A Lesson in Bartering on Portobello Road

By Sherry Harris

From Northern Virginia where the weather has more twists and turns than Lombard Street in San Francisco

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

IMG_2539I’m not a big fan of bucket lists but as a garage sale enthusiast there are events I want to attend. The World’s Longest Yard Sale is held every year in August. It follows Route 127 for 690 miles, beginning 5 miles north of Addison, Michigan and ending in Gadsen, Alabama. Portobello Road market is in London and Marche aux Puces de St-Ouen is outside of Paris.

IMG_2543Last spring I finally made it to Portobello Road with my family and my daughter’s roommate in tow. It was packed with people, vendors and food stands — everything I dreamed it would be. As we squeezed through the crowds of people, we heard many different languages. Lots of people shared my enthusiasm for Portobello Road.

My daughter loves elephants and as we visited the various booths we kept an eye out for them. Finally about halfway down the street she spotted a painting of three elephants. We IMG_2545asked the owner how much he wanted and he said 30 pounds which translated to roughly 45 dollars. My daughter studied the painting, hem and hawed, and eventually set it down deciding she didn’t want to pay that much.

After we walked a few steps away, I pulled her aside and told her we could offer him less. She asked how much. I told her we’d try this: We’ll offer him 15 pounds. He’ll say no. I’ll ask what’s your best price and he’ll say 20 pounds. “Do you want it for 20 pounds?” I asked her. “That’s about 30 dollars.” My daughter agreed but asked me to do the negotiating.

We returned to the booth. “Will you take 15 pounds?” I asked. He clasped his arms to his chest and said, “that hurt my heart a little.” I said, “Mine too.” He laughed and studied me. “How about 20 pounds?” he asked. “Sold,” I said. I was shocked it played out exactly as I said it would. But I let my family think I was a bartering goddess.

IMG_3346_2My daughter and her roommate caught bartering fever. As we continued shopping they begin to ask for a better price. Sometime the answer was yes, sometimes no, some things were left behind. It was fun passing on the thrill of buying something and bartering for a better price.

Do you like to barter for things?

10 thoughts on “A Lesson in Bartering on Portobello Road

    • Me, too, Mark. Apropos of our spring cleaning column, my attitude is–if you’re not willing to pay for it, you don’t need it. And I also like the straightforwardness of you tell me your best price and I’ll decide.

      That being said, my husband, daughter and I spent a marvelous morning on Portobello Road. I loved it and did end up with several gifts for family and friends and a few things for myself!

      Sherry, any chance your protagonist Sara Winston will make it to Portobello Road?

      • I’m not sure Sarah will make it but I sure want to go back! I have many friends who don’t like to ask for a better price and con me in to doing it for them. I wouldn’t do it at Macy’s but any flea market, antique store or garage sale is fair game to me.

  1. I love this post! I have lived in West Africa, where you barter for everything. And I lived there with the King of Barter, my ex-husband. He would ask the initial price, and then walk away with curled lip of disgust – they’d come running after him. By the time we walked away with the length of cloth, silver earrings, or statuette, John would have sliced the price way, way down.

  2. I live in the sticks. Every Friday, my favorite passthetime is going to the Sale Barn. I’m floored at the items people will try and sell. Then again, I’m amazed at what I manage to come home with. My secret……do you Reallllllllly want to know? Well, whenever I go to the bank, I ask for $2.00 bills. I keep a purseful to pay with. You’d be amazed at what you can buy with a two dollar bill.

  3. Fun post today Sherry! I have bartered for items everywhere under certain conditions and in my own way. I don’t try to get the best price for everything I want. But, for example, if I go into a department store and a pair of shoes my size has been on the sale table for over a month I make my Filene’s Basement offer—the old Filene’s Basement that you entered through the Washington subway station. That was before it was called Downtown Crossing and before the subway had gone from being called the MTA, then the MBTA, and now the T, because we are ever so cool. So here’s my rule. If those shoes have been on the sale table for at least a month, I offer them half. I have never been turned down. I offer them something for an item they can’t sell. And they are always stores I shop at regularly and pay the full price.

  4. Thanks for the memories! I was stationed in London for three years in the late ’90s, and Portobello Road was one of my very favorite destinations. I went there my first weekend in London, having seen it just before I moved watching the Bedknobs and Broomsticks movie. That’s where I bought my “millionaire magnet” earrings. Other favorite purchases include a first edition of Isabella Beaton’s Book of Household Management – the holy grail of cookbooks for my cookbook collection, a leather jacket for my son, and a tea service. I preferred to get there just as it was opening, before the mass of people arrived, since I get just a little claustrophobic in crowds. And oh, yes, bargaining is quite an art – one at which I am a very miserable amateur.

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