Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Couch Trip

The centre of the city where I used to live had a lot of retail stores as you might expect, but beyond that lay an urban residential sprawl punctuated by pockets of small shops and the occasional supermarket. So when I reached Busan I was immediately taken aback to discover that it was not so much the residential areas which seemed endless - although apartment blocks are everywhere you look - but the commercial space, which is so ubiquitous it seems almost impossible to get away from it.

While confusing at first, it later irritated me. I'd studied Economics and it didn't make any sense; there had to be a finite amount of money flowing around the economy, so how could a society support a system where every other person seemed to be running a store? Napoleon had once famously described Britain as "a nation of shopkeepers", but that was never really true and in the modern world it seems a phrase which would much more aptly describe South Korea. But I've resigned myself to never really understanding how such a system is truly economically viable, unless it can be put down to a state of near perfect competition in which people live in some kind of state of commercial subsistence. Anecdotally it's certainly my impression that a lot of people are working very long hours in small stores for comparatively little money, and maybe that's the small entrepreneur's lot in life in this country.

So when I say there are a lot of shops selling furniture in my area of Busan, the statement needs to be put into the context of there being a lot of shops selling everything, everywhere, in a hopelessly, sometimes especially, overlapping way. Sometimes though, you can still be surprised. We're looking to buy a couch for our office at the moment, and the local shops can only take us so far because they are too small. Yes, you can pick items out of a catalogue, but then it's a leap of faith as to whether it's comfortable or not. So when Korean Mother said she'd take us to the large furniture store where she'd bought her couch, it must have lost something in the translation, because before I knew what was happening a taxi was taking us up a mountain which was while still very much within Busan, certainly off the beaten track. And what we reached was not so much a large furniture store, but what I think can only be described as "furniture mountain" (otherwise known as '구평 가구단지'). It very much reminded me of those near single-street American gold-rush towns - except here we had two or three streets laid out like a town, but with every store selling furniture - I estimated there to be between 30-40 outlets. It was rather disconcerting.

Our quest began at the Tom & Jerry furniture store, where the interior layout provided the next revelation - after seeing countless small cluttered and hopelessly jammed furniture shops in our local district, here was the first time I'd seen a place that looked like the spacious furniture superstores we had back home. The floors were flat and not dangerous in any way, there was no loose wiring trailing across it or hanging from the ceiling - for that matter the ceilings were even and there was nothing else to suggest a structural collapse as an imminent or eventual possibility.

Unfortunately this is what invariable happens in these types of stores. You go in, and pass by the two or three salespeople loitering by the entrance. The moment they are behind you, they tail you as though you were in some kind of 1960s spy movie, except their preferred following distance is about 1 foot - close enough to smell the Kimchi. This makes it somewhat difficult to take photos, which is a shame because today I saw two or three utterly hideous beds which one can only assume are being sold exclusively to love hotels or the seriously deranged, and a green couch that can only be explained as a remnant of a failed alien invasion.

I think the best advice in these situations is to buy one of the first three couches you sit on that you find acceptable, because while there might be 39 other stores to choose from, it turns out that everyone is selling slightly derivative works on the same designs. In fact, many of the couches were just the same design no matter what store we went into and it began to become a blur. You'd think that with so many rivals, competition on price would be fierce, but we were none too impressed with the prices we were quoted having shopped around on the Internet beforehand.

The other flaw in Korean Mother's plan was that it may have been easy enough getting up furniture mountain by taxi, but try getting a taxi back down late in the afternoon when people were shutting up. So we set off walking on a descent which looked set to occupy our next half-hour. But it wasn't long before a horn beeped behind us and a woman shouted a respectful "Mother!" to Korean Mother - it was one of the salespeople or owners from the third store we had visited. She kindly offered us a lift down thus ensuring that if we return, it will most likely be to do business at her establishment. However, having been overloaded with broadly similar options, and having found no options which seemed to meet our precise requirements or tastes, we had given up for the day and decided to return home to consider our next move.

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