One man’s junk is another man’s treasure

One man's junk is another man's treasure By Bob Karolevitz Crazy Days is an annual event at which local merchants try to get rid of doodads, "dogs" and other slow-moving items in an informal sidewalk clearance sale.

I enjoy strolling from store to store just to watch potential buyers paw through the stuff in search of bargains. The experience this year reminded me of an article I wrote almost half a century ago in Seoul, Korea, when I visited the so-called "thieves' market" which had sprung up in that decimated city well before the peace accord was signed at Panmunjom.

Here are excerpts of what I wrote then, and I thought you'd enjoy noting the obvious change that has occurred in what is now a modern rebuilt metropolis:


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On the banks of one of Seoul's many drainage canals are hundreds of small lean-tos joined together like so many carnival booths.

These stalls have been built out of everything imaginable � scrap lumber, metal sheeting, flattened American beer cans, old canvas and salvaged roof tile. They stand amidst the steel and concrete skeletons of this once beautiful city, a sharp contrast with what must have been.

Sagging shelves are loaded with buttons, bent nails, fruit jars, canceled postage stamps, fish hooks, corset stays and junk ad finitum. One wonders where it all comes from when so much destruction has taken place in this country.

The name "thieves' market" may be a misnomer, but somehow one is able to buy a wide variety of G.I. equipment which gets into the market place through devious channels. American M.P.s and Korean National Police have been cracking down on this phase of the business.

Amid the junk, though, are the brass and leather goods which are Korean specialties; and, needless to say, the shrewd Orientals know what intrigues the souvenir-hunting American military "tourists."

Hand-crafted wallets, riding crops, brief cases and shoulder holsters were especially popular. You question where the raw material comes from when there are so few livestock in this war-torn land.

Brass ash trays, platters, lamps, back-scratchers and letter-openers (some made out of artillery shell cases) are hawked everywhere. The two-foot bamboo-and-brass tobacco pipes used by the natives are a favorite buy.

To shop successfully one must haggle with the merchants; it's a custom. All trade is in Korean money called won which is exchanged at 6,000 to one military script dollar.

The haggling process goes like this:

A merchant will ask 20,000 for a piece of pottery. When you indicate "no," he follows with the English words "you speak." Then you offer 10,000 won at which he says "no." Somewhere between these extremes you will strike a price which makes everybody happy, and the sale is concluded.

There are, of course, the scores of open-air food markets where the Koreans themselves trade. U.N. troopers do not shop in these places. Fish of every description are available.

A favorite delicacy in this Hermit Kingdom seems to be small dried squid or cuttlefish which are pressed flat and bundled like shingles. These squid are very practical items for I have seen Korean children use them during the day as playthings, and at night they become supper.


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I went on to describe the gosh-awful smells of the market place; the ingredients for kimchee, the Korean national dish; the half-butchered Chinese ringneck pheasants hanging from the ceilings of the stalls (Korea has lots of these birds); the cobblers sitting cross-legged on mats repairing footwear; and the wood peddlers on the outskirts selling their bundles of twigs.

All this came back to me as I wandered through the Crazy Days displays the other day. It's not the same, of course, but then a lot has changed in 50 years. Including me!

© 2001 Robert F. Karolevitz

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