The cheaper fit: The rise of Lebanon's thrift stores

As Lebanon's economic situation deteriorates, thrift shopping has seen an exponential rise [Getty]
7 min read
26 May, 2021
As Lebanon's economy continues to spiral out of control, Lebanese shoppers have turned to thrift stores, or baleh in Arabic, as a way to keep costs down. The New Arab speaks with thrift shop owners about their operations, and the challenges faced.

The woman picked through the pile of clothes looking for the right shirt.

"How much," she asked as she held one up high?

Mohammed looked up casually from the table he sat behind to see what she was holding.

"10,000 [lira] (£4.72)," he responded after a short pause before looking away again.

The woman, apparently having decided against buying the shirt, put it back and looked around the shop a little more before leaving.

For years, these "thrift shops," known as baleh in Arabic, were not a popular place for people to shop with most people going to a shopping centre or bustling areas like Hamra to shop at more designer retailers that are full of clothes imported from abroad.

However, with Lebanon's economic crisis worsening by the day, more and more Lebanese have begun to buy their clothes from these thrift shops for one reason: they are cheap.

More for less

Mohammed's shop sits inside Beirut's southern suburbs on the corner of a street filled with shops just like his own.

For 20 years he has owned his store, but it was not until after the start of the economic crisis that he began seeing a significant increase in business.

With Lebanon's economic crisis worsening by the day, more and more Lebanese have begun to buy their clothes from these thrift shops for one reason: they are cheap

"Before the economic crisis, people didn’t come to the shop," Mohammed told The New Arab. "After, a lot more people started to come here. However, before I was making more money because my work is in euros or dollars."

Mohammed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity since his shop, like other thrift shops, is not registered with the government, constantly makes sure that his store is fully stocked with a wide array of clothes ranging from swimsuits to dresses to jeans to jackets and everything in-between. He is barely able to make enough money to cover his needs though.

While he might import some clothes from abroad, for the most part, he buys from a middle-man and pays for them by weight rather than per article of clothing and he either has to pay in euros or dollars at the black-market rate. Despite the Lebanese Lira still being pegged at 1,500 to $1, the crisis has seen the national currency devalued to as low as 15,000 to $1 on the black market. The lira currently sits at just under 13,000.

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"We get the clothes by the kilo instead of by piece," he explained. "If I get around 90 pairs of jeans, that will be about 50kg and it is $4.50 (£3.21) per kilo, so I pay $250 (£178) for it. So I have a bit of a problem because I pay for all of these clothes and I pay in euro or dollar, but people pay me in lira."

Due to the crisis and his increased costs, he has had to raise prices significantly. Before the crisis, Mohammed explained that customers could haggle with him to try to lower the price, but now he cannot do that as much or else he will lose too much money.

"Before, this dress would have been 5,000 [lira] which was $1.50 (£1.07). Since the dollar is increasing in value, so are the prices," the shop owner said. "That now costs around 50,000 [lira]. Why? Because of the economy. Generally, in the thrift stores, we used to be able to haggle with people and lower the prices. But now that is not possible."

Souk Chiyeh has quickly become one of the preferred shopping destinations for Beirut residents.
Souk Chiyeh is one of Beirut's preferred shopping destinations, yet is still vulnerable to the nationwide crisis

Since the costs of running a thrift shop have increased so much and the money that they make is barely enough to live on, some people have started to close their shops after deciding that it is not worth the effort to keep it open since the crisis has no end in sight.

"There are less and less thrift stores now because you can't make a living there. Having one of these shops or even just a table on the side of the road has become expensive," he explained.

However, when shoppers come to the market, they tend to only buy their clothes from the thrift shops soon after since they can get more for their money, but also because the shops are not just selling cheaply made clothes.

Hidden gems

For many people, shopping in a thrift store means buying cheap, second-hand clothes that other people did not want enough to keep.

Mohammed is quick to dispute this notion, however.

"Here you can find clothes made from all sorts of material," he said. "And it is still cheap. People think that they will just come here to get some cheaply made clothes, but that is not true."

There is also a feeling of uniqueness with buying from thrift stores. Since the clothes that the shops purchase for their inventory are just random assortments of clothing, there are no duplicates in their stock

Those who happen to venture into the market and look through the vast assortment of clothes also agree with Mohammed.

Nabih has been shopping in these thrift stores for years and the main reason he continues to return is because of the quality of what he is able to find.

"I might go to the chain stores at malls sometimes, but I come to the thrift stores more," he told The New Arab. "Things here might not be new, but their quality is still really good."

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The economic crisis has also led to an increase in new shoppers who are looking for a more affordable alternative to the pricier stores in the shopping centres.

Before the crisis, Lama Saad had never been to the market much less shopped in the thrift stores. She first started coming after the coronavirus pandemic reached Lebanon at the start of 2020 to get clothes for her children but ended up getting much more.

"I have two children and I wanted to get them clothes, but I couldn't get them from the normal markets," she told The New Arab. "So I came here for the first time and I ended up getting things for them, my husband, my mother and everyone in my life!"

Since her first visit, she has not stopped coming since she said that she is always able to "find whatever it is I'm looking for" in the market.

With a vast array of materials, styles, and designs, thrift stores can often seem endless.
With a vast array of materials, styles and designs, thrift stores can often seem endless.

Being in the market also helps to increase her sense of status since the prices are so much lower than at the traditional stores.

"I love it here! When I am here, I feel like I am rich," she exclaimed laughing!

There is also a feeling of uniqueness with buying from thrift stores. Since the clothes that the shops purchase for their inventory are just random assortments of clothing, there are no duplicates in their stock. For Nabih, this only adds to the appeal of going to the market.

"If I go to the chain stores, then I might see someone else on the street wearing the same thing as me," he said. "So I prefer to come to the thrift stores. It's the same thing. But no one else will have the same thing as me. It's special."

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Despite thrift stores being more affordable than their traditional counterparts, some people are embarrassed to shop there and will hide it.

"I have some friends who shop in the thrift stores sometimes, but they don't say anything about it because of the "prestige" of shopping at other stores," Nabih stated.

Saad, though, is not concerned about prestige. Since coming to the market, the idea of buying clothes just because of their brand no longer appeals to her and is not something that she thinks about anymore.

"So many people care about the brands when it comes to clothes," she said. "I don't care. I just want to get what is the cheapest price. Outside of here, the prices are higher because of the brands."

"Everything has become more expensive whether you come to the thrift stores or not"

With the price of everything going up as the crisis worsens, Nabih argued that people can no longer be picky when it comes to their clothes and need to prioritise their needs since they can no longer afford the luxuries that they had before.

"Everything has become more expensive whether you come to the thrift stores or not," he stated. "If you go to other places and you aren't paying in dollars, then you are going to pay over a million lira for clothes. No one can live spending that much on just clothes."

Nicholas Frakes is a freelance journalist that reports from London, the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno