t always people willing to ride bikes at the current metro prices, but it’s not always profitable to sell (or fix, or at least scrap) the bikes. That’s why we have so many bikes on the street rusting away in Berlin – it’s not profitable to resell them.
Although the dealers have it hard, their position is almost “solid” compared to their suppliers’. A supplier brings a dealer a bike or two every day, so somehow he generates about a hundred euro of revenue – but he only gets ten or twenty. He could sell the bikes himself – but he’s an alcoholic and has no patience to wait and negotiate. A healthy person would sell the bikes himself or find another job.
On a patch of grass behind the bridge, at a respectful distance from the official market, there is now a large community of new-age hippies from Israel and Spain who sell hand-made ornaments. As usual, the Ordnungsamt came on this day to scare away non-rent-paying market participants.
They chased away all the new-agers but let me stay, because I was just taking “donations” for my service, as I’d written on a piece of cardboard. The officers also left the bike dealers alone, because they were not visibly selling anything.
After the Ordnungsamt left, one of the hippies came back enraged and yelled at the bike dealers: “Us they chase away, but you’re selling stolen bikes!” He was ignored, but his tense reaction was uncommon for a peaceful arts & crafts market. Unlike a year ago, there are now six or seven hippies selling the same hippie products. They no longer have the good spot on the southern bank of the canal. How fast can an economic crisis squeeze the “peace & love” out of a hippie? Quicker than you can say “Namaste.”
Another ugly hippie situation happened when a “masta-farian” tried to lock his vintage bike to the part of the rail where one of the bike dealers stores his merchandise. The dealer told the blond dreadie with nickel glasses to find another place. He didn’t explain why, but it was evident that he needed the space for his business.
The masta replied right away, in very clean and clear German – slur-free but menacing: “If you don’t stop being aggressive immediately, I will call the police. Do you understand me?” The short, old man – by no means an intimidating appearance – repeated angrily, in broken German, that the masta-farian should park somewhere else. They argued a little back and forth. The mastafarian saw himself as the victim, but he was the invader.
I see such mastafarian types at every pro-refugee demo, using their superior arguing skills against the “racist” cops. (I might even have seen this particular one.) They’re ever-ready to reiterate all the types of phobias they “struggle” against. But all social problems that a lecture on awareness can’t solve are better left to the authorities.
My friend’s bike was stolen. I saw it at night, locked to the rail near the spot at Kottbusser Brücke, where the bikes are usually sold. The chain was thick, but the lock was cheap. I called my friend to get out his invoice with the serial number, in case the cops came. Then I battered the lock mechanism for several minutes with a rock until it broke. None of the restaurant visitors on the other side of the street really cared. Sometimes I’m just lucky like that.