Flea Market America: The Complete Guide to Flea Enterprise
Introduction. The Flea-Enterprise System
Flea Market America is a country-within-a-country, a thriving underground economy that has no geographic boundaries. It is a way of life.
We 'fleas' may have nothing in common during our weekday lives: we're old, young, hip, square, every color and creed. But come the weekend, all the diversity becomes community. Buyers and sellers converge to reclaim relics from the past and turn discards into dollars, all of us hoping to get the best end of the bargain. Call it the flea-enterprise system: a kind of gypsy version of the stock market where risks are calculated, deals transacted, investments made.
Flea-enterprise is open to anyone with the initiative to get out there and do it. As Jerry Junk says, "It's strictly, basically up to the individual." With open eyes, open ears and inner antennae that are always operative, you can learn to spot a bargain with the accuracy of a radar scope. The more you do it, the better you get, and the life of a flea can be rich in rewards.
As a flea, you can have your own shop without being a shopkeeper. You can run your own show without lawyers, leases, bank loans, contracts, insurance, or overhead. You answer to no one but yourself: no daily nine-to-fiving, no biannual inventories, no eviction notices, no threats from banks and utility companies. You control your own resources.
You also have complete access to the exchange of goods in the marketplace. Sooner or later anything you're looking for—from a feather boa to a bathroom scale—is going to turn up at the market. Vigilant fleas rarely buy anything at retail prices, chopping expenses to the bone. Since it's a two-day work week (three at most, counting accumulating stock, but that's the fun part), flea-enterprise not only underwrites your cost of living. It also gives you time to live.
And you can take your act on the road. With thousands of markets
coast to coast, you can go almost anywhere in the United States and set up shop. At nearly any mart, you'll see older retired folks with merchandise displayed outside their RVs, living the life of the gypsy as they follow the sun around the country. You, too, can 'retire'—and you don't have to wait until they give you the gold watch and show you out the door.
There is a magic in flea-enterprise that transcends the marketplace. It is living theatre, a folksy carnival with its own rituals, where anything can happen, any strange icon may be unearthed.
If you love surprises, if you're willing to dig and delve for buried treasures, if nothing makes your heart beat faster than a good old-fashioned bargain—you're already a flea. This book will help turn you into a pro. A pro like Jerry Junk, who grins when he says, "I always have, always will, get a kick out of this."
Everybody trades. You trade your tabor for money, you trade anything. Everybody's a trader, I 'm just more of a trader than most.
Chapter 1. Birth of a Flea
California, 1975. The year of the drought. Farmers gnash their teeth in barren fields, the lushest lawns are wilted brown. It was a bad year for business, unless you were hawking water-saving devices. Or selling at the flea market.
As the year of my entry into fleadom, it was perfect. No rain meant perfect sales days; no 5 AM weather checks or hauling in and out the plastic tarps. The 1975-76 flea season was a year-round operation, an extraordinary phenomenon for northern California. Occasional twinges of guilt over the plight of my fellow Californians were more than assuaged by the overwhelming success of what had begun as just talk: my outdoor store.
As the year of my entry into fleadom, it was perfect. No rain meant perfect sales days; no 5 AM weather checks or hauling in and out the plastic tarps. The 1975-76 flea season was a year-round operation, an extraordinary phenomenon for northern California. Occasional twinges of guilt over the plight of my fellow Californians were more than assuaged by the overwhelming success of what had begun as just talk my outdoor store.
For years I had been a hardcore rummager, outfitting myself and my friends in the best cheap chic tradition. It was obvious my specialty was fashion. I found orange satin flapper dresses in the attics of abandoned farmhouses in southern Colorado, faithfully scoured St. Vincent de Paul's "everything for a nickle" afternoons for lacy nightgowns and lumberjack shirts, bargained at the flea markets of Paris and Amsterdam for old fur coats, prowled the open air markets of Afghanistan for Kuchi gypsy dresses.
Like many good ideas, this one had been staring me in the face forever. But it took a combination of financial desperation and the sharp-witted thinking of a couple close friends before I actually decided to flea for fun and profit.
I did my homework before I opened up shop. I talked to lots of vendors when I canvassed the various flea markets in the Bay Area where I then lived. I priced comparable merchandise, and got a sense of the general feeling of each different market. It soon became apparent that the Marin City flea market in Sausalito was my market. Smaller and more informal than its East Bay counterpart in Alameda, it had a colorful, carnival atmosphere I loved.
The Sausalito market is located in fashionable Marin County, just over the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco. Marin County is both one of the wealthiest and one of the kinkiest counties in the country, making its flea market a treasure trove of unusual collectibles and cheap fashion-plate clothing. The market was only about 25% professional at the time I opened shop; most vendors were local amateurs out on a lark, drinking beer and catching rays while watching themselves being watched. This meant it was a great place to buy, as well as to sell.
And buy I did. Over the next few weeks I scavenged the market, thrift shops, rummage sales and garage sales until I had accumulated enough stock to have a gala opening. During this time I also collected display tools: an umbrella-style clothes drying rack for hanging goods, a couple of folding tables and chairs, suitcases to hold accessories, plenty of hangers, and a lightweight mirror. My shop was ready to open.
That original flea market store was straight out of the circus. Everything—stock, display tools, my partner Rolf and I—fit in and onto a VW bug. Thank god for the roof rack or we might never have managed it. When we unloaded our wares it looked like one of those circus acts where dozens of clowns keep appearing from inside a tiny automobile. But it worked.
The very first day we were swamped by the local pros immediately on arrival. I know I let merchandise go for much less than my market-wise self would today, but I still remember the astonishment when Rolf and I counted up our take at the end of the day. It was close to $300 and we still had good stuff left to sell. When we returned to the market the following day, we didn't set up until I had made my own buying rounds and could include new stock in the shop—a first-buy/then-sell routine I have followed ever since. That made me a pro.
We continued to sell regularly at the Sausalito market over the next couple years, commuting from the East Bay and later from Napa. The commute meant a super-early rising and an obligatory phone weather report before setting off. We could never be sure whether to go with or against the weather report, for while they were usually wrong, just every so often they were right. So we learned, like our fellow fleas, to hope for the best, expect the worst, and be prepared for anything.
Whenever we traveled the open highway, for business or pleasure, we used the cross-county network of flea markets to underwrite our expenses. Operating out of a van, with its roof rack packed to the hilt, we were actually able to travel with two kids, the entire flea market stock and display tools, plus all our persona] and camping gear—and still have room to breathe as well as to stash new bargains gathered along the way. Fleas, especially of the nomadic variety, must become expert packers. We passed the test.
Hungry for open space and fed up with California freeway madness, we scouted a move to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the late seventies. A major tactical consideration was whether the local flea market could give us the economic padding we knew we would need. We had become successful fleas in urban markets, but would our operation work in small-but-hip Santa Fe? The only way to find out was to try it.
We made an exploratory trip to Santa Fe, where we pulled into Trader Jack's market and set up shop—and did a brisk business. A second weekend confirmed our success as more than a fluke. We moved within the month, and Trader Jack's continued to be an important income source while we established our martial arts center. The flea market also helped us out by serving as an information network, yielding connections with more valuable implications than just the day's sales; many of our K'ang Jo Fu students were originally flea market customers.
It was in Santa Fe that we first opened a used book store as an adjunct to the boutique. I accumulated a large stock of good titles before the books made their debut, and organized them by categories in wire bakery baskets that served as both display and storage cases. The books were re-stocked as regularly as the clothing and we found the addition to be more than a modest success. It attracted a wider range of buyers to our stall and there were lots of cross-over customers. People might start by looking at the books and then discover the clothing—and vice-versa. The bookstore bred some spontaneous literary dialogues, and I found myself discussing Dostoevsky with one customer while selling a satin smoking jacket to another.
In the summer of 1981 I came alone to Manhattan, with no idea if New Yorkers even knew what a flea market was. The gods must have smiled on me, because I moved into a downtown loft building on Canal Street directly across from the liveliest flea market in town. Once again, my flea…