Day 75 of 98 – Today I met the happiest person in the world

1 Dec

I know what you’re thinking:

Jason, that’s not possible. Everyone knows that the happiest person in the world lives in a fishing village in South America where he fishes a bit in the morning to support his family and then spends the rest of the day relaxing with his family and friends playing the guitar, and laughing, and talking of memories past.

Well I’m sorry to inform you, that’s not true. The happiest person in the world actually lives right here in Berlin and he does not like to fish. Well, maybe he does. We didn’t talk about that.

“What?” you say. “The happiest person in the world is German?!?!”

I can see you now, sitting there with that puzzled look on your face, furrowing your brow in a vain attempt to try and understand the situation. Oh yes, it’s true: he’s German. Gather around, everyone, and I shall tell you a tale.

So this morning when I woke up I decided to do some shopping. Some non-Ikea, non-toilet shopping. This weekend I’m going to visit some friends over in the west of Germany and I need to pick up a couple of gifts. Luckily for me it’s the season of the Christmas Markt. On my way back from the Iittaala store on Friedrichstrasse I stumbled upon an extra-large Weihnachtsmarkt located in the exact same place as that red carpet event I covered a few weeks ago.

No Teri Hatcher this time.

Now in some of my previous posts I’ve talked about the markets here in Germany and I think this is a good time to talk about them a little more. But before we begin, a little background. Some of the markets here in Berlin are what we would call back home “flea markets” (selling used goods and trinkets). For this post I’m going to exclude those and only talk about the ones that are more like proper stores selling new and high-quality items and foods. Everyone got that? Good, let’s get to it.

There are so many things I find fascinating about this market system here in Berlin, I don’t know where to begin.

One – In these markets you will find people selling arts, crafts, jewelry, clothing, purses, posters, food, Glühwein, precious Glühwein, crepes, wursts, gloves, wallets, hats, picture frames, roasted nuts, bangers, kippers, and almost anything else you can think of.

The grill is made in the south of Germany

Two – There are two types of markets: Christmas (set up for the five weeks before Dec 25) and weekly (set up once or twice a week, usually Thursdays and/or Saturdays).

Three – The markets are located in the many large squares and piazzas all around Berlin. The Christmas ones are semi-permanent – the structures are designed to be in place for five weeks and then removed. The weekly stands can be set up and taken down in a matter of minutes (some of the more elaborate ones take longer). They are usually active between 10:00 and 16:00.

Four – As previously mentioned, one is free to enjoy alcohol anywhere in Germany and these markets are no exception. A nice glass of German spiced wine (Glühwein) will set you back about about 2.50 euros. There’s a deposit but you get that back when you return the glass. The food stands all sell beer.

The best part of Christmas!

Five – Many of the items being sold are all made in Germany. Today I got a mushroom brush and a box – both made here in Berlin.

Does this even require a caption?

Six – Sometimes the artisan is right there working away on whatever it is she’s selling. This is so cool. Also, if they were not able to work on it right there, they had a video running of someone building it.

This guy actually knows how to build stuff... out of silver.

Seven – These structures have to be set up to accommodate the diverse weather that Berlin experiences – the markets run all year round.

Looks like a regular resturant?

Wrong! Temporary structure!

Let me explain why I think this whole system is amazing, but this time using a slightly different numbering system.

First – It promotes manufacturing by providing a low-cost way for people to sell their own goods. This is accomplished by regulating the selling phase to specific times. This makes it much easier for a single individual to make and sell a products. One can build Monday to Friday and sell on Saturday.

These guys are making belts - and hopefully resting on the seventh day.

Second – The Thursday-and-Saturday and five-weeks-before-Christmas market periods are a brilliant idea. All of the customers know that these are the times to go shopping. Essentially both parties, the customer and the vendor, (normally adversaries) have come to an agreement on when buying and selling will take place. They each benefit by having more control over scheduling their respective activities (i.e. free time).

Third – It provides the benefits of a physical store without the overhead of having one at a fixed location.

A thought experiment: the day after American Thanksgiving is called Black Friday because it’s a huge Christmas shopping day and it’s the first day of the calendar year where most traditional business go “in the black” (turn a profit). As a business owner would you be comfortable waiting until four weeks before Christmas to find out if your business is going to survive until the following year? (Black Friday is the last Friday in November).

It also provides a better medium for selling certain items. I imagine it is difficult to sell high-quality hand-made items over the internet. If a piece of jewellery costs fifty dollars in a virtual store, the customer is going to want to try it on before buying it. If it’s being sold at a traditional store, this same piece of jewellery is going to have to cost ten times the price because of the increased overhead.

Fourth – It gives the owner more control over the business. For example, it can be run with less employees. You could hire one person to work Thursday-and-Saturday but if you had a fixed store you would need at least five employees to cover ten hours per day, six days a week (at a minimum).

This guy is making business cards. By hand. Using a machine.

Fifth – It provides more opportunities because you’re also able to set up shop anywhere. If you’re selling food you could easily do so at festivals because you’re already mobile.

Sixth – It gives an entrepreneur the opportunity to try out an idea while still maintaining a day job. She can work on her idea in the evenings with Saturday reserved for selling. If it fails to take off, then she still has her regular job to fall back on.

I've been told that Shakira bought one of these 1100 euro, limited edition, only ten per year, made in Dusseldorf purses.

Seventh – There’s something about this whole setup, especially with the Berlin-made items, where you can see the profits from whatever it is you’re buying, going directly to the workers. There’s no middleman, shipping, outsourcing, or any of that nonsense. The fact that half the time you can physically see someone building the thing you’re buying, helps remove any doubt about where the item was made.

Working away.

Many of the items I saw today were made in Germany and most of those were made right here in Berlin. Another thought experiment – close your eyes, and think of the something (not food) that was made in your city. The only thing I can come up with (for Ottawa) is me – and, I guess, my twin sister.

The Miracle Twins

Eighth – It promotes innovation by allowing the manufacturer to easily a) interact *directly* with the customer (no purple monkey dishwasher) and b) view what the competition is doing. I’ve been to a ton of markets like these all the way from Tunisia to Beijing and I can safely say that the ones in Berlin have the nicest stuff.

Ninth – you can actually sell high-end, hand-made items because there are others doing the same. If you were in an area where everyone was selling used CDs your $75 jewelry would seem very out of place and you would have the wrong clientele browsing your merchandise.

Alright then. All done with the numbered lists for this post.

So, hands down my favourite booth of the day was Holz Auge (Wooden Eye). I will try and explain to you now why the owner, Mr. David Köbele, is the happiest person on earth.

David in his store.

David makes objects, art, and mosaics. His medium is wood – exclusively. His works are all hand made, high-quality, one-of-a-kind, pleasant to the touch, and mesmerizing to the eye. He does not use any dies or stains or paint – each piece is its natural colour. He uses over forty different types of wood to some very dramatic results. The boxes have no metal hinges or felt interiors. The mosaics feel like they came from a single block. Truly remarkable.

That yellow stripe was just incredible.

He has a workshop here in Berlin where he does standard hours during the week (08:00 to 17:00) and on Saturdays he sets up his vendor booth at the Kollwitzplatz Markt in Prenzlauer Berg from 10:00 to 16:00. He’s got a mini-workshop with him so he can still do some woodworking between customers. He does not sell online because one really has to handle the items to appreciate them.

Not built by a robot.

So why is David the happiest person in the world? I talked with him for about forty-five minutes and here is what I was able to determine:

  • It’s obvious that he’s doing what he loves – he was smiling the whole time we were talking about his work.
  • He told me he’s been interested in wood and woodworking since he was five years old. If this were me I’d be cloning dinosaurs right now (I’m not cloning anything).
  • He has no downtime at work – there is always something to do. If it’s a slow sales day, just keep on building.
  • You know when you get into a project, like really into it, and you’re working away and you look up at the clock and it’s the end of the day and you wonder where the time went (but not in a negative, where-did-my-twenties-go sort of way). I’m under the impression that this is David’s standard workday. I imagine it’s the opposite for most people.
  • He’s able to support himself and his family with his business while working a regular eight-hour day
  • He’s the only employee – think how much you could get done in a day with no interruptions.
  • He’s got a workshop; his own space to concentrate on his craft. And I imagine that it’s optimized so that he spends most of his time doing the fun stuff instead of writing documentation.
  • He’s able to be creative, make beautiful things, and see the finished product.
  • And it goes with out saying but I will say it anyway, he does not have to worry about access to healthcare, beer getting too expensive, where his next meal is going to come from, insurgency, malaria, or bad weather destroying his livelihood.

These ones were super awesome too.

I’m sure there’s a few more reasons but I can’t think of them right now. If you are having difficulty understanding how David could be the happiest person in the world, simply reread this post and each time you encounter the words “wood” or “woodworking”, simply replace them with one of these words:

  • sailing
  • fishing
  • writing
  • viola playing
  • writing and researching about international political science, governmental treaties, and foreign trade policy
  • vegetarian cooking
  • Jesus
  • mountain biking
  • hockey playing
  • Perl programming
  • frenetic dancing
  • Star Wars

It might make more sense.

2 Responses to “Day 75 of 98 – Today I met the happiest person in the world”

  1. Uncle Ross December 2, 2011 at 03:37 #

    “Sailing” – Oh, now I get it!

  2. Lottabot December 2, 2011 at 05:21 #

    Yes, who doesn’t love viola playing.

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