When I was living in London and exploring at least one of its 300 markets every weekend, I realized that I needed a definition for a market that I could use in my imaginary blog called Fora Londinii. As a result, I decided that a true market might be defined as multiple independent traders gathered at a known time and at a known location. For a market to be a success, it needed to attract not only the right sellers but also a critical mass of the right buyers at that time and place. After visiting so many different London markets, I realized that the most successful ones were held at least once a week in an easily accessible location (any “market” that met less than four times a year – or once a season – I defined as a “fair”). Along the way, I figured out that a market should have at least five different traders to feel like a real market. Yes, stand-alone stalls can sometimes work if they are in the right place at the right time. But without a critical mass of sellers, there will never be enough buyers to generate those constant transactions which is what a real market is all about.
So, let’s head back to Tallinn’s Balti Jaama Turg (the Baltic Station Market) – or BJT as we already agreed to call it – and review its market fundamentals. BJT has more than enough traders – about 300 of them at the latest count. BJT is also open at the right time – pretty much every day and all day – or from 9 AM until 7 PM except on Sundays when it closes at 5. And BJT is definitely in the right place. BJT takes full advantage of its excellent location next to Tallinn’s main train station (Balti Jaam) with its constant flow of commuter trains and suburban buses. BJT is also served by two trams (nos. 1 and 2), two trolleybuses (nos. 4 and 5), and two buses (nos. 43 and 59) that help provide easy access from across the city. And of course, BJT is helped along by the fact that its within easy walking distance of both Tallinn’s historical Old Town and its hipster Kalamaja neighborhood home. At this point in their self-assessment, most markets would just kick back, relax, and wait for their potential buyers to find them.
But BJT works so well because it understands that even if you already have everything going for you, you still need to make an active effort to find those right buyers – i.e., the ones who will buy whatever it is that your market has to sell. As you might expect, BJT uses advertising (including the side of a tram) and social media (especially FaceBook) to promote itself. BJT staff even attend food fairs, festivals, and other events around Tallinn to market themselves to potential new buyers. And yet even all of these different efforts might not be enough to keep new buyers coming and the foot traffic flowing – especially when winter is coming or when market fatigue sets in. Fortunately, BJT understands that people always seem to be looking for something new – especially on social media. And so, BJT is constantly remaking and reinventing itself. Hardly a week goes by when BJT doesn’t host some kind of special event like their annual Berry Festival, or their annual Fish Week, or their semiannual Night Markets, or their regular Flea Market, or their irregular Live Music sessions, or … and the list goes on and on. To complement visits by food trucks (either singly or in groups), BJT has also become the place to launch new food products and bring them to market. As a result, there’s always something new to taste or try at BJT – and so there’s always a reason to visit one more time.
Once you get your buyers to your market, you also need to make sure that your market is a place where they want to stick around – as well as a place that they want to revisit. As shopping can tire you out, BJT has benches where you can sit outside – as well as inside – even if you aren’t buying something to eat from one of its many food vendors. If you’re handicapped, no problem. BJT has ramps, sliding doors, elevators, and even a cross between a moving walkway and an escalator to help you get around. In other words, access is about as easy as it can be. BJT even has a large and accessible underground parking lot for those buyers who want to come visit from further afield. For those who don’t have cars, there are several rows of bicycle racks. And as the dark days of winter arrive, lights go up all over BJT to transform it into a brighter and more welcoming place. But perhaps BJT’s most impressive amenities are its free toilets which are still going strong – and staying clean – more than a year after the market opened. Those of you who have lived or traveled anywhere east of Berlin over the last few decades will understand how impressive an accomplishment that is. In other words, BJT has all the infrastructure in place to make your visit as pleasant as it could possibly be.
But BJT wasn’t always this way – especially back when it got started in 1993, the same year that its more infamous sister Kadaka Turg (Juniper Market) was born out in Mustamäe. While I would completely agree that this brave, new version of BJT has been pretty much mainstreamed, gentrified, yuppified, developed, or hipsterfied or whatever you might want to call it call it, I really haven’t heard anyone complain about the fact – although I’m sure that not all of the market’s original vendors and stall-holders welcomed such a radical change. But if you ever visited BJT 1.0, I think you would understand why BJT 2.0 is such a welcome change for almost everyone else – especially those located around it in Kalamaja. For these reasons, Tallinners celebrated the arrival of this newly revitalized market.
Although I visited BJT 1.0 multiple times between 1993 and 2016, I never went there to shop. At first, I would go there for that edgy experience of free market chaos in a place where it seemed like “anything goes.” Later, I would visit this surviving microcosm of wild capitalism just to be amazed by how it still managed to keep itself somehow frozen in time. During all my various visits, I don’t ever recall buying anything as I never was a big fan of collecting worn antiques or Soviet-era kitsch. And each time I walked through its meat or fish or milk halls, I couldn’t help but wonder how often the sanitary inspectors visited. Just one look at any of these three halls would also turn me off from buying any fruits or vegetables from the market. Instead, I would hop on the no. 2 tram and head for the much more orderly and presentable Central Market. In other words, I never became a buyer – I was only ever a BJT 1.0 market observer.
If you’re interested, you can get a tiny inkling of what BJT 1.0 was like by walking out of the back end of BJT 2.0 and heading towards Telliskivi (aka the Brick). There, in an open lot, you should still be able to find two ramshackle rows of corrugated metal stalls where BJT 1.0’s last survivors are still holding out. As you stand there, imagine the entire area between the train station and Telliskivi covered in similar stalls – as well as rundown warehouses – and then you can get an idea of BJT 1.0 was like. (These days, Sunday morning might be the best time to go as various outside vendors arrive in their trucks and vans to form a kind of informal flea market.) Fortunately, the market’s redevelopment was not as harsh as it might have been as a number of BJT 1.0’s original vendors ended up making the transition to the new market. You’ll see some of them in the produce section of the market selling vegetables and fruits – along with pickled everything in winter. You can find some of them scattered throughout BJT – including my favorite stall of odds and ends called 1,000 Things which also serves as a wonderful monument to randomness. And you can find even more of them up on BJT’s second floor selling clothes, antiques, and other unexpected items. Everyone, however, had to go through a major makeover to upgrade from BJT 1.0 to 2.0. But if they played their cards right, then these vendors ended up being a part of what is now Tallinn’s most popular market.
BJT’s new owners appear committed to making their market work. And they always seem ready to put in the extra effort that’s required to improve things and transform their market into an even better place. Yes, this is just what good business should be all about. But what I like most about BJT is that it always appears to make a conscious effort to adapt and change itself. Rather than fighting the flow of Heraclitus’ river, BJT is always ready to follow the current and then shoot the rapids whenever they might appear. By embracing this change as their only constant, BJT keeps me – a regular buyer – coming back day after day.
Image: A miniature hand-woven market basket filled with wooden eggs (weaver and carver unknown).