Part VII shopping
Shopping in post-soviet Minsk was an interesting experience. After recovering from my dreadful bathroom experience Andre, Boris and I went out to visit some shopping areas in Minsk.
Our first stop was GUM, the large, government run department store that could be found in every major soviet city. It was a large multistory building in the heart of the city. If it were in Chicago or New York or Minneapolis, there would be crowds of people streaming in and out of the huge doors but here, the sidewalks were nearly empty.
Once inside I wasn’t sure it was a store. There were no racks of clothes being sold and no signs for sales or promotions. There were walkways defined by display cases and clerks standing idly behind them. Random merchandise was placed in the cases in no special location. A valve cover gasket was next to a lipstick and a teapot next to that and so on. This arrangement seemed to be constant throughout the store.
Then, around a corner, there was a rack of women’s clothes behind one of the display cases and further down the aisle there were shoes behind the cases. But nowhere in the store could a customer pick up a piece of merchandise and look at it. The customers walked through the store to see what was available. If they saw something they needed they told the clerk they wanted to buy it. The clerk took their money, then took the item out of the display case and gave it to them. Where there were items behind the cases, clerks would get an item from the racks or shelves and let the customer see it before they decided to buy it. The display cases were very sparsely filled and usually there was only a single piece of whatever was available.
“This is real soviet era shopping.” Boris told me. “Next we can go to where you can actually buy something.”
From the gigantic but empty GUM store we went to an area that may have been a park and it was full of people shopping at little booths selling almost anything you might want. You had to haggle with the proprietor on every purchase but it seemed
you could get good prices without too much trouble. We wandered around there a bit before going to our last destination, a grocery store.
The grocery store was a plain block building with a small sign that probably said ‘food’ in Russian. Inside, the store was divided into two sides, one filled with a wide assortment of western style products and the other was stocked with pallets containing containers of rice, macaroni, flour and other basic foods.
Pointing to the side with the basic foods Boris said, “This is the side where you can use Rubles.”
Waving his arm across the other side in a grand gesture he said, “And this is where you can use dollars.”
At that time you had to have real US dollars to buy any western products. If you only had rubles you could buy only commodities, no Cheerios, Hershey bars or
In the back, between the two sides, there was a small window opening into a back room. This was the butcher shop. Whether you had rubles or dollars, this is where you would need to go to get meat or fish.
To buy something you would go up to the window and ask for fish or meat. If they had any when you asked, they would sell you a piece of whatever they had. It might be pork or mutton or a duck but rarely did they have more than one thing to choose.
We had enough shopping for a day so we set off for Andre’s home for dinner, but that’s another story.