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Cash-free shopping

Tamsin Walker
March 10, 2017

Have you ever thought of shunning the consumer dream? In Germany, it might not be that difficult. It's just a matter of finding the right key, as Tamsin Walker found out on a shopping trip with a difference.

Deutschland Umsonstladen in Berlin
Image: DW/T. Walker

I'm not a passionate shopper. Don't like the crowds and rarely find anything that really appeals, but having read about an interesting little place recently, I decided to go and have a look. Except when I got there, it was to find a sign on the spray-painted door stating it would only open "when you ask us for the key at the café or in the office."

With no clear indication as to where either might be, I went up a staircase feeling as though I may be about to pass into some kind of Carrollian universe. On the first landing, I found an open door leading to a deserted printing workshop and a locked one marked "office." Knock-knock. Nobody home.

Deutschland Umsonstladen in Berlin
Image: DW/T. Walker

I went in search of the café instead, but when I finally found it, it too was locked. Not a soul in sight, just a bright blue hookah pipe on the step.

To spin that small sequence of events into a Berlin Wonderland tale would not be going too far, because the key I was so keen to get hold of was to one of the city's Umsonstläden or "giveaway shops." True to their name, everything inside is free, which in our goods-for-money society, is nothing if not a fantastical concept.

A more inclusive society

A curiosity it may be, but Germany's giveaway shop movement stands on strong legs. The first store, which opened in Hamburg in the late 90s as a means of extending the lives of products earmarked for the trash, is still going strong and is now one of 100 such ventures dotted around the country.

Sign for the Umsonst Boutique
Perseverance pays, as my hard-won entrance into the Umsonst Boutique goes to show. And it was worth the waitImage: DW/T. Walker

After several return visits to the mysteriously locked - and ironically named - Umsonst Boutique, I finally found a man with a key. He explained that those involved in the project want to raise awareness of over-consumption and to encourage a more inclusive society by giving those on its fringes the chance to shop for free. And with that, he let me in and left me there.

As a life-long lover of second-hand shops, I should have been overjoyed at the chance to take whatever I wanted without paying a cent for it. But just slipping an - albeit not brand - new jumper under my arm while nobody was looking didn't feel right. So while one woman filled up three shopping bags, my conscience sent me home empty-handed.

Helping myself with abandon

A rail of clothes
Anyone who wants to leave a few cents in Leila's tin is welcome to do so, and thereby making a contribution to the rentImage: DW/T. Walker

But at Leila, another of the Berlin's giveaway stores, I came away with a different perspective. Sandwiched between designer bike shops and upmarket hair salons, its shelves brim and rails bulge with donations, which one volunteer told me they want customers to come and take. 

With that in mind, I held up a skirt and asked him what he thought. The pause was both long and telling.

As I put the offending item back and kept browsing, the volunteer recounted tales of the countless people who come to the shop not only in search of an old dress but of a new way to live. And Leila would appear to offer just that. For to cross its threshold is enter a wonderland worthy of both fiction and reality.

P.S. I now have a new skirt and jacket. Old new, of course.