x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Car boot challenge

Feature It's a long way from the muddy fields of England, but car boot culture has caught on in Dubai.

Shoppers browse the wares on display at the car boot sale last weekend at International City in Dubai.
Shoppers browse the wares on display at the car boot sale last weekend at International City in Dubai.

One man's junk is another man's treasure, according to the sort of people who quote sage proverbs, and last weekend, at the first car boot sale to be held at International City in Dubai, that proved truer than ever. I turned up with a Jeepful of old rubbish - curtains, half-finished nail polishes, candlesticks, clothes - and left sunburned, dehydrated, Dh937 richer and feeling slightly euphoric.

Funny thing is, while living in the UAE, I'd almost forgotten about car boot sales. Yet over the past year there has been a slowly growing interest in this sort of event: Dubai's Safa Park has hosted four flea markets (www.dubai-fleamarket.com), and the art-based former Bastaflea (now known as the Souq al Bastakiya) has been organised by the XVA to take place during the winter months (it starts this year on Dec 20). With other community boot sales happening every so often in areas like The Greens, second hand is finally popping up on the trend radar in the Emirates.

I've always been a fan of rummaging through second-hand tat, whether it's at a brocante in rural France or a damp car park in industrial Britain. Some of my most prized possessions have come from these events, including a vintage Hardy Amies jacket, a 1797 leather-bound duodecimo edition of Samuel Johnson's Rasselas and even a banjolele (a cross between a banjo and a ukulele, in case you were wondering). As a child I was dragged to countless freezing, muddy fields so my father could buy boxes of motorbike parts at auto jumbles. Every time we saw a hand-scrawled sign indicating a nearby car boot gathering as we drove through country lanes, we'd take a detour to the third field on the right in the hope of finding that bit of rubbish that would turn out to be a priceless Van Gogh when it appeared on the Antiques Roadshow. As a student, I topped up my baked-beans fund by flogging old books, drawings and painted glasses at a car park in Edinburgh - though I often found myself buying almost as much as I sold.

The biggest and best one I ever went to was Lille's Grande Braderie, in France, where every September the locals coincide their moules-frites festival with a big old clear-out, turning all their old junk into the streets for passers-by to browse through. Interspersing bargain-hunting with large plates of mussels seems an eminently civilised development, and I came away with some fabulous antique silk flowers from a recently closed haberdasher's.

Still, far from the relative glamour of the marchés aux puces and the vintage fairs, there remains plenty of room for the back-to-basics car -boot sale. And in a country in which the population is so transient, you'd expect there to be a fair amount of second-hand stuff to sell - as well as a healthy population of shoppers. To an inveterate car-booter, this is irresistible. Strangely, though, when I come to gather together my unwanted belongings for the sale, I realise that the pickings are somewhat slim: after moving twice in 20 months, my hoarding propensities have been beaten out of me, and I can scrape together only a few books, some elderly clothes from New Look and a box of make-up. This wouldn't fill a bicycle basket, let alone the back portion of a Jeep. So I call on my friends and colleagues for donations. Collecting them all in a taxi before meeting our deputy motoring editor, Georgia (the owner of the car boot), I feel something like the traditional rag-and-bone man who still wanders the streets of Tufnell Park, where I lived before moving to the Emirates. I rather like the idea. "Rag and booooone!" I sing to myself as I ring the doorbell of one of my benefactors. (Some hours later, bent under the weight of several pictures, some suitcases and a couple of baskets, I decide to stick to journalism.)

The next problem is, of course, what to wear. In my days of car-booting in the UK, the standard kit would be thermals, several jumpers, an anorak, a spare cagoul, spare socks, wellies, gloves and a woolly hat, along with a Thermos of black coffee. Here, things are a little different. The event, organised by International City's developer, Nakheel, is in "China", on an empty, sandy lot (perhaps representing the Gobi desert) next to Dragonmart, which means that sun lotion, shades, a straw hat and plenty of water are the priorities, and the cheap burgers and hot dogs of yester-field are replaced with freshly cooked spring rolls from the Chinese food stall. This is definitely an improvement.

One thing that is no different, though, is the frantic pre-opening sales activity. Admittedly, the world's more hard-core car boot sales start laying out their wares at about 5am whereas setting up this one is a leisurely affair from 9am. But, like its counterparts, this sale has an eager crowd of early-bird buyers. No sooner have we put our first pieces on the table than we are surrounded by crowds of people picking up bits of fabric and yelling for the price. Of course, at this point neither Georgia nor I has thought to price anything. Picking numbers out of the air, I start haggling while my stall mate continues to unpack the car, fending people off as they even start to rifle through the car boot, taking the whole thing a little too literally. We have to run over to the drinks stall to get change, as customers thrust Dh100 notes at us (to pay for Dh5 items), and we stuff banknotes in our pockets, too busy to sort them out (the three halves of Dh10 notes we found later testify to the frenzy: we never found the fourth). We are being mobbed, and by 10am - the official opening of the sale - a quarter of our stuff has already gone. We've obviously been pricing everything too low. Have we really let the almost-new perfumes go for Dh10 a pop? Should we have put the DVDs at Dh20 instead of Dh10?

But as we raise the prices, even by a few dirhams, we lose our crowd, and with it the enjoyable smugness that comes with having the most popular stall in the market. We put written signs on the big items - the old leather suitcase, Dh100; the Roman blinds, Dh40; the toile de Jouy quilt, Dh50 (including pillowcases, of course) and watch longingly as potential customers wander past us to the next stall, a huge, well-stocked, well-organised selection of books, clothes and toys. Hmph, we mutter, disgruntled by their success: how are we supposed to compete with professionals like that?

Feeling a bit stingy after I have refused to reduce the price of a necklace and bracelet for a security guard, who wants to buy it for his wife, I console myself with a wander around the 40 or so stalls that make up the market, enjoying the live jazz band on stage. From one man selling hundreds of identical shirts for a few dirhams and a woman flogging scarves for Dh1 each to girls selling their old costume jewellery and a couple whose only stock is a set of child-carrying gear - car seat, pram, carrier - it seems that there is something for everyone but me (all I want is a vintage Dior ball gown - is that too much to ask?). Chatting to the two girls with the necklaces, Sujata Shethia and Sucheta Chadha, I ask them what they think of the day. "It's great! This is our first car boot sale, and we've sold almost everything. We'd definitely do it again," enthuses Chadha. "We just wish it would go on a bit later - I think 1pm is far too early to finish. Look, there are loads of people still here."

In fact, it seems as though everyone is having a great time: there is none of that cold-eyed, avaricious calculation seen at a British boot sale, with buyers shrewdly assessing how much they can resell the Star Wars figures for and sellers assessing how much extra they can charge the upper classes (identified by their green Hunter wellies). Instead, here, the prices are low, the exchanges good-humoured and the customers ranging from young professionals living in the area (probably Spain or France) to uniformed Dubai taxi drivers and curious men in kurtas.

The general bonhomie is affecting, and I make up my mind to sell the necklace and bracelet to the guard for Dh5. But when I return to the stall, I notice that almost everything has been sold. The cute evening bags, the Dh50 quilt, the framed pictures... I felt strangely bereft, having missed out on celebratory high-fives with Georgia after each sale. And the security guard's jewellery is gone too - I see a British guy carrying it away triumphantly, and I feel horrible about it.

Salve for my conscience comes from a surprising quarter: the stall next door, which we had previously scorned for its success. I go over for a chat and meet Sami Sharmy, one of four or five young professionals manning the stall. It turns out that the stall has been organised by Rotaract, the youth branch of the Rotary Club, and that they plan to use the profits to fund their charitable projects, including sustainable help for a local school in Garhoud, which is one of the largest but poorest in the UAE. "We've been collecting all this stuff to sell for about six months, but this is our first actual sale. We'll maybe do the Safa Park car boot on Dec 6, though they charge about Dh220 for a stall instead of Dh30 here."

Having made our final sale - a pineapple-shaped lamp base for Dh5 to a taxi driver - we are reluctant to return to Abu Dhabi with a basketful of French blinds and a box of hotel toiletries, so we proffer the remains of our stall to the Rotaracts for their next event, and they make a very sporting show of being delighted. We're slightly shaky from hunger but elated from our haul, and even the Jeep is lighter and friskier without its heavy load. It's been a good day, among good people, and we're already thinking about our next boot sale.

Gemma Champ's proceeds from the International City car boot sale were donated to the Red Crescent.