At the Hanseatische Materialverwaltung, creative souls will find theatre sets, lights and huge papier-mâché noses – for hire at a low price tag. In the run-up to Christmas, the theatrical props warehouse is transformed for a few days into an Advent bazaar. The makers' own noses may freeze there on winter days, but they consider that a fair exchange. Our author Myriam Salome Apke visited the preparations for the Christmas bazaar.
A scarf peeps out from beneath Petra Sommer's thick jacket, under it she's wearing a green jogging suit, ankle warmers stick out of the top of her boots and there's a kerchief wound around her hair. Outside, frost coats the cobbles and even indoors, in the “Sahnestück” (“the cream cake”, as the second storage hall is known), your breath freezes into little clouds before your mouth. There is no heating in the warehouse at Hamburg's Oberhafen. And no running water either. You can only get warmed up in one small shed. So why do Petra and her colleagues express their affection for the warehouse with an endearing cake metaphor? Especially when the word has a second meaning in German: a “Sahnestück “ is another word for something very special. “We've taken all this to our hearts and we're also given a lot of regard for what we do”.
The Sahnestück is one of two sections of the warehouse which, since 2013, has been home to the Hanseatische Materialverwaltung – the Hanseatic Materials Administration Centre, known affectionately to aficionados and artists as the “Hansematz”. Concealed behind the iron sliding doors is a world that defies the normal rules. Items stored in the 1000-plus square metres of space include the bow of a sailing ship, exercise ball-sized fruits made of papier-mâché, metre-high artificial cacti, stuffed jellyfish, vintage lamps that your grandmother would have cherished and a few dozen retired fabric-covered sofas.
Everything is for hire, some things even for sale. You can rummage through the stocks here five days a week, whether for a children's cabaret, the office party or a private celebration. The Hansematz is Hamburg's prop warehouse for all comers – but most of all for those who have to implement their art and culture projects on a small budget.
A place for creative minds – and an enemy of waste
However, that was not why the Hansematz was originally founded: Petra is a trained property mistress and used to work in the film and advertising industry in Hamburg – often enough, she says, she's seen materials thrown away for lack of time or space after a single use. “That's a huge waste and drastic for the environment,” she says. The idea for the props warehouse came in 2012: Petra met Jens Gottschau, a Hamburg artist, who was constantly in search of new and inexpensive materials for his work. His idea was that there should be a place that could provide everything the creative mind could possibly need.
At this time, the City of Hamburg had just launched an application process for the premises at the Oberhafen. The former freight terminal between the main station and the River Elbe, once a logistics district, was to be developed into a creative quarter. Within ten days, the two created a business plan and submitted their idea for the props warehouse. “Jens and I didn't know each other, it just so happened that we had the same idea, and it was then selected out of 25 other proposals”.
The founders received equal amounts of seed capital from the Hamburg Kreativ Gesellschaft (a municipal organisation that aims to promote creative industries in Hamburg), Hamburg City GmbH, the Behörde für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt (the urban development and environmental agency for Hamburg at the time) and the Kulturbehörde (Hamburg's public agency for the arts) For months, the founders and their helpers worked for the project pro bono, and even put in personal savings to ensure the company's success. They later obtained money from crowdfunding. At the moment, they're keeping their heads above water with a mix of fees from hiring props, revenues from their sale and donations. In addition, they offer the location to customers for events and film or photo shoots.
The halls are particularly busy around Christmas time. Customers rummage among the high racks, in parallel the Hansematz prepares for its annual Christmas bazaar – a flea market and lavish party combined. Neighbouring company bauer + planer, for example, will house a giant snowball in which snow will fall constantly, a DJ will spin discs and visitors can dance till closing time.
“We're such a great gang here, and everybody's in it with heart and soul”
Five permanent staff members and five volunteers work every day on hiring stocks out, taking stocks in, preparing quotations, arranging the premises for outside events or planning their own events such as the Winter Bazaar. It's a lot of effort, often combined with hard physical work. “Sometimes I wish I was still selling almonds at the Dom festival, as I did a very long time ago … a simple, pleasant occupation, and I earned just as much then as I earn here now,” says Petra, smiling. “But we're such a great gang here, and everybody's in it with heart and soul”. Nobody works at the props warehouse for the money, because the helpers don't get much. “We're poor, that has to be said. But so far we've been fortunate and somehow we've always been able to carry on”.
All of a sudden it gets noisy: Manu, one of the co-workers, is pushing blue metal railings through the warehouse. Hamburg's state opera has purchased them from the Hansematz and they're now being picked up – though no one really knows exactly what the opera company plans to do with them. Curious enquiries are part of everyday life at the props warehouse: do you have space suits? Do you have a cable car available that measures precisely 3.70 by 2.50 metres? Do you have a large book? Large books they have, the cable car they don't.
“Absolute perennial favourites are sailors' clothing, maritime artefacts and vintage standard lamps,” says Petra. There are lots of those. Also chandeliers, disco glitter-balls, typewriters and even the individual letters of a yellow neon advertisement. If you read them in the right order, they make up the words “Chinese Restaurant”. None of the articles on display are priced. If you want to hire or buy something you have to ask the staff. They have a rule of thumb for deciding prices: the more charitable the project, the lower the cost. There are no fixed rates or minimum prices.
In the Sahnestück, co-founder Jens is assembling the counter for the mulled wine bar which will be on the terrace for the Winter Bazaar. “It's a challenge every year to make the warehouse into a showroom,” he says, and breathes a few more clouds into the cold air. “It has to be even prettier, even more magical every time”. And there is also a special service for the Christmas guests: a heater.