Like antiques? Cheap clothes? Hand-crafted souvenirs? I do. This is one of the reasons why I frequent the Rastro despite the sloth-stepped swarm, fatigued facades and raucous crowd. With a history longer than even that of my own state, California, many times over, intrigue easily turns to puzzlement when I examine the bygone, worn, yet curious goods: What is their origin? By whom were they crafted?
The reluctance of vendors to share trade secrets and sometimes a suspicious lack of knowledge about each piece (“each antique object is its own world” being the antique dealers spin on the popular Spanish phrase cada persona es un mundo) makes even a small inventory difficult to obtain. My interest, instead, turns to the vendors themselves: Where do they come from? What brought them to the Rastro? What do they sell, and why?
The circus of objects
A number of vendors set up around the Plaza General Vara del Rey, making the streets a sea of people, but the centre of the plaza a sort of under-populated island. Most of the stalls here sell used clothing. Still, there are antique dealers and the occasional oddball vendor, like Moises, whose stall is petite, but not lacklustre. Among his inventory are streamers, yo-yos, hacky sacks, and juggling pins; Moises sells wares reminiscent of the circus.
I find that though the placement and even the objects on sale at the Rastro can give an ‘anything goes’, haphazard impression, most of the sellers have had puestos (stalls) for many years. Moises has been selling in the plaza for four decades. In that time, he has changed the style of his stock— from handmade objects to the current collection—only once, 20 years ago.
“Although Spain plays a relatively small part in circus history when compared to other parts of Europe,” says Moises, “many of the best clowns performing in circuses throughout Europe are Spanish.” It’s clear that, due to his dedication to the circus, he enjoys a spectacle, and I find his circus-inspired reading of the Rastro appropriate. He calls it el Rastro del circo cosmico and el circo de los artículos (the Rastro of the cosmic circus and the circus of objects). Observing the Rastro for such a long period of time, he has seen that people arrive thinking they want one thing but they will, spontaneously, be pulled in by an “invisible energy” and instead purchase something for which they’ve harboured a secret, even unconscious, desire.
Anticuario, bocadillo, crisis
Rafael, who comes here every weekend from Valladolid, is down on his luck. He sells brass antiques. Three large, ornate wall clocks consume a considerable portion of his post, which consists of a blanket placed on the sidewalk that borders the plaza. Rafael is an antiquaro (antique dealer), nostalgic for the Rastro of yesteryear.
Twenty years ago, by around noon, everything would have been sold, he tells me. Now, not long after the clocks have struck twelve, his blanket is heavy with brass. While we speak, his partner returns with a bocadillo, which he refuses, as if to say ‘this is no time for feasting.’ A love of antiques, which it appears the crisis has tainted, is what originally brought him to the Rastro.
Banking on jewellery
Gabriel travels to Madrid each weekend from Toledo. He sells mostly silver and brass earrings and rings, a few of which I have purchased as gifts over the last few years. Before starting at the Rastro, Gabriel worked at a bank. He had one of those epiphany moments—he saw that he was wasting his time there, promptly bought the tools and machines necessary to fashion jewellery, and learned the trade from scratch.
For him, coming to the Rastro is therapy. He enjoys his job because it allows him to “relacionar con la gente” (connect with people). However, the crisis has changed things, just as it has for Rafael. With the cost of materials high and many people earning little, he has had to diversify his product lines. He now personally makes only a portion of what he sells.
A man of few words
My last chat is with Felix, who has a collection of rubber stamps, each with a different letter. For a few euros he will stencil a buyer’s name onto a poster in a mock-advertisement of their debut as either a torero or flamenco star. When I ask him how he came to sell here he tells me that when he was young a friend had a puesto and he simply sidled up to sell posters alongside his friend’s stall. Though the friend has since moved on, Felix continues stamping flamenco- and bullfighting-laced dreams onto these colourful, vintage-style posters. Perhaps his market will not change too much; economies may ebb and flow, but our dreams never fade.