Berlin Wall still selling, but commoditised

Last updated 05:00 14/05/2009

For sale - Berlin Wall

STILL ROCKIN: Volker Pawlowski, a 52-year-old businessman who runs his own Berlin Wall souvenir company, poses with Berlin Wall souvenir pieces stored in crates in Berlin.

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Volker Pawlowski is not much of a philosopher. But in his Berlin warehouse filled with concrete pieces of Berlin Wall neatly stocked in banana boxes, the entrepreneur asserts that man cannot live on Wall alone.

"I would starve if I tried," he said, looking around the warehouse from where he also sells glitter-sprayed postcards and T-Shirts showing other Berlin tourist attractions.

Twenty years after the fall of the concrete barrier that divided Berlin in communist times, Pawlowski is still the go-to man for souvenir fragments.

Germany's leaders are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall this year with emotional speeches in the run-up to a November 9 commemoration, but Pawlowski, a German former construction worker, is pragmatic about the Cold War's most-hated symbol.

"To me, the Wall is a product like any other. It's business," Pawlowski said, standing in the midst of thousands of small graffiti-sprayed pieces, arranged according to size.

The heavily fortified 106km (65 mile) Wall, built in 1961 and encircling West Berlin, was breached on the night of November 9, 1989. Hundreds of so-called Mauerspechte ( "Wall-woodpeckers ") chipped away at the colourful chunks on the Wall's western side.

That night launched months of euphoria, the end of communism and – for Pawlowski, who was working on the West side – a nice opportunity. Now he supplies around 90 percent of Wall relics sold in Berlin's souvenir stores.

"It started off when I saw someone at a flea market, selling pieces of the Wall. I simply thought: I can do better than that," said the 52-year old.

East German foreign trading company Limex was charged with marketing the most decorative chunks and historians say auctions in Berlin, Paris and Monaco had raised hundreds of thousands of German marks by mid-1990.

Pawlowski was interested in the remaining pieces: he simply called around Berlin's recycling sites.

"It wasn't difficult. There was so much Wall around," he said. He ended up with about 300 metres of Wall, each segment weighing 2.6 tonnes and standing 3.6 metres high.

He declined to say how much he paid for the entire lot.

'STILL A BESTSELLER'

Now Pawlowksi, whose wife and daughter are also in the business, has enough Wall remnants to last him for decades. But he says the sale of the concrete slabs only makes up around a fifth of his souvenir supplies business.

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With the barrier now hard to find on the streets of the capital he says demand is still high, although customers have become more discerning.

"Packaging is everything," he said, as one of his three staff attached a small wall segment to an acryllic frame.

Clients now want more sophisticated souvenirs than just pieces of plain concrete.

He has lodged a patent application for his technique of implanting wall bits into plastic globes and attaching them to postcards, and says he will soon also provide Wall memorabilia online.

Wieland Giebel, who runs a tourist shop near Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, said Wall remained a bestseller for him.

"People buy the Wall because it incorporates the memory of the Cold War and of the divided city of Berlin. They want to take that home with them," he said.

"I much prefer selling the Wall to snow-storm toys with the Brandenburg Gate or other knick-knacks. It's authentic."

Giebel said he trusted the authenticity of Pawlowski's products because he regularly visited his warehouse.

The graffiti originally sprayed on to the Wall's western side has faded over time, and Pawlowski sees nothing wrong in reapplying the paint or leaving segments out where graffiti artists can refresh their work: "Colourful pieces simply sell better than grey ones."

Pawlowski also provides man-high wall segments to companies or institutions, but mainly sells to wholesale and Berlin souvenir shops where he says the financial crisis has clearly had an impact.

"Sales have dropped a lot over the past year," he said, although he declined to provide figures. "There are fewer tourists, especially from abroad."

Pawlowski is not totally dispassionate about the symbolism behind his business: he said he remembers his own disbelief when he watched the TV pictures of the Wall coming down.

But he feels unmoved by the flood of speeches, exhibitions and films commemorating the end of the Cold War in Germany this year, and is unnerved by questions about what the Wall means to him personally.

"I like to watch the odd documentary on the Wall on television," he said. "But I don't think about it all the time. I've been handling Wall bits for 20 years. I process Wall. That's what I do. It's a business to me. That's it."

What will he do on November 9, when Germany celebrates the anniversary of the Wall coming down?

"I'll probably have a barbecue."

- Reuters

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