Bargaining in Los Reyes

September 1998

Coming to grips with the concept of bargaining for 50 cents worth of bananas in a market stall is one thing, negotiating with a village of potters for a mountain of pottery is another...

As a Mexican backcountry pottery buyer I do a lot of bargaining. It is part of the job description; Get to distant villages, find potters, bargain prices, purchase pots, load truck and head back to a hot shower.

I'm not a hard bargainer, indeed once upon I time I felt it to be immoral. There I'd be standing in the market buying 50 cents worth of bananas from a frail and ancient woman and the local next to me would be doing the same thing but getting those same bananas for 40 cents. Bargain for 10 cents, what's the point? But what did I know, I'd just landed here from the U.S. of A, and had never bought a car. Now I know better. I shop weekly in the market, I see how it is supposed to be done, I see how it is a correct and expected step in a transaction. The woman who offers bananas for 50 cents a kilo plans on selling them for 40 cents. All prices are set that way with some variation according to your looks, demeanor etc. Sliding scale. If you don't bargain, well, you're a damn fool and that's that. It isn't the 10 cents, it's that it is proper.

Now I bargain for those 10 cents. From time to time when I counter offer I'll get a great, satisfied cackle from the seller who then elbows the tomato seller seated next to her and says, "look comadre, this gringo knows how to bargain!" And the tomato seller tosses a tomato across the aisle to catch the attention of the dried chili seller and calls, "Luisa, the gringo knows how to bargain, look at him! Marta offered the bananas at 50 and he offered 40..." The banana lady looks at me and says, "You know how to bargain, very good!" and throws in an extra banana to boot, then back to her comadre, "He knows how to bargain, you see that?" And they'll get going back and forth and still be ranting and hooting and tossing tomatoes around as I'm wandering off, quite satisfied with myself. Sometimes I suspect that things get slow at the market, a bargaining gringo can be a big deal.

Of course there is style and grace to bargaining. It should always be done firmly, confidently, but kindly. You've got to show that you really need to save those 10 cents and you know that those bananas aren't worth 50 'cause you're no fool. But you must be careful not to insinuate that the seller is a fool for offering her bananas at 50 when they're only worth 40. And good bargainers are quick with the eye and tongue, quick to notice little flaws, "Aye, look at those bruises, I think they're too ripe." "Tabasco bananas are selling for less this week, I think I'll go buy some of them." But again, you've got to be cool with your flaw finding, bring them to the sellers attention, but don't shove them in her face.I'm not suggesting that it is always done this way, sometimes it can get pretty gritty. Bargaining is an interaction, it is a little conversation, eye contact, hand gestures, a quick game and then it is done. All parties satisfied, and if you throw in a joke or two, all the better.

And so it is with pottery buying. Every pot has to be bargained. To really do this right, you ought to pick up every pot and examine it. Look at the lines, feel the weight and balance, sweep the inside with ones hand to feel for an even burnish, strike it firmly with your knuckle or palm to check the tone (no pot with a crack, however slight, will ring.) If all of these details check then you ask price, they offer, you counter offer, repeat until you reach the price. However, when you are buying pottery with half the women in a village and they've each brought twenty pots down to sell, well, you can't pick up and check each and every one of them. It gets to hard on the knuckle. And bargaining your way through some bananas, tomatoes and beans is one thing, but bargaining through half a village and 800 pots, have mercy! So you make a big show about examining a few pots, giving them the squinty-eye-knowing-look inspection and repeat it randomly as you wade through the pots. The hope is that the potters will be convinced that you know what you're doing and it will keep them honest, discourage under fired pieces or a couple seconds from getting snuck in among a dozen good pots. As for the bargaining, you have to thoroughly work on the prices of the first dozen pots, ideally a variety of shapes and sizes spread among several potters. This then gives you an idea of what the real going rates are and these prices serve as the base for the other 788 pots. Then, theoretically, you will buy all similar pots at the same price.

But no matter what, your knuckle will be sore when the day is done because you really have to keep sounding those pots. Potters are generally an honest lot, but there are always a few wily potters who try and hide the cracks on the shady side. And even if you've just bought 100 pots all the same size from 20 potters for all the same price, the 21st potter with that pot will want more. "But mine is better made" or "I live farther from the clay" or "I've only got 2 pots to sell, pay me a little more. I've got 5 children to feed." Any of which might be true and you wrestle in your mind with the 50th moral dilemma of the morning. Or, the potter will say, "aha, but my pot is bigger!" Your eyes are telling you that it is exactly the same size, but you place it side by side with the others, then turn them upside down and look again, feel their weight, place a board across the tops to show they are the same height, pull out the measuring tape and compare dimensions. It's exactly the same size. "No, it is bigger!"

Eight hundred pots later, 60 potters bargained and paid and 150 moral dilemmas wrestled, the day is done and your exhausted, can hardly see straight and certainly can't stand up straight after bending all day to pick up pots . I think the smartest potters hold their pots for last when the best I can do is just say "yes" to whatever they're selling them for and then stumble on to the next pile. It will be dark by now, too late to bother with the five hour drive on rutted roads back to that hot shower. So, drunken tired, dusty, cotton tongued and sore knuckled, you'll spend the night on the dirt floor of some friendly potter's work room, squeezed between the fragile greenware with a palm mat for a mattress and all the old blankets they can spare to fend off the dawn chill. Your tired enough you don't care about the lumpy floor and mysterious insects that buzz your ears, but the donkey tied up on the other side of the wall jolts you from your tormented dreams of counting pots a half dozen time through the night as it launches into another lung emptying, hyperventilating tirade. And who said roosters crow at dawn. The ten roosters on the roof crow whenever the heck they feel like it, the oxen kick around their dried corn stalks, the squealing pigs wrestle with each other for the best mud bed and five dogs under the porch bark at every passing firefly. With any luck it won't begin to drizzle at 3 AM because under a tin roof a rain drop sounds like a waterfall. Once upon a time I'd believed that nights in villages in the middle of nowhere would be as silent as the heavens. Live some learn some, and sleep in between.

This is the way of pottery buying, village to village. Of course each village has its own flavor, there may only be a dozen potters selling pots, there might be 120. The lumps on the floor vary, sometimes the donkey is tied a little further away but there are 20 goats penned by the front door.

Checking Pots in Los Reyes
Imagine, then, my surprise earlier this year when I rolled into Los Reyes for the first time to buy a load of their pottery. I went through the usual squint eye examination of a few lovely pots, bargained the first dozen seriously to set the price and then got down to business of getting through the acres of pots before me. But before I could even get going the Los Reyes women jumped in and got it going for me. "Look", they'd say, "these pots are all the same size, so of course they have to sell for the same price, and all of these ones over here, they are bigger." Then they set about to sorting by size from each potters pile. When there was any dispute on size or price they'd quickly get a similar pot whose price had been set and do the comparison themselves, as a group. "Yes, this one is smaller, how about 5 pesos less?" And they'd all agree that that was a fair deal. It always was. They'd also police each other, examining each others pots as I went about buying. "Whoops, don't buy that one, it has a little crack." or "it's scratched, will you take it for half price." This was done with a good spirit, it didn't seem to cause any tension among the potters. Checking each other's work seemed to be understood as quality control, the pottery they sell is their bread and butter (beans and tortillas actually) and they want to keep their customers happy. Of course anyone can make a mistake and not see a crack now and then.

The whole day was back dropped by humor filled conversation and laughter. Around lunchtime I found myself being pulled here and there all at once, "we've made you turkey stew, come eat." "No, come with us, we've got fresh tamales and lemonade." To be diplomatic I ate three lunches. It is fortunate that I have a big frame.

When the buying was all said and done the sun was still shining and I still had some go left in me. So I rounded up my van, suddenly well stocked with provisions for the road, and bid the smiling potters of Los Reyes adios. "I will be back!" I called as I pulled away. That night I took a hot shower and slept comfortably on a familiar bed. But if you want to know the truth, now and then I kind of enjoy a palm mat on a lumpy floor in a smokey village. It keeps my eyes open, if you understand what I mean.


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