We arrive at the Straw Market around 9:00 a.m., just as its vendors begin throwing back the blue plastic tarps that shield their wares from the passing tropical showers that douse Nassau, like most else in these latitudes, every few hours.
Opening time, and the most industrious sellers of this bustling city block-size flea market are already hawking their goods to the handful of intrepid tourists that presage the imminent cruise ship invasion. One woman, still unwrapping her stall, draws us in by appealing to Garnet with a wooden folding knife, which she offers to engrave on the spot for a grand total of $10. It’s a cool piece, and a rare opportunity for a kid whose name will never appear on those little bicycle license plates for sale in every seaside five-and-ten from Cape Cod to Key West. Sold.
We walk on, and other vendors begin to swoop in like seagulls circling a bucket of boardwalk fries. They’re hawking tie-dyes and wood carvings, ball caps and bongs, African masks, Bob Marley beach towels and, of course, straw goods. From stall to stall, much of it is redundant, and the same “Bahamian” mementos that 500 miles to the south are stamped “Kingston”. Still, a closer look will reveal some fine locally-hewn crafts.
Just outside the Market’s west wing we meet Winston, a beaming older local who sits with his hatchet, carving rough wooden figures which he sells alongside the mass-produced pieces. We buy one of his masks, and he offers to pose for a picture.
Inside, we navigate the tight aisles which, in some cases, are all that distinguish one stall from the next. Garnet buys me a starfish shot glass for my birthday, before moving on in search of a stuffy. He and Davida advance to the next booth while I run to the rest room, which is remarkably bright, clean, and well-kept.
I catch up with them at a booth where Garnet is considering a blue plush bear with Bahamas embroidered on it while Davida contemplates one bamboo-adorned photo album over another. She steps away to help Garnet with his selection, and somehow, I wind up with both albums in hand, making me a clear mark for the vendor, a fast-talking Bahamian woman who has already moved in.
“Fifteen dollars,” she says. Then, sensing my indecision, shrewdly adds, “Two for twenty-five.”
Why not? Tangible flotsam adrift in a digital sea.
“Deal.” I open my wallet. Nothing but twenties. Goddamn ATMs. I pull out $40, and the woman eyes the two bills like an informant who’s about to put the Jackson twins away for the next five to seven years.
“Tell you what,” she says, grabbing a third photo album and adding it to the pair in my hands, “take this one, too. Ten dollars.”
I laugh to myself, but roll with it. Our philosophy generally runs like this: if we can afford to be here, for nothing more than a few days of fun, we can afford to spend a few dollars – it is part of the budget. Unlike nearby Paradise Island, with its international chains and faux-tropicalia, these dollars will go straight into the local economy.
I nod and hand her the money.
“So – let’s see. I owe you…five dollars.” She pulls a few bills from her pocket and begins counting out singles into my hand. “One…two…three…four…” Hamilton stares back from his ten-spot.
“Let’s see,” she says, scanning the booth. From a nearby shelf, she seizes a small shot glass adorned with cartoon fish which she promptly adds to my stack. “Here – take this.” It’s a done deal. And with that she moves on to the cruise ship invaders now storming the Market. They don’t stand a chance.
As we move on, I reflect on my lesson in Straw Market economics. Know that everyone needs to make a buck and understand you are that buck, nothing personal. Be prepared for toe-to-toe trade in a spirited setting. Enjoy the experience of mingling with locals whose livelihoods, in their own unique way, depend upon the daily tourist invasion.
And bring exact change.