Shortly after arriving in Leipzig in January of 1999, I came across an intriguing article in a free local monthly. Entitled “The Good Person of Stötteritz”, it wasn’t so much the Brecht reference that caught my eye as it was the accompanying picture of a fellow showing off an apron with the logos of teams from East German soccer’s Oberliga (First Division) .
I read on and learned that the fellow, Martin Bayer, was a local social activist who aimed to redirect the cast offs of consumer society to people who might be able to use them. Originally from the West, he’d moved East after unification and though registered as a Psychology student at the university, he spent most of his time on self-directed, social improvement projects.
Throughout the 1990s, it was not uncommon for East Germans to dispose of the furnishings/ contents of entire rooms or apartments in order to replace these with new, Western-style goods. The “Everything Must Go!”-feeling that swept the East after unification (or really post-currency union) led to overflowing garbage bins and mountains of discarded items, large and small, virtually everywhere. Bayer saw this and was appalled. These things, he felt, were perfectly good and there was so much need in the world! How could people just throw these things out?!
So he did what anyone would do: he began collecting the stuff. He started with junked bicycles. Repaired thirty and then “lent” them out for the long term (i.e. gave them away), then he began running a regular “free market” where he gave away the things he had gathered. This approach, however, hadn’t had the desired effect as it didn’t seem to get items into the hands of people who really needed or wanted the stuff, rather they seemed to be taking things on a whim.
Dissatisfied, Bayer had a rethink and, as the article reported, he’d come up a new concept: the “Time Department Store”. This project rewarded individuals who did volunteer hours for local social service organizations with credits which could then be redeemed at Bayer’s department store, chock-a-block full as it was of virtually anything one might need (light fixtures, books, dish ware, furniture, appliances, clothes or even a Oberliga apron apparently).
I am somewhat ashamed that my initial reaction upon seeing this article was not, “This sounds like a great way to make a contribution to the community and meet some interesting people in my new home!”, but rather, “What a cool apron!! I wonder how many hours I’d have to work to get my paws on that?!” So the next day, I made my way out to Bayer’s store in Stötteritz, a sleepy residential neighbourhood in the east of the city seemingly untouched by the upheavals of unification (i.e. nothing had been renovated and every building was a variation on GDR grey).
I found the “store” located in what had been a small shop and the front room was stacked floor to ceiling with the rejected items of numerous households. A scent of mold and dust lingered in the air and the aisles were so close together one typically had to turn sideways to pass through them. Best of all though, virtually everything in the place was “Made in the GDR”!
Hearing the entry bell, Bayer appeared from the back room. He was friendly, but distracted. I suppose saving the world is a full-time gig that leaves little time for small talk. The niceities dispensed with, I told him I’d be interested in getting involved. He gave me a spiel about how the place worked at the end of which I asked, as casually as possible, about how many hours I’d have to work to get the Oberliga apron. “Oh, the apron. I already set it aside for someone.” He must’ve noticed how crestfallen this made me (or he knew an easy mark when he saw one), because he added, “But you can have it if he doesn’t come back.” There was something in the way he said this that suggested that people showing up, expressing an interest in things, and then disappearing, never to return was the sort of thing happened to Martin Bayer all the time.
Buoyed by this sign of hope, I signed on to help organize the shop for a few hours. Martin initially assigned me to sorting books. There was a small back room, maybe 4′ X 10′, filled with boxes and a pile of books which looked liked it had been deposited there by a dump truck. I stuck it out until my allergies suggested I retreat and ended up helping in the front of the shop where the parts per million of mold were significantly lower. It was unreal: GDR coffee machines, stockings, sugar bowls, wall plaques, you name it . . . Interestingly though, none of it was really cheap. Martin tended to price based on the utility of an item and its condition, matters such as style or demand were irrelevant to him. Thus, you needed to do what I felt were inordinate numbers of volunteer hours to get your hands on what was essentially stuff no one wanted! It seemed to me an idea destined to fail.*
At any rate, I did a few more shifts with Martin and got to know him a bit. His energy level was incredible and the project was his life. Meeting the rent in the space occupied much of his time and that helped create a “running on empty” vibe that seemed to be with him all the time. He found it amusing that a Canadian wanted to work to get an old East German soccer apron. He even called me weird once, something that I found a bit rich coming from him. Anyway, as the picture above attests to, the guy who had been promised the apron never came back and it is now one of my collection’s prized pieces
* Author’s note: My cynicism was unfounded. In researching this post, I discovered that Martin is, amazingly, still at it with the “Time Department Store”. He’s diversified with a couple other projects, but his socially-oriented ethos remains fully intact. Perhaps it’s the Ostalgie wave that has made many GDR items desirable and now he’s got hipsters and collectors lining up to deliver “Meals on Wheels” in order to get their hands on a GDR-era cigarette roller, but whatever the case may be, it’s heartening to see his vision coming to fruition.
The Story Continues . . .
There was no doubt in my mind that I had made quite the score with my Oberliga apron. I wore the it when cooking and several Ossi friends commented on it, telling me that they’d not seen such a thing before. A bit of research allowed me to determine that it was from the 1982-83 Oberliga season and I soon learned that it was made of an amazing fabric produced in the GDR called Dederon (see my post from December 7th for more on this wonderful textile).
One day, I saw an announcement of an event launching a new book on the history of 1. FC Magdeburg, the team of a neighbouring city and one of the GDR’s top soccer clubs (GDR champs in ’72 ’74 and ’75, the ’74 team won the country’s only European hardware, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup). It was to be held, somewhat bizarrely, at Leipzig’s House of Books and Joachim Streich, one of FCM’s icons and the GDR’s most capped international player, would be on hand as well. Now was my chance to rendez-vous with East German soccer royalty, I figured, so I headed off on the night in question and joined maybe a dozen middle-aged men to listen to some anecdotes from the good old days.
Streich himself got up and said some nice things about the book and then answered a few questions about his year’s with the team, his controversial “ordered transfer” to FCM from his home club Hansa Rostock and other (even) more obscure topics. After the event wrapped, some of the crowd stayed behind to buttonhole Streich for an autograph. I joined the group and when it was my turn presented him with the apron to sign and a Sharpie. Several of the fans nodded approvingly, but Streich looked somewhat bewildered: “You want me to sign that?” I answered that I would appreciate it. Mumbling something about never having signed an apron before, he shrugged, grabbed the Sharpie and attached his name to it. While doing so he asked where I got it, I briefly considered telling him, then thought the better of it and simply said, “It’s a long story.”