In this episode, a sneaky ethnographer of East European origin embarks on a quest to deconstruct one of Britain’s informal institutions: The Local Bank Holiday Sunday Car Boot Sale. Below are her unabridged and unabashed field-notes.
Rather than participant observation, this is an exercise in observant participation. Observant participation is a variant of the ethnographic method of participant observation, first described by Polish researcher M. Kaminski who wrote a book based on his experience in as political prisoner (Kaminski, Marek M. (2004) Games Prisoners Play: The Tragicomic Worlds of Polish Prison). Now, you might think that a car boot sale is no prison, even though you are confined to a narrow patch of a few square feet. But the ethnographic method works, regardless.
(locals may skip this section)
The car boot sale (hereafter CBS) is a curious local custom in the UK. Its role is to construct a temporary space-time continuum for exchanging small-scale goods outside the remit of the official market. Goods sold or acquired on a CBS are not subject to any local or government tax and are tacitly exempt from customer protection regulations. They are also extremely cheap compared to similar items available through the official market. The only (potentially) formally recorded monetary exchange taking place is a small fee paid to the owner/manager of the place in which the sale takes place (usually a local sports pitch) by salespeople arriving in their personal vehicles. The fee is paid for each sales vehicle regardless of any profit made, amount of goods, size of vehicle, number of salespeople, or any other criteria. It simply gives the payer the right to establish a temporary ‘sales-pitch’.
The CBS obeys the cyclical nature of social time: it always takes place on a non-working day, customarily occupying the first half of the day on a Sunday or Bank holiday Monday (Bank holiday Mondays are another peculiar UK custom: they are Mondays de facto treated as weekend-days on which banks and most other commercial establishments and institutions are closed, happen several times a year).
The origins of CBS were unknown at the time of participation and writing – perhaps some of the readers could shed light on them?
My first car boot sale ever began with a dream and a fiasco. Fortunately, the fiasco was contained in the dream, and the dream itself was not a nightmare. In my dream, I was desperately trying to sell my car to someone for a pound. They thought it was a rip off.
Luckily, when I woke up, I still possessed a car (which I needed for going to the car boot sale in), but it was also 8 am. Just like most people, normally I subscribe to the view that 8 am on a Sunday is, in fact, ungodly early. However, CBS-goers are a special breed of people akin perhaps to hill-walkers, morning-joggers and horse-racers. So don’t be shocked to find out that by waking up at 8 am I had massively overslept by about two hours. Thanks to my bargaining with the other ignoramus in my dream, I was now too late to be able to use the limited time-slot of CBS. The window of opportunity was mercilessly closing up on me.
The cold shower and an inhumanly strong cup of black Turkish coffee woke me up somewhat, but I was still hesitating whether to go, or to devote my morning to more intellectual pursuits. A mundane detail swept away my last hesitations in favour of the less honourable pursuit. There was no milk left in the fridge and I was forced to consume my cereal drenched in hot water. This was too much even for a poor grad student. I now had two clear goals ahead: to make at least as much money as to buy two pints of milk and cherry scones from Sainsbury’s (in addition to making some interesting ethnographic observations).
I loaded the car, marvelling at the amount of stuff I had accumulated within twelve months. For two months now, random objects that I didn’t really need had been slowly finding their way into various containers scattered around my room. All three containers – a grey suitcase (itself acquired on a boot sale for a pound), a reusable shopping bag with an elephant on it, and a large cardboard box, were now full to the brim.
I also filled a rucksack with provisions, water, a bottle of sun-screen and a book (not for sale), and poured all my loose change in a fanny pack (don’t ask me why I own a fanny pack). The rucksack and fanny pack together weighed probably half as much as the items for sale, but I wasn’t going to allow my first (and probably last) experience as a saleswoman to be darkened by ridicule. Of course, I also took a straw hat – for looking professional; and a jacket – for British summer weather.
I drove out at 8.50 am: far too late for a responsible salesperson. My slackness confirmed the first rule of the market in reverse: profit drives action (or, in my case, my un-reliance on profit had allowed me to slack off). This observation was an important reminder of a key trap of qualitative studies: unless you are very invested in your field, you risk slacking off and allowing your fieldwork to become un-rigorous; yet, it you are too invested, you risk “going native”. As a field researcher, you just can’t win. Unless of course you research car boot sales – then you could at least earn some money.
The sale took place at a rugby field only 0.160 km away from my house, but I had to drive through five sets of traffic lights in order to get there (this made the journey almost a mile long). I also had to go around the junction twice, until I mustered enough courage to break the rules and drive a ten feet stretch in the forbidden green bus lane. I was immediately followed by four other cars. This excessively quick normalisation of deviance took me by surprise (being in Britain, I did not expect so many cars to break driving regulations). I did not know whether to rejoice or to worry: the good news was that even as late as 9 am, I was not the latest seller to arrive at the pitch; the bad news was that the pitch was full and I was also in direct competition with those four naughty cars (all brimming with goods for sale).
Having driven 1.5 km instead of 160 metres, and stopped at ten red traffic lights, I confidently drove into the rugby field that hosted the sale. `Is it too late to get a sales pitch?’, I asked the three blokes who were standing at the gates, holding plastic buckets full of bucks. I had been practising this phrase in my head ever since I had got in the car and the butterflies in my stomach had been practicing ever since, too. They (the blokes, not the butterflies) said ‘It’s alrigh’ ‘, and told me to drive to pitch 65. I had no idea where that was, so I just drove all around the field until I saw the end of a row. There I parked in the grass, next to a large family who were unloading a mountain of really good books for sale. I had to force myself to turn a blind eye to all the books on history and art, all sold for one or two quid. The two pints of milk and the cherry scones beckoned and grinned at me. I had no choice but to show endurance in the face of the luring jackets of the books.
I took my stuff out of the car and spread it on a blanket on the ground, then perched myself on a softer blanket and began waiting for the crowd to invade my little pitch at the very end of the line. A small stream of people stopped by. Those who did, probably did so out of pity: “Let’s stroll past that girl at the end of the line, she must feel lonely. Ah, and she hasn’t got anything interesting to sell. Poor darling”. Not a minute had passed when an old gentleman appeared, armed with a notebook, pencil tucked behind his ear, entirely unimpressed by the lack of customers and my blatant lack of profit. I disarmed him by offering to voluntarily part with £7, in contribution towards the sales pitch. He snatched the money and evaporated. He also seemed to give me a receipt for the seven quid, but it must have been made out of fumes, because it also evaporated.
The wind wasn’t on my side: it was obviously backing up the customers, and trying to lift things from my improvised stall without paying for the purchase. The four books I had managed to tear off my bookcase and put up for sale were flapping their pages like fat domestic chickens forced by a strict mummy-chicken to attend Sunday flying classes. Worse still, the wind was about to lift off the ground the determined saleswoman herself. My propensity to fly created some funny chat-up situations with potential clients. The cheeky bastard actually earned me a few pence, so in the end I didn’t report the wind to the police.
At 9.20 am I made my first sale (ever!). Unfortunately, I have no recollection of the item I sold, but I do recall receiving a pound coin from an itinerant tradesman with a busy expression on his Ethiopian face. I’d seen him before (and heard him mention Ethiopia to a customer). He earns his bread and beer by buying and re-selling things at car boot sales. How many people are out there, for whom car boot sales are a key way of earning money? I also wonder why I forgot what I actually sold. Perhaps, that is my psychological defence against disappointment, because the item probably cost more than a pound.
Then I sold a few more things. An intergenerational conglomerate (grandmother, mother, and ten-year-old daughter) critically examined my four old pairs of shoes and after a deliberation lasting about a quarter of an hour bought the old pair of black pumps for a quid. I had got them four years ago for £10 (a lot of Bulgarian money at the time) from a very cheap shop in Coventry, so selling them made me feel a bit nostalgic. I played at my first piano concert wearing those shoes (the quality of the music was the same as that of the shoes, but the memory is just as dear, too). It was no surprise that the young girl hated them. I had worn them out and they were not very comfortable and did not look very cool; worse still, according to the mother, they were going to be worn during the following school year. The mention of the word “school” killed all signs of potential pre-teen enthusiasm. However, she yielded to parental pressure and handed me the pound with a guilty smile.
A tiny jubilant lady bought Al Pacino’s 88 minutes for £0.50. I convinced her that it was a thriller (even though I had never watched it). She was delighted – that was exactly what her grandson liked…oh, these boys – well, he’s a young man now, at 18. She was so lovely that I’d have given her the thriller for free. I would never make a good salesman. I’d be too tempted to rip off noxious people and give presents to lovely ones.
Someone took advantage of the familial humdrum around the black shoes and snatched my brand new ballet pumps for £1… they had cost me 10 pounds. But I couldn’t care less, because I had now made broken even and even made a profit of £0.70 and could finally commence working for myself!
At 10 am my smiling muscles were hurting, but I continued smiling and saying ‘Hi‘, ‘Hello there‘ and ‘Morning, Sir‘ (to the rare surly-looking male). My sales continued with variable success. There was no crowd, but I was rewarded – not financially – by numerous awkward ‘Hi‘-s and ‘Hello‘-s, as well as a variety of half-embarrassed, half-treasure-hunting glances. An old biker, melting in the sun in heavy black gear and clutching a helmet with clumsy charm, said I smiled beautifully and that I should continue doing so, because I was cheering everyone up. I thanked him and followed his advice – not out of duty to the unknown leather-clad knight, but because the smile was now glued to my face and my mandibular joint refused to move.
Soon thereafter, I sold the Merchant of Venice for £0.50 (what irony). Still not sure why, though, because now that I think of it, I was intending to see the film again. (now that I think again, it also has Jeremy Irons in it. Damn. ) Still, that was an interesting example of a purely impulsive purchase on part of the customer, and of an exercise in emotional manipulation on my part. I put on my cheeky hat and chatted up a young man passing by. After a brief exchange concerning the weather, I bribed him a McVitie’s chocolate digestive biscuit. After that he was ready for anything, but I had already changed into my Scrooge hat and was more than content to let him off with all jeremyironses and venetian merchants, after I had got my fifty pence.
I received another, more direct proposition from an ageing Irishman who said I should accompany him to Dublin. He bought something minute for ten pence and stayed on for a chat for far longer than needed. While I laughed and tried to explain to some impatient customers how much my coca-cola glasses cost, he elaborated on his plan. He was going to Ireland in September and would stay for three months, and I was very welcome and there was nothing I should be afraid of. The rugby pitch in-house harassment officer was not in, so I couldn’t report the overly zealous Mr Patrick, and I had to deal with the matter myself. I said he was very kind but I didn’t think I could do that. To my surprise, that was enough to make him bid a very polite farewell and clear off. This incident convinced me that I would never venture to the equivalent to an English CBS in a less civilised country where a brusque `thank you’ would not be so easily recognised as an outright refusal.
A few quiet minutes, and the juggernaut of profit took me up again. A well-dressed lady took my wacky red hat for £0.50. I had fallen in love with the hat and rescued it from the Cat Protection charity shop in Kenilworth once, but the hat WHISPERED when worn, and I didn’t want to go mad. Now this lovely lady with a penchant for bright hats will have go mad instead.
Then my big moment came in the face of a lady wearing a traditional blue dress and blue head-ribbon. She bought various stuff for £5. I was chuffed to get rid of the junk and even get £5 for it – while she was pleased with an amazing bargain. She also asked whether I spoke French. I didn’t wish to subject her to my French for fear that she would return the stuff and run away, but it turned out that she came from France and just thought I was French. So much for my typical Slavic accent. By the way, in the course of the day, at least ten people asked me where I was from, so I also managed to make some geopolitical progress on behalf of my country. I told them and showed them photos of green mountains and monasteries printed on a set of Bulgarian coasters which no one had bought. (I also had to say one too many times that yes, UK is nice, but yes, of course I miss my home-country – which, to be quite honest, I don’t, but there was no use trying to convince anybody of this, especially when you want them to buy your stuff). Perhaps now a few more people in the world know where Bulgaria is. This might help them feel better the next time the country crops up on ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire‘.
By 11.30, everyone seemed to have started packing their unsold goodies in the boots of cars. The previously buzzing rugby pitch was looking rather dead. I said goodbye to the book-loving family on the neighbouring pitch, bought a book about samurais from them (goodbye, two hard-earnt quid!) gave their kids a box of crayons, and drove off. I tried to give it another shot, so I stopped next to the gates and managed to sell ‘What women want’ to an aged Irish couple. They are guaranteed a good laugh and some embarrassment with their favourite Mr Gibson.
So, what is today’s balance?
All in all, I made £19.15; subtracting £7 paid for the sales pitch makes 12.15; minus another £2 for a book I bought from my neighbours (naughty me!). So, not counting petrol, I made a mere £10.15 in one whole morning (not counting the hours spent slowly amassing the stuff for sale, and any loss made by not selling the stuff for more money on e-bay). The meagre pecuniary gain is offset by a most peculiar finding: a simple lunch never tasted as good, as it did that day, after wasting away a whole morning just sitting in the sun… It also felt good to pay for my milk and cherry scones with a handful of coins.
Perhaps I shall see you on your local rugby pitch one Sunday (but I am most definitely not going to Ireland to hang out with elderly philanderers).
PhD Candidate and Sessional Teacher
Categories: The Idle Ethnographer