WEEKENDS find these shops a roadside draw. “Surplus” is the invariable sign posted outside what seems to be an overflowing family garage, except there is just one too many bicycle, cabinet or washing machine for an ordinary household to have discarded, even with conspicuous consumption.
According to one entrepreneur, a “surplus shop” differs from a “U.K.” store, euphemism for “ukay-ukay” or “wagwag,” the bargain-priced jumble of used clothes, bags and other items sold on sidewalks and in markets.
Surplus shops claim to be faithful to the economic sense: factory overruns or unsold items coming from Japan, Korea, U.S., Australia and other affluent nations where presumably too many things are produced beyond the capacity of locals to absorb.
Shop regulars know “surplus” is closer to “unwanted” than “unsold”. A pristine clay teapot reveals a “pre-loved” strainer that must have steeped hundreds of tea leaves in boiling water for cuppa after cuppa. A three-door refrigerator is as enormous as the early computers; the low price should alarm anyone with even little energy sense.
Browse long enough and trigger some curiosity. Why do the ads emphasize the same countries? From Cebu to Cavite, I have yet to come upon a shop that sold surplus from a Southeast Asian neighbor. Is it because goods that are Asian in provenance are usually handmade and come in limited quantity; thus, ending up as big-ticket items in boutiques and travel shops? Or is there no such thing as surplus in the Third World?
Was it an old textbook or a morality tale that pointed out that only the rich have surplus while the poor are destined to live off the surplus fallen from the tables of the rich? Or do surplus shops just play on the old colonial mentality that makes us prefer to pay Third World prices for goods coming from a First World nation, even if the label traces its assembly to China or Mexico?
Entering with a baggage of political economy won’t lead you to a surplus find. Browse with the gods of serendipity. Wait for that nudge from the pair of bookend owls or that jug with the curious jade finish. Rescuing what could have ended up in a landfill is enough justification.
On the other hand, it’s deceptive to view surplus stores as converting one country’s dilemma with surfeit into a windfall for another. I once took home three baseballs, two to use as bookends and one as a chew toy for the family dog. My purchases hardly diminished the shop’s mountain of baseballs, which towered over slightly smaller mounds of bowling balls and golf balls. Would there ever be any use for this ill-assorted batch? If these instead were basketballs, no surplus would exist for long in this basketball-loving country.
Or convert a warehouse full of First World discarded non-essentials—answering machines, golf clubs, one-armed waving cat figurines—into rice grains, clothes or books. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing for people in need of sustenance, warmth, and inspiration? Translating “surplus” to mean “abundance” should apply to source and recipient in an ideal world.
In this one, beggars can’t be choosers. So when in surplus shops, just browse. You might be able to take home a bicycle that no one wanted in Sydney but could make a difference in our carbon monoxide-choked streets.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s April 26, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”