In Taipei, and most likely in all of Taiwan, there are few flea markets like we have them in Europe, or the op shops operated by different charities in Australia and New Zealand, and none of the garage sales common in the United States.
There are actually second-hand stores, but most of them sell specific items like vintage furniture or designer fashion and accessories, complete with a certificate of authenticity, at sometimes ridiculous prices.
Talking about an inscrutable pricing policy for used goods, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Charity Foundation, a Taiwanese international humanitarian and non-governmental organization (NGO) established in 1966, immediately comes to my mind.
Although often criticized for an excessive accumulation of wealth due to being the largest real estate owner on the island, hardly compatible with the propagated simple lifestyle, Tzu Chi has its undeniable merits.
The organization’s work includes medical aid provided at eight venues in Taiwan and two abroad, disaster relief, like after the recent earthquake in southeastern Turkey, and environmental work such as recycling and the promotion of products made from those recycled materials.
So this story is strictly about what happened to me at their branch at the corner of Bade and Jianguo Roads in the city center, where on two floors customers can purchase all kinds of things, many of them donated by Tzu Chi’s legions of followers.
It’s operated almost exclusively by retired older ladies wearing buns and easily recognizable blue uniforms, which often stand out when they take public transportation.
After my first visit there almost a year ago, I quickly noticed that, in the absence of any tags, prices are decided randomly by those grandmas on duty that day.
As many of them come from affluent families, they don’t seem to any clear notion of what a certain piece is really worth, offering expensive crap and basically giving away some good stuff.
That sometimes might work to your advantage. Recently, in my case it didn’t. After going through a lot of rubbish, I had discovered three small ceramic flower pots decorated with classical Chinese motives.
I wanted to buy these little gems, and was told at the counter that they would cost 50 NT$ each. Unfortunately, that day I was going somewhere else afterwards, and they wouldn’t keep them for me, even if paid.
So I went back exactly one week later. To my delight, two of the three were still available, so I took them downstairs. But alas, to my surprise the granny volunteering that Friday wanted 150 NT$ for each right away.
I argued that I had been told a much lower price seven days earlier for the same objects, yet she wouldn’t have any of it and basically said “Take it or leave it!
Quite annoyed, I told her and her colleagues staring at me in disbelief that their procedure reminded me of them playing the stock market. I scolded spontaneously in Spanish, chose the latter option and just left!
Yesterday I found a similar garden pottery at another, “nonreligious” location in New Taipei City. Without hesitation, I bought it for 40 NT$ and already placed it on my balcony.
Probably I will give Tzu Chi another try soon, because at the end of the day I depends on your luck as well as the mood and common sense of whom will attend you on that occasion.
Nevertheless, in the worst-case scenario I might waste some more of my precious time, as I’m not willing to be pulled over the barrel, not even by some generally quite sweet female retirees.