Shopping in San José: a good, a bad and a tchotchkes

December 7, 2014 - fall Denim

All day long, we can hear their voices.

“¡Kölbi! ¡Claro! ¡MoviStar!”

“¡Aguacates! ¡Cinco por quinientos! ¡Aguacates!”

“¡Plátanos aquí, plátanos!”

They intone and call. They pointer and gesticulate. They stone on a balls of their feet and pitch their arms during their sides. Dozens of vendors mount in a street, anxiously job to everybody who passes, a good carol of prices and offerings. Floods of amiability flow past them in all directions, side-stepping their blankets widespread out on a ground. The path is a coverlet of objects – dungeon phones, tennis shoes, remote controls, purses, leather wallets, pirated DVDs with faded covers, wind-up toys juddering opposite a pavement.

This is Avenida Central, a whipping heart of San José, a 12-block walking mezzanine that divides a city in half. Avenida Central is a Times Square of Costa Rica, interesting people from all over a world. Avenida Central is a marketplace and fair and open art gallery and weird uncover rolled into one unconstrained arcade. Waves of people hurl down a territory causeway, heads bobbing like buoys in a immeasurable tellurian sea.

I have walked this travel during slightest 400 times, since Avenida Central is partial of my daily commute. we could drive, though it’s faster and safer to float a train and afterwards travel a 1.5 km from parada to oficina. Normally we things headphones into my ears and wear sunglasses, even on cloudy days. This is how we urge myself opposite a unconstrained reserve of hawkers and panhandlers. Squirrelly group mark me, prepared to rush their life story and ask for gangling change, though when they see my upheld expression, my dynamic stride, they tumble away. we can indeed see them make a preference to retreat. No dale la pena, says their morphing expression. That Gringo’s customarily gonna be a dick.

But in mid-November, we private a sunglasses and pocketed a ear buds. For a initial time in months, we could hear a mariachi rope personification song underneath a tree. we listened to a brew of a thousand conversations, and we forced myself to make eye-contact with flitting salesmen. we speckled a rugged lady floating bubbles, and nonetheless we routinely equivocate her any day, we attempted to curtsy pleasantly. (She deserted me.) we saw a male with no limbs in his wheelchair, whose faded card pointer read, “NO PUEDO TRABAJAR,” and we forsaken a 100-colón silver in his cup. we stepped into a wardrobe store and asked a saleswoman if they had sports jackets.

“For a grave event,” we asked. “Or maybe a suit?”

“No,” pronounced a woman, jolt her head. “We don’t lift suits.”

Then she stared during me expectantly, as if to say, Is that all we wanted? Because we can totally leave now.

I didn’t have to do this. It would have been easier not to. San José has a approach of punishing accessible behavior. It infrequently seems that we can’t grin tenderly or reason a pathway for a foreigner or try to make small speak with a assistant though eventually woeful a effort. But as Black Friday approached, we wanted to correlate with a city. The storefronts and billboards we had always deserted now emerged, like mirages in a desert, and we wondered what lay inside. Instead of avoiding passersby like dangerously foul lepers, we took a impulse to notice them and see what they were selling.

A travel artist situates himself in front of a Heritage Center on Avenida Central.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

In a weeks before Christmas, a city swells with activity. The crowds are twice as thick. A handful of hawkers becomes a mezzanine of hawkers. Twice as many signs smear a windows, twice as many graffiti is sprayed on a walls, and twice as many teenagers palm out flyers and coupons – that means twice as many card is trampled into a pavement. To forestall pre-Christmas mugging, packs of military officers swell a streets, and regard towers arise during intersections so they can indicate a throngs for pickpockets. As usual, people still travel blindly toward me, silently perfectionist that we step out of their way, though a series of people doubles, as does their intensity.

As a rule, we never run into anyone we know in San José – though we do see a same revue of “characters,” and we started to comprehend how many regulars there were: The frightened-looking male in a black ditch coat, a prime male offered gadgets in a pathway of an deserted building, and a indignant aged male in a wheelchair with his fistful of lollipops, to name a few. Most of them were submissive and familiar. Others were rough and unpleasant, no matter how many times we saw them.

As any chepeño knows, these touts aren’t ostensible to sell their things on a streets. Every hour or so, a salesmen and women will dive to a ground, bullion their equipment in a blanket, and trifle away. The routine takes customarily a matter of seconds, since that’s how many time they have before a military uncover adult and mangle adult their camp. But it’s tough to contend how critical this attribute is. I’ve watched military officers travel accidentally past hawkers though a peep. I’ve never once seen a hawker fined or arrested. The protocol has always seemed so arbitrary, and I’ve never accepted how hawkers vigilance any other, since they customarily fear certain cops, and what consequences they face for offered cosmetic movement total out of a card box.

“You wish a toothbrush?” pronounced a spare immature male with a scabby chin.

“No, appreciate you,” we said, pulling past.

He leaned toward me. “What do we want? Anything, we can get it for you.” But he pronounced it so discerning that it came out as a variety of English syllables. “Whatdoyouwantanythingicangetitforyou.” Then he added, “Coke? Weed? we can get it for you, man.”

I roughly stopped, not since we was in a marketplace for unlawful substances, though since we wondered what his diversion was. Did he always start by perplexing to sell toothbrushes, afterwards change a review to stamp bags? Did that work for him? Or was it all a longwinded scam? Who knew? we kept walking.

This was my curiosity: Why would anyone emporium in San José?

As we breezed by unknown stores, a doubt intensified. Yes, a streets are packaged with tiendas, though many of them are small and eccentric. Did people indeed invert from Moravia or Curridabat to revisit a sole shoe store on Avenida Central? Did anyone make a special outing to a kiosk full of ceramic angels, or did they buy their Virgin Mary figurines on a whim? It seemed implausible that people would make an bid to revisit dirty, meaningful Avenida Central for a fun of it, generally when San José’s suburbs have their possess walkable business districts. Where did all these people come from? And since did they come here?

As Christmas shoppers deluged San José, vendors erected tents in a many parks and plazas, formulating ad hoc bazaars for valuables and boiled rice, and we browsed their many tables in a pacifist hunt of gifts. The problem with these shops is that many of them sell junk – a kind of cheap, mass-produced tchotchkes you’d find in a U.S. dollar store. we suffer alfresco markets, since they feel obligatory and intimate. But we couldn’t suppose selling a ball tip with a pot leaf, or a cosmetic palm mirror, or a “Pura Vida” plate towel. we wondered who would eventually take home a small purse lonesome in teddy bears, or a dream catchers done out of woven twine.

In one case stands a pyramid of footbags, any done like a serf from a film “Despicable Me.”

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

But permanent stores sell identical knick knacks and are open year-round. we had never before stepped feet in “Zapateria Novedades Imperial” (“Imperial Novelty Shoe Store”) or “K Barato” (“How Cheap”). Some places were so peculiar that we was heedful to even peek inside: The emporium subsequent to a Tuasa train hire sole energy drills, electric guitars, feign bullion rings, and a operation of blenders. It was like an SAT doubt – which one of these equipment does not belong? The answer: All of them.

I insincere that many people visited San José for a experience of shopping, not since they sought anything in particular. we accepted this genius well, for we had spent many of my youth years window-shopping in used bookstores. From a buyer’s perspective, this done sense. People ride toward San José for all sorts of reasons – they have jobs downtown, or they accommodate friends, or they have an appointment with a alloy or attorney. As prolonged as they’re creation a trip, they competence as good peruse a Lee Jeans store, that sells zero though denim trousers. Like, since not?

But this seemed frustrating for a shopkeepers, who contingency acquire droves of drifting customers. Most congregation make delayed circles around a store and afterwards buy nothing. we couldn’t suppose a proprietors’ daily lives, generally around Christmas, when a vigour to sell is so feverish.

One morning, we stepped into a commemoration emporium nearby my office. The store assigned a still travel dilemma and a façade was lonesome in pleasant murals. The store specialized in Boruca artwork. we had upheld a place dozens of times though never once deliberate going inside. There we chatted with a clerk, a joyful lady who had lived her whole life in Tibás, a still suburb north of San José.

“I’ve always worked in tourism,” she told me. “My nation is a pleasing country. we like to see people on vacation. But a business is seasonal.”

She pronounced a biggest sellers were timber products from Sarchí. She gestured to shelves full of bowls and decorations.

“How many people come in during an normal day?” we asked.

She screwed adult her face as she deliberate this. “Five or six.”

Five or six?” we blurted.

“More or less.”

“Who are they? Is there a standard customer?”

“Typical? Well, they’re all foreigners.”

“From where?”

She shrugged. “North America. Europe. All over.”

“Do we consider business will collect adult in December?”

She laughed morosely. “We’ll see.”

The statue of a pre-Columbian soldier guards a cake emporium on Fourth Avenue.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

This is what confounds me – how such small stores can stay in operation with such few and dangerous customers. Small businesses are intensely costly to run in Costa Rica. Between let fees, taxes, Caja enrollment, and application payments, it was startling that these stores could stay open during all. Suddenly it dawned on me since mini-super stores in a panorama mostly keep their lights off. Friends infrequently advise that many of these shops are customarily fronts for some-more sinful operations.

Later that day, as we started to leave one of a tents in Central Park, a high immature male handed me a brochure. we looked during a cover picture of flowers and a smiling family, and we satisfied that it was an ad for a wake home.

“We have monthly deals,” he pronounced helpfully.

I hoped we wouldn’t have to call him anytime soon.

On a highways around San José, billboards now publicize jobs during Amazon.com. The Seattle-based super-corporation is opening a fourth call center in Costa Rica, and shortly even some-more support use calls will be destined to a Central Valley. The irony is that customarily a small fragment of Amazon deliveries are done to Costa Rica.

Yet for retails stores, this is a boon: Without widespread Internet commerce, Costa Ricans still emporium in brick-and-mortar stores. While selling centers have been shutting opposite a United States, Costa Rican malls are still overshoot with customers. Indeed, Multiplaza Escazú is among a largest malls in Central America, attracting visitors from opposite a isthmus. Instead of scaling behind a selling complexes, Costa Rica is building a largest one nonetheless – a 200,000 block scale leviathan in Alajuela. The designers are job a plan a “mega-mall.”

As Black Friday approached, we had churned feelings. On a one hand, we dreaded “Viernes Negro,” a inhabitant selling debauch that Costa Rica had hereditary from a United States like a debilitating virus. Black Friday seemed so stupid in Costa Rica, given how trustworthy it was to Thanksgiving, a quintessential U.S. holiday. Meanwhile, we already recoiled during a steer of “NEGRO” signs everywhere, a clearly worried arrangement of letters for a orator of U.S. English. Then we saw Black Friday posters that were sensitively expanding a definition: “Semana Negra,” afterwards “Mes Negro.” Were they serious? Did Black Friday unequivocally have to final an whole month?

A pointer advertises mixed “black days.” Because for discount shoppers, one Friday is never enough.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

Then again, as a journalist, we felt it was critical to see a full-scale sell disaster as it unfolded. People in a United States get a ill compensation from examination their countrymen stay out in front of Target and raid any other in their hasten for bargains. Since my homeland had already putrescent Costa Rica with discerning food, box stores, and beltway trade jams, certainly it was critical for me to declare Black Friday firsthand. TV commercials and street-level promotion had already built adult Black Friday hysteria, and we couldn’t suppose what would occur on a day itself. we designed to ramble around Escazú, creation a delayed round by a district, watching wild shoppers as we went. we illusory sorrow housewives, pulled hair, tears innocents shoved to a ground. Paramedics would idle outward a malls, watchful with gritted teeth for a destruction to begin.

But it was zero like that.

I did spend Black Friday walking around Escazú, though a day was tranquilo as could be. When we arrived during a Walmart in San Rafael, a store was no busier than usual, solely for a cluster of business in a wiring section. Wide-screen TVs were prominently displayed, and dozens some-more were built in card boxes, though a atmosphere was officious subdued. we strolled down a residential streets to Avenida Escazú; a day was balmy and comfortable breezes done a palm trees sway. Avenida Escazú was still and easygoing. Shoppers toted their glossy new bags and zigzagged by high-end clothiers, though a stage was stress-free.

When we reached Multiplaza, we saw a gridlock trade outside, a parking lots bustling with cars and guachimanes. But inside a mall, everybody looked unperturbed. Indeed, Multiplaza was filled with people, many of whom lined adult in front of stores, though they looked honestly content, as if selling were a easiest thing in a world. In front of Victoria’s Secret, 6 women tinkered with their phones as they waited to be admitted. In a tip level, a food justice buzzed with activity, and frequency a giveaway list could be found – though that’s how it always is during lunchtime in Multiplaza.

Black Friday during Multiplaza: surprisingly sane.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

I couldn’t trust we was seeing: Black Friday busyness though aggression. It occurred to me that Avenida Central functions a same way. These stores competence be congested with people, though vendors are not forceful. They don’t roar prices during we or force gewgaws in your face. They don’t follow we for blocks or find ways to lasso we into perpetual variable sessions. Indeed, Fourth Avenue is not an Egyptian souk, and Multiplaza isn’t an Urban Outfitters during 3 a.m. If we hadn’t famous it was Black Friday, we competence not have beheld anything out of a ordinary. You competence call it a Christmas miracle.

“I went to Mercado Central recently,” pronounced my editor, Katherine, when we mentioned my small experiment. “I haven’t been in there in years. we was walking around and thinking, ‘This place is great. Why don’t we come here some-more often?’”

I also pass Mercado Central, that antique marketplace in a center of San José, roughly any weekday. But stepping into Mercado Central is a commitment, since a passageways are slight and it’s easy to get mislaid in a obstruction of shops. we know how tantalizing it is for a many changeable shopper to spend hours among a stalls. Yet Katherine reminded me that we should ramble by and consult a goods. Of all a places in Costa Rica, Mercado Central was a many approaching to bother my interest. It is this kind of market, with a heaps of bags, textiles, cutlery, and novelties, that many excites my imagination. we competence find a crockpot or machete blanket in any store, though Mercado Central creates selling feel archaeological. You don’t customarily find things; we discover them.

In a Mercado Central, racks of wreaths are flashy with a Costa Rican flag.

Robert Isenberg/The Tico Times

After a discerning promenade, we satisfied we should conduct to work. we stumbled into a final shop, roughly by accident. we saw cowboy hats and indication oxcarts, sport knives and wooden plates. None of them meddlesome me. They were a objects we could find anywhere, in roughly any commemoration emporium in Costa Rica.

But afterwards we saw a quarrel of objects unresolved from a ceiling. They were colorful and beautifully crafted. They reminded me of something we had hoped to learn for a prolonged time. we asked a saleswoman where they came from.

“We know a family of craftsmen in San Isidro,” she pronounced with a brew of insouciance and pride. “They make them there. They’re really good quality.”

All during once, we knew what to give my mother for Christmas. We don’t customarily trade gifts, though we felt a peep of inspiration. In all this time ambling by San José, we hadn’t taken any of a sell seriously. My oddity was academic, not practical. we had already given a embellished masks and hand-woven hammocks that foreigners are approaching to give their families for Christmas. we hadn’t approaching anything to burst out during me.

But that’s a thing about San José: Love it or hatred it, a city is full of surprises.

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