Buying and Selling the Past at Tbilisi's Dry Bridge

By Tara Isabella Burton

There was a time when you you could get anything at the Dry Bridge Market, Ataki tells me. And Ataki should know. He has, he says, spent almost 20 years in this dilapidated corner of Tbilisi’s historic old town, where he and his wife Keti now hawk handmade jewelry alongside more traditional tourist trinkets: magnets, wine jars, glossy Plasticine khantsi (drinking horns) set upon wooden stands emblazoned with painted letters reading “TBILISI.” Around them, the hundred-odd stands and stalls that comprise the central flea market in Georgia’s largest city offer identical selections of reproduction porcelain and Soviet kitsch, including moth-ridden fur hats, military medals, and even the occasional gas mask—inevitably a hit with the out-of-towners who swarm the marketplace on weekends.

It wasn't like this in the beginning, Ataki says. The Dry Bridge wasn’t meant for those coming to Tbilisi, but rather for those desperate to leave. In the wilderness years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, members of Georgia's established upper-middle-class—“professors, doctors, academicians,” as Ataki puts it—were desperate to convert their goods into quick cash before leaving the country. Meanwhile, a new class of people had sprung up: those who “somehow” managed to get rich quick (“Not earned, you understand,” emphasizes Ataki, “get.”), and were anxious to spend this newly-gotten cash on the traditional trappings of bourgeoiscomfort like antique furniture, fine Chinese porcelain, Russian silver, and 19th-century leather-bound copies of Lermontov and Pushkin. For buyer and seller alike, the Dry Bridge was more than just a flea market, it was an opportunity to trade in—and on—one's place in the social order. A bazroba (market) of identities.

Today, however, the required accessories of the bourgeoisieare not the antiques of the Dry Bridge but luxury goods made by American and European designers that line the boulevards of Vake, a bucolic neighborhood of Soviet-era apartment blocks built over fields that doubled as mass graves during the Stalin years. Old Tbilisi, with its icon makers and silversmiths, its winding alleys and dilapidated houses, has increasingly become the provenance of tourists. Meanwhile, half the houses in the newly renovated Betelmi district lie empty, snatched up by foreign investors who care far more about real estate markets than history.

And so the Dry Bridge has adapted. “When the market first began, you could get real antiques—real gold, objects a century old or more.” Ataki says. “Now, it's for the tourists. Nothing is more than 30 or 40 years old.” Old propaganda posters of Stalin and Lenin are hocked to Americans as ironic mementos of a bygone age. I stop at one stall to ask about a late-Soviet anthology of Russian short stories.

“It's antique,” the woman in charge of the stall tells me.

I ask what that means.

“Well, nobody uses it anymore,” she shrugs. “That makes it antique.”

Ataki and Keti once worked for a school in Gurjaani, in the vineyard province of Kakheti. But their poor salaries were hardly enough to support a family, so they moved to the capital in the early 90s, keen to capitalize on the burgeoning market of the Dry Bridge. They began as vintners, selling their homemade wine on the street. But increasingly, Ataki tells me, it is the souvenirs and “traditional handicrafts” that have become most profitable among tourists. 

The few genuine antiques that remain on sale tend to be purchased from struggling families in rural provinces like Kakheti and Tusheti. These are ceremonial plates, dowry chests, swords—symbols of rustic life transformed into touristic curiosities for foreigners and Georgians alike. The jewelry, by contrast, tends to be far cheaper and from the provinces or, in some cases, from the stalls across the street; intra-market sales comprise a thriving Dry Bridge sub-economy. (During my interview with Ataki, I overhear Keti getting into a catfight with the owner of the adjacent stall over who owes who 50 tetri—less than a dollar—for a plastic bag.)

After speaking to Ataki, I head down the stairs into the most expensive section of the Dry Bridge, where the stalls are covered and the wares are displayed on tables rather than tarps. If there is any genuine Russian silver or fine porcelain to be had, it will be here. I notice that one familiar item. an enormous gilded art nouveau angel I've grown used to seeing during my three years in Tbilisi, is absent and I ask the owners of the stall about its fate.

“It was plated with real gold,” they tell me. “We sold it for $1,300.”

I ask who bought it.

“Some Chinese guy,” they shrug, and decline to elaborate further.

Our conversation is interrupted by a young man who rushes into the center of the stalls with a bicycle in tow. He shouts to the stall owners that he needs to sell the bicycle immediately. He'll take 60 lari ($35), he says, although the bicycle would fetch two or three times that near the Dynamo Stadium, Tbilisi's more prosaic bazroba.

I ask him why he's selling it so cheap.

He avoids my gaze. “I'm in a rush.”

None of the stall-keepers makes an offer, and the man cycles off, twitching with increasing desperation.

Before I leave the market, I make one final stop—a visit to Marina, an Armenian jewelry seller who has become my go-to supplier of birthday presents and Christmas gifts over the years. I ask her about her own history at the Dry Bridge.

“I am ashamed,” she says, so jovially that I initially think I've misunderstood her. “I had a good job, a good life. But times were hard, and I needed to go into this kind of business to make ends meet. I've been here for 14 years.”

I ask Marina what has changed in 14 years.

“Nothing,” she says, “It's always the same old shit.”

Tara Isabella Burton's work can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, Guernica, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the Spectator's 2012 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. Follow her on Twitter: @T_I_Burton

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