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Govanhill Swap Market: the stock exchange for goods and skills bringing people together in Glasgow

The exchange rate will change according to supply and demand

Hazel Sheffield
Tuesday 25 September 2018 16:09 BST
Innes Smith outside the swap market in Glasgow
Innes Smith outside the swap market in Glasgow (Courtesy Photo)

At 4pm on a bright Sunday afternoon on Victoria Road in the south side of Glasgow, a new shop opens its doors for the first time. Yet there’s not a till in sight – because the Govanhill Swap Market is a shop with a difference. No money is ever exchanged, though spending one hour there could prove as valuable as any of the goods stacked on a shelf.

In 15 minutes, the space is filling up with people. The front desk, which used to be encased in Perspex when the building was used as a pawnbroker, has a queue of people waiting to get the first stamp for donations on their new membership cards. A small sign says that for this opening day only, each item or skill donated is worth one point. But the exchange rate will change according to supply and demand. A book might be worth two points tomorrow, and an hour-long piano lesson three points by Thursday.

“It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of sending up the financial markets,” says Ailie Rutherford, the artist behind the project. The Govanhill Swap Market, named after the district of Glasgow in which it sits, gives a permanent base to Rutherford’s long-running project the People’s Bank of Govanhill.

Govanhill is rich with different cultures. As many as 50 languages are spoken by resident communities, which include a large Roma and Pakistani population. Rutherford took the area’s existing alternative economy as a starting point for her project, valuing the unpaid work of mothers, carers and friends as a form of wealth. Over the last year, she has brought together people from the area’s many diverse communities to share food and draw diagrams of their unpaid work, exploring how caring for children, cooking and cleaning contributes to the economy.

The swap market gives this work a shop front for the first time. “After a lot of fundraising, it’s finally happening,” Rutherford tells me down the phone a few weeks before the launch. The People’s Bank of Govanhill is now a constituted community group with shared ownership, funded in part by the Climate Challenge Fund. Rutherford has employed a coordinator to host events and meetings in the back of the store and a shop assistant to run the Swap Market and monitor the stock exchange.

The People’s Bank of Govanhill: Meet the artist reinventing money from Hazel Sheffield on Vimeo.

By 4.30pm, the shelves, crafted by local trader Altronica, start filling up with goods to swap. An antique green glass bottle sits above some garnet earrings. There are hanging blouses and a bone china teacup. Someone with a sense of humour has brought a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. They have the pick of any number of items: a Rovers Return teapot, a pink spotted kitchen blind, or a crystal vase.

Innes Smith, a bearded Scot dressed in a tweed suit and brown hat, stands in one corner operating the Timebank Tombola. Visitors are invited to donate skills, scrawled on the back of Bank of Govanhill banknotes. The tombola turns, then Smith invites them to pick out their prize. “Someone has just donated a birthday cake,” he says. Whoever wins the cake will be able to call the number on the back of the ticket to speak to the swapper and claim their prize.

On the side of the tombola stand, a chalkboard shows the remains of an earlier workshop. An iceberg has been drawn on with a waterline across its middle. Rutherford borrowed the iceberg from the feminist political economist duo JK Gibson-Graham. Exchanges with a monetary value, such a buying something in a shop or working for a wage, are represented by symbols drawn above the waterline. But the lion’s share of work, including a sewing machine to signify mending clothes, and clasped hands to signify prayer, appear below, to show how much work goes unpaid and undervalued in the present system.

Unpaid and voluntary work abound in Govanhill, resulting in an especially engaged community, who turn out in force for the swap launch. Many people heard about it on Facebook or Twitter, or by word of mouth. Not Cathy Scott. The grandmother drove to Victoria Road to drop off some donations in the charity shop next door and saw a party in the swap market. When she got back to her car, there was just one item left: a children’s book. So she ventured in, signed up for a membership card and donated the children’s book. The minute she turned to face the shelves she knew what she wanted to take: a pair of pink rollerskates.

“I’ll be the rollerskating granny!” she smiles. In her hand she holds a ticket from the Timebank Tombola for an hour’s worth of home advice. She won the ticket after writing her own, lending her nice china. “I’ve got loads of it at home,” she says. “I should do it as a business but I can’t be bothered, I’d rather do it as a bit of fun.”

Does she think she’ll call in her prize? “Oh, absolutely!” she says. “There are always things I don’t know how to do on the computer and with my with emails. When I get back from my holiday I’ll write a list of things and then I will call.”

Over the other side of the store, Kate Deeming, the birthday cake donor, is crouched by the stage, helping her five-year-old son Jasper put his new shoes on. Jasper is delighted after swapping a pair of Heelys (trainers with built-in wheels) for some vintage trousers. Deeming says he understands the idea of exchange – he set up a shop in their front garden the weekend before – and loves to play Monopoly. For Deeming, the exchange ties in with ideas about the environment. “I think it’s part of a movement for reducing waste,” she says. “There’s a whole consciousness that there are other ways to live in terms of an exchange economy, rather than a buying economy.”

She is interrupted by a lady in a pink jacket. “I won yours!” she says. It’s the cake that went into the tombola earlier today. “A birthday cake,” the lady says to Deeming, delighted. “I might need that next week.”

Rutherford has embraced the idea that different people will see the project in different ways. Not all will get the big comment on the state of the financial system. But they could meet people from parts of the Govanhill community that they might not ordinarily encounter, or get some value from the goods and skills they swap. “People engage with it in different ways,” she says. “But we’re keeping it as a comment on the slightly ridiculous nature of the financial system. Those things are made up anyway – so why don’t we have fun with it?”

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