Barakholka: Alley of second chances

Photographer: Mariam Giunashvili

Edition: Labor

From used toy cars to antique cups and vintage clothing, the Barakholka flea market in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi has become a place to find unexpected treasures. Over the past three decades, it has also become a safety net—offering people an informal way to earn money through trade or sales.

But over the years, as the 9500 m2 property has changed owners, the cost of selling goods at the market—as well as rules regulating trade—have increased, making it more difficult for the sellers to make a living.

Today it attracts everyone, from casual shoppers looking for a deal to people in hardship, selling their belongings to earn money.

Located in a neighborhood just outside the city center, Barakholka (named after the Russian word for old, useless things, barakhlo) developed organically following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 as people sought ways to earn money during the crisis years that followed. The territory, which had been a Soviet military conscript center, was government property at the time and traders first started selling goods at market informally: people from all walks of life brought bits and bobs and displayed them on blankets.

Today it attracts everyone, from casual shoppers looking for a deal to people in hardship, selling their belongings to earn money.

“A friend tells a friend—that’s how people learn that we buy things to resell. I have an advertisement online, too. Sometimes they come and deliver things, other  times I go to the house and choose the items myself,” explains Gulnazi Katamadze, 59. She has been selling goods at Barakholka for 15 years. “At first, I visited Barakholka as a customer and then I decided to become a seller. Now I have two shops here."

“People who don’t have money for food and medicine bring their belongings from their homes here to sell to us so they can eat food that day” Dali, a 57-year-old trader at Barakholka, says. She has been selling goods here for already 2 years.

“Sometimes they don’t even know the price of the items and they ask for minimum cash. If we see that a person really is in real hardship, we pay more in items than they ask for.’’

The area is markedly different from the flea market of the 1990s. A private company, Isan Ltd, purchased the territory in 2000 and began formalizing the trading process. Rent started at 20 tetri (roughly six cents). Over the years, however, regulations and prices have increased. The government began requiring that traders use cash registers to register sales and Isan raised the rent to two lari (66 cents) per meter on weekdays and four lari on weekends.

Counters can be rented daily. Some of the sellers who come to Barakholka several days a week have their own spot. Others simply use any free counter when they come to sell their wares. 

Unlike the counters, booths are rented monthly and cost more. Sellers who have booths can leave their goods there, while traders who use the counter space have to take their belongings with them at the end of the day or move them to the Warehouse, which is located on the same territory and they have to pay additional rent for the space there.

"We have not raised the rent for a long time now because society has economic problems. So, we cannot raise it, we assume that these people cannot pay more money and we do not pressure them,” notes Mamuka Orkosheneli, the head of the Barakholka administration.

Traders still struggle to earn enough through their sales to justify the cost, however.

Most are retired musicians, doctors, and other professionals who trade to supplement their meager (200 lari a month) pensions. While the market is often full of shoppers on the weekends, sales are volatile and all clients are looking for the cheapest prices.

Three generations of the Andriashvili family. Gocha,23, Nikoloz,45 and Karina, 60. Gocha is the youngest trader at Barakholka and Nikoloz and Karina were two of the first traders to start working here.

Sometimes traders even fall victim to criminals, who try to sell stolen goods to the traders. To protect them, Isan Ltd has put up security cameras and most traders now demand more information before purchasing used goods.

“I’ve been working here for already 25 years and have had a few cases with stolen goods. I have experienced big losses because of this. When the police come, they take the product, and nobody gives us a refund. On top of that, sometimes we must spend 5-6 hours in the police station for investigation, which takes our time and energy,” trader Nadya, 66, says. 

Shalva, who has been trading at the market for six  years, remembers how once a stranger came to him and sold him 13 bowls for 800 lari. He put them out for sale but, after a short time, he found out they were stolen when the real owner recognized the bowls. She called the police; they took the bowls and arrested the thief. Shalva was left without the product and lost the money he paid.

Traders were also hard hit by the pandemic. The lockdown regulations made it impossible to sell their wares at the marketplace and while some were able to move online, most were not. Registered traders received a one-time payment of 300 lari from the government; informal sellers did not qualify. The administration did not require month-license holders to pay rent during the lockdown as well.

Today, life at Barakholka has mostly returned to normal. During a recent visit on the weekend, the market was packed with traders and people browsing the wares. 

“This place is more than just a market where people come to purchase items,” notes trader Dali, who believes the trend toward online shopping will not affect Barakholka.

“Going though these odd belongings in search of something special has a different kind of vibe, which you can never feel while online shopping. Also, sometimes people come here just to communicate, they don’t search for anything, except of someone to talk with. They share their personal stories with us and we are their audience. Once I received a big gift from a stranger that I saw only once before,we had small talk back then. When she came with the gift, told me that I saved her life, by just listening to her.’’

This photo story was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Spring 2022

We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.