"The Taste Remains": Consumption, (N)ostalgia, and the Production of East Germany
Ten years after German reunification, a relic from the past appeared in an industrial corner of what was once East Berlin: an original “Intershop.” Part of a chain of state retail establishments set up by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for hard currency sales, the Intershop had formerly served as a type of duty-free store for Western time travelers on their rare visits to the world of the East. In socialist days, these stores stocked scarce consumer and luxury items such as chocolate, electronics, and perfume. For all but the privileged few, these shops were a constant reminder of not only the material failings of the GDR economy, but also the incongruity of the socialist ideal with the state’s own hard currency–seeking activities.
Today’s Intershop is a distorted commentary on the events of the last ten years: old GDR products are offered that, in some cases, are now almost equally as scarce as the Western goods once were. The rebirth of the Intershop can be traced to a 1999 exhibition, conceived by two western Germans, on everyday life in the socialist East. The decision to house the exhibit in an old Intershop worked in accordance with the show’s emphasis on design, as the structure was essentially a kind of transportable barracks, easily assembled or stored and easily recognizable to easterners and westerners alike.1 The exhibit sought to capture the material culture of a rapidly vanishing era through commercial products and quotidian accoutrements. Inspired perhaps by these historical and aesthetic sensibilities, visitors consistently attempted to purchase the items on display. To accommodate a demand for items that, at that time, could only be found in flea markets or wholesale warehouses, the curators-turned-owners split the Intershop into a historical exhibit and a version of its original role as a retail shop. From senior citizens seeking familiar products to young, western collectors of kitsch, visitors came to peruse the shelves for GDR brands and memorabilia.2
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- This particular Intershop possessed historical significance as part of the store once located at the famed Friedrichstrasse border station; it was incongruously reassembled nearly ten years after unification in a parking lot amidst stolid warehouses in an industrial quarter of former East Berlin. The new location (Ehrenbergstrasse 3–7) itself bespeaks the clashing aesthetics of the old and new East Berlin, for the once forbidding warehouses and factories of the district have been renovated into chic office space, leaving the old Intershop forlorn and shrunken amidst postmodern facades and new construction.
- The curators originally sought to make fun of the West by calling the shop Kaufhaus des Ostens (KaDeO, or Department Store of the East) as a conscious satire of the famous Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe, or Department Store of the West) in West Berlin. A letter from KaDeWe’s lawyer convinced the curators to change the name, and a similar legal problem enjoined their second choice, Kaufhalle des Ostens (Shopping Hall of the East). So it was back to the GDR and Intershop. The official name, Intershop 2000, is presumably in deference to the large electronics chain store that uses the name Intershop.