With its tempting window displays and wooden shelves laden with specialty items, OstKost could be just another boutique in Berlin's trendy Prenzlauer Berg. Except for one thing: Most of its products come from the former East Germany.
The small grocery store is part of an ironic trend. Ten years after reunification, the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) has become hip.
For years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, eastern German styles - from fashions to speech patterns - were the object of ridicule for western Germans. Eastern grumbling at the vast economic and social upheavals associated with unification was dismissed as Ostalgie, a play on Ost (east) and Nostalgie (nostalgia).
But now it seems western Germans are developing a sense of Ostalgie as well, at least when it comes to products from the east. And some say this fascination with items from Germany's divided era demonstrates a measure of acceptance of a joint past.
For Anja Paaschburg, one of the owners of OstKost, the interest is quite logical: "The products are high quality and [come at] a good price," she says.
Walking through the store on a busy Saturday morning, Ms. Paaschburg points out popular items: pickles, chocolate cookies, and mustard, all of which she claims are better than their western-made competition. Most state-owned, eastern factories were taken over by western German companies after reunification. Sometimes the original recipes were changed, sometimes not, but it's the pre-unification packaging that lures customers with a popular retro look. Paaschburg's favorite item, packets of powder that make a refreshing footbath, features a man in a 1950s-style hat and carrying an umbrella. Packages of Krugerol Halsbonbons, popular throat drops, come in the 1960s color scheme of pale aqua and salmon.
In many cases, it is the retro look that draws customers to N(OST)algie, a thrift store in the west German city of Hamburg. While working in the company's store in the eastern city of Dresden, manager Gisela Schmidt noticed people throwing stuff out by the truckfull. "There must be people like us who think [things from the GDR] are really great," she remembers thinking. She began carting the throwaways to the Hamburg store, where they sell well. (The store also does a thriving business in throwaways from Hamburg, which they truck to Dresden.)
Some of her best clients, she says, are collectors of memorabilia from the '50s and '60s. But most customers - some of them too young to remember two Germanies, come to buy things like porcelain or records. People often look for busts or paintings of former East German leader Erich Honecker, Ms. Schmidt says, but those are hard to come by. "People must still have them in their homes."
Next to the cash register in N(OST)algie sits the complete works of Lenin, published by the Central Committee of the East German Communist Party. Some items - the ceramic lamp shaped like a ship and the three-piece postal worker's uniform - can only be described as kitschy. But the glass ceiling lamps would fit well in a chic coffee shop. And the big wooden buffet tables, in classic GDR-style, could grace a country kitchen.
For collector Fred Maass, looking for GDR-era postcards, the oddness is the appeal. "When I go to a department store in Hamburg and buy a vase, I can break it, and buy it again," he says. "But with things from the GDR, it is like a painting by Picasso: There is only one."
While a level of division still exists, says Schmidt, "there are people who didn't know what there was in the east. They look around and see that some of [the stuff] is really nice. Now they understand that it wasn't all bad." Could this appreciation be the first step in cultural unification? "I think so," she says.
Martina Rellin, editor of Das Magazin, a GDR-era magazine still published today, doesn't like to call the trend Ostalgie. "People are interested in old things. We do have this revival of the '60s and '70s, so maybe this is part of the revival. It's not Ostalgie. It's the past."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society