I walk into the holding-cell size shop where I change money. A women at the counter sounds like she’ll be awhile. I decide to take a walk around the block instead. A leather shop stands a few doors down. That classic old-store-font being revived in hipsterdom brunch-land sits plainly across the glass, the words slightly faded but still clearly legible. Saddles are displayed in the window, hand bags and briefcases hang overhead.
An older man with grey hair escaping his flat cap, a dark green workshop apron, and humble dark clothes is visible from the window, he stands over his work bench. I take the several, worn, small steps inside the store that place you in the center of the slightly cluttered shop. A 20-something apprentice is separated from the craftsmen by a dozen pieces, and a half century, but is otherwise a perfect stand in.
It’s the smell I notice — both the skins and the oils. It’s strong but not overwhelming. It triggers whatever you associate with leather: riding (of the horse or bike variety), strength, quality, endurance, craftsmanship, shoes. Also, I can’t see in here. Light is decidedly lacking. I don’t know if that’s an intentional decision or simply a remnant of the past. It’s mid-high 70’s and extremely sunny outside (“hot” according to some at the hostel, haha!), a stark contrast. It’s musty. I think that’s just the lingering smell. I imagine in the afternoon a few local men smoke cigars here, a casual escape and respite for the hands.
There’s someone else fiddling in a back room but neither I nor the others seem to pay him much attention. The work is quiet, individualistic. They seem a bit surprised to see me. I stay for only a few moments. I’m never comfortable taking people’s time in a commercial setting when I’m not shopping to purchase. Perhaps I’m too reserved in this regard for interesting situations. I’d be lying if I weren’t also weighed by conscious of the American perception. It doesn’t help that my Spanish isn’t flawless (somehow, I never picked up leatherworking terms) and that I find Argentines particularly hard to follow. To complicate things further, it would seem that the better my Spanish, the more likely the Argentines are to slur/slang in their peculiar way, making it harder yet for me to understand. Perhaps I’m just making excuses. If I were to do it again, I suppose I should stay longer.
I wander back to the Cambio to find a new customer at the counter. I decide to wait and take a seat. As she’s wrapping up, a balding, late-middle aged man with a black-white checkered wool jacket, dark pants, brown shoes, and a potbelly shuffles in. He sees me sitting there wait and moves to stand awkwardly close to the woman at the counter. She raises her eyebrows, a not so subtle hint he fails to pick up.
As she leaves he says in broken English that he wants to trade USD $1,000. Where is this guy from? Does he not see me here? The clerk offers an exchange of 9.40 — he accepts in a rush. The clerk seems a bit uncomfortable as he picks up his cell phone and puts back down several times, unsure how to proceed. He starts to count out hundreds. The guy asks for bigger bills but is told he’ll have to wait for a few minutes to get them. “No, keep going”. A few minutes later he is handed a collection of bills grouped in rubber bands. He stuffs the 4-inch wad in his outer jacket pocket and nervously rushes out. I walk up to the counter for my turn. Apparently the previous guy had cleaned him out, so I’m going to have to wait.
In this case, that means putting that cell phone to use. 3 minutes later, a larger than life man wonders in. He must have been 6’4 and 300 pounds. He’s not particularly fit, but certainly an imposing size. He pulls out huge wads of cash rolled up from his sweatpants. I assume he’s another customer. Only after their transaction do I realize that this was the money he needed. Where was this guy, just chilling next door?
I exchange my money and go on my way to one of the many bakeries that seem to line every corner and continue my day. The leather shop was closed, and completely dark, as if it were never opened.