Gostiny Dvor THE ULTIMATE MALL CRAWL This is an article I wrote in 1995, intended for the St. Petersburg Press (Russia), which was not published. FORGET THE MALL OF THE AMERICAS; THE ULTIMATE MALL CRAWL IS HERE IN PETERSBURG
Gostiny Dvor, woefully mistranslated in guide books as "Big Department Store," is the most undervalued tourist attraction in the city of St.Petersburg. Unlike it's Moscow cousin G.U.M., many foreign visitors will never visit it, or have even heard of it. Petersburgers too, underrate it's charms, often preferring to shop at the more Westernized and compact Passage across the street. This has nothing to do with prices or selection (Gostiny is superior in both) but to Gostiny's tendency to much resemble the Hermitage in Summer: ie, it's hot, it's crowded, and it takes at least half a day to walk through the whole place and find what you're looking for without a tour guide. That is to say it's a shopping mall.
You see, the exact translation of "Gostiny Dvor" is "Guest Yard." It was originally a 1703 fenced in outdoor market that rented out spaces to shopkeepers, known as a "guest yard" in the language of the time. In 1735 the yard was replaced by a huge enclosed building that also rented out space to various shopkeepers, in 1785, it in turn was replaced with an even bigger building, the present structure. It's basically an enclosed shopping mall of the 18th Century.
In 1917 the Soviet government tried, in vain, to turn it into a "big department store," problem was, supplying goods to the store wasn't really successful. Former tourists and present residents remember Gostiny as a big, understocked barn just a few short years ago. All that has changed. Many new "guest" shops, both Russian and foreign have moved in, and the stocks of the departments still run by the department store administration have moved up to overflowing. New stores move in all the time, departments switch their locations, and the present life of Gostiny Dvor is one of shop-till-you-drop excitement and confusion. Confirmed shopaholics and
mall-rats know that shopping is not meant to be easy, it's meant to be challenging, interesting, and full of surprises, like a treasure hunt. Malls are not rated on how easy it is to get in and out of them in a hurry, but on how long one can spend an interesting time in them. A good mall needs to have interesting and unusual stuff to buy, low prices, and a good cheap fast food place to sit and eat in. On that basis, Gostiny is a "10." Gostiny isn't one of those identical cookie-cutter malls with a Gap, a Macy's, a Victoria's Secret, each selling identical goods to all the other Gaps, Macy's, etc. at every other mall. Gostiny couldn't be less cookie-cutter if it tried.
Where else can you find 15 varieties of accordion? How about seven sizes of home xylophone, AND a concert version? Russian made machines for detecting forged American dollars? LEGAL, not pirated, videotapes of The Bugs Bunny Road Runner Movie, and Lost in Siberia? A bicycle that converts to a 3-wheeled delivery wagon? A home ping-pong kit with paddles, net and balls? Watches commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of V-E day? A remote control toy Red Army tank? A child's disco light set with a central control panel? Sparklers and fountain fireworks, year round? A wind up metal chicken that pecks as it hops? Rhinestone tiaras? Gopher fur coats? Three types of jewelry vise? Slide mounts for 3-D photos? Ladies floral enameled watches, with matching earrings? Brass Romanov eagle buttons? Castanets and maracas? The place is like an old Sears Catalog on drugs.
And besides all this, for folks spending more than a few days here, Gostiny packs in all the good cheap necessities of life in Russia: fleece shoe liners, sparkers for gas stoves, egg carriers, babushka shopping carts, water filters, felt boots with fleece lining, bright children's galoshes, US/Russian phone/fax converters, hot plates, big canvas back packs, and, for your feet after all the walking it takes to find them, a callus file.
Unlike the smaller Passage and DLT, having lots of foreign stores in the building has not pushed out the majority of good Russian stuff. In fact, departments like art and office supplies which formerly were annoyingly scattered all through the building, are moving together, consolidating their supplies, and saving space. A few items that were here a few years ago have gone: Ugly painted china heads to hang on your wall, Chairman Mao hats, busts of Lenin and Nicholas II, and the whole department that transferred photos onto baked enamel so you could put your picture on your tombstone. But generally, Gostiny has so much floor space that Littlewood's and a dozen other stores, were all added without displacing much that was worth saving.
Foreign goods shops have made food shopping here in Petersburg a bit nicer, sensibly stocking Danish cookies, French Champagne and California Raisins. Pam Cooking Spray now graces Gostiny's shelves, along with frozen pizzas, Chef Boy-ar-dee Spaghetti and Meat Balls and the best Russian cakes, pastries and chocolate truffles. You can sip chilled fountain Cokes, or lick Adriano's Ice cream as you shop, and when you can't possibly stand walking anymore, go to Cafe Express, a Russian fast food restaurant taking up the whole upstairs back balcony. On Summer days you can watch the world go by in the street below as you sit eating half a rotisserie chicken and Coke. In winter, canvas tenting keeps the cafe warm, and, summer or winter, a jazz duo plays as you eat. It seems pointless to eat anyplace else downtown.
And then there are the Consignment "Shops" that fit behind little counters. When first they came, people were annoyed at their moving out some of the old goods at the counters, since the consignment shops mainly sold a lot of frivolous foreign made purses and cosmetics that seemed expensive and useless...but then something happened: COMPETITION! Shopping is now much more interesting because each "shop" sets it's own prices. You can see a top of the line Raccoon coat at one counter for 4940T, and then, ten paces further, another will have the identical coat for 2870T! Their price wars bring out a shopper's hunting instincts, as well as drive prices more into range of affordability. And because of competition, the things these places stock keep getting more interesting: Bubble gum flavored mouthwash, black vinyl dominatrix boots, Ginseng extract, and pink dyed fox coats, just to name a few.
But the best bargains are still the Russian goods. Toys in particular are the kind of good value interactive toys that those of us Westerners 30 and over grew up with: Erector sets, Magic trick sets, working toy sewing machines, a fancy microscope set with all the accessories, wood architectural blocks, embroidery sets with hoop, floss, patterns, and a child size needle and thimble, metal dump trucks and cranes that lift with a crank, wood burning tools, and a kit for making a 35mm camera. All these toys encourage active, rather than passive use, and teach children while they play.
Art and photo supplies are bargains as well. Zenit cameras are basically copies of 1950-60's Leicas, the best manual 35mm cameras ever made. Zenits that sell for $150-250 in the States, sell for $40-75 at Gostiny. The Lomo is a good quality fixed focus 35mm snapshot camera that costs about as much as a disposable. Exotic camera filters that fit most western SLR lenses are under $3, and there are sideways mirror attachments available for secretly shooting babushkas in the park. Art supplies include things you've never heard of before, like Honey Water Colors, a unusual gouache that uses honey in the mix, and "Sauce," sticks of black and white pigment that you use like combination pastel and watercolor. You can find a huge set of pastels in their own wooden box, solid lead sketching pencils by Stabilo, and even dry pigments by the box.
Gostiny is also a good place to get services done. There is Polaroid's instant passport photos if you lose your passport and need copies in a hurry. There is Fuji to process your snapshots in an hour. There are drop off booths for watch repair and engraving, and a box office selling tickets to all the shows and concerts in the city.
Gostiny is not a good store to go into in a hurry. It's huge, departments move daily, the "YOU ARE HERE" wall map is inaccurate, and the place is as crowded as Macy's or Harrod's at Christmas all year round. The whole front of the store, facing Nevsky Prospekt has been under reconstruction for years now. The ground floor is broken up into sections that require shoppers to exit and reenter the building at several places. Most confusing is the fact that many departments and counters seem to have been assembled by the insane. One "Souvenir" counter is a case in point: In addition to Matroshkas and shawls, are hair styling gel, butter knives, children's clip on suspenders, plastic lace table cloths, artificial flowers, and a hand painted teacart.
However, all this is part of the challenge. To experience Gostiny Dvor fully you should take half a day to leisurely stroll down every aisle. Eat lunch in the cafe. Take the most time at the least "modern" looking departments, since they have the cheapest, most interesting goods. Learn at least the one Russian phrase you need to shop: "Ya hatchoo eta, pajhalsta" (I want that, please.) Smile, point a lot, and be patient. It is a shopping experience worth spending time on.
are young people in America who enjoy hanging around the local shopping mall as an after school entertainment.
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