I SUSPECT I inherited my scrounging proclivities from my father. He not only frequented flea markets on the sly, he would actually lug home orphaned furniture he found in derelict buildings or on street corners. A self-taught handyman (as though there is any other kind), he was also a primitive Martha Stewart, using doors as plant stands or department-store castoffs as portable wardrobes.
I must have been about 8 or 9 when I really studied the living room sideboard table that held our green China teacups on horrid doilies. A white plastic placard riveted on one end proclaimed “Surgeon General Warning: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.”
Actually, I’m grateful (although my mother had fits when my dad snuck in yet another door).
My flea market indoctrination began in the now-defunct Alameda Island Drive-in. I was too impatient for sterile department stores, too miserly for boutiques, too environmentally sensitive to contribute to mindless consumerism, but these motives hardly explain the lost hours wandering amid abject junk and priceless kitsch. How else to justify this excursion into serendipity other than Holly Harris’ description: “It’s like a different world every 10 feet.”
Harris would know. She is the sole person behind the project “Rummaging through Northern California, ” created after Harris and her husband left the corporate world in New Hampshire where, as she succinctly puts it, “he got laid off and I got fed up.” Its various incarnations include a bimonthly tabloid (25,000 copies), an annual directory (50,000 copies) and two Web sites (www.secondhand.com with 375,000 hits since 1995 and the month-old www.rummaging.com).
To the bemused bystander, the urban scavenger appears to be an unorganized creature guided by random chance. In truth, we are inveterate planners with the scientific instinct toward classification, of creating order out of chaos. This is why those who stumble upon Harris’ tabloid, distributed in about 550 locations, find it akin to a star chart explaining the universe. The May-June issue updates the annual flea market listings of 42 locales, their hours, number of vendors and shoppers. The list can also be accessed via the Web site.
Napa-Vallejo Flea Market
So with the flea market season here and the latest “Rummaging” issue in hand, I hit the regulars and expanded my boundaries. Among the weekly dependables is the Napa-Vallejo Flea Market, 303 S. Kelly Road, Napa, right past the American Canyon border on Highway 29. While not a destination trip unto itself, it warrants a stopover during a day of outlet shopping or wine-tasting.
Cars line up along the two-lane road to avert the $2 parking fee. That goodly sum can, after all, buy four to 10 books or four hefty mangoes. Driving inside the sandy parking lot can also be a laborious experience, especially when leaving, since no signs clearly mark the exits and one narrow thoroughfare accommodates incoming and outgoing traffic as well as pedestrians.
Deceptively small at first sight, the site suddenly expands into open pastures and structures that house permanent businesses selling clothing and furniture. Stall vendors, speaking English and Spanish, hawk $10 Ray Bans (“No, these aren’t the real Ray Bans. Otherwise they’d be $85”), kitchenware, clothing and toys. The ratio between new and used wares is good, but the draw is the produce. Two aisles spill over with cherries, peaches, mangoes, corn and green beans all fresh and below supermarket prices.
Solano Flea Market
I maneuvered southbound and exited Solano Way off Highway 4 in Concord for the Solano Flea Market, which lies in one of the last existing American drive-ins. Harris believes that three institutions exemplify a town’s character: its library, its grocery store and its flea market. The last should hold castaways that once held great value, items that should have been hoarded until the years wore down their edges and a lack of space outweighed sentimentality. The sprawling market brims with these delightful riches. The usual new items of clothing, toys and stereo equipment can be found, but not in the stifling overabundance of other markets. I happened upon mosaic rings costing a handful of dimes and wonderfully rustic bookcases for a few dollars more. Now I regret not asking the price of the wood frame mirror wrapped with barbed wire, sort of a Pottery Barn look with an edge.
Parking, by the way, costs nothing (even when you park underneath the giant movie screen), but you must give up one quarter for Saturday admission and one dollar for Sunday, when all the vendors and shoppers come out. If hunger pangs start knocking, breakfast at the drive-in snack bar costs $1.75 for two items or a couple quarters more for three. Taste? Well, my scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy were definitely on the edible side. Enough said.
Trader Jack’s Swap Meet
Although I didn’t have an opportunity to visit Trader Jack’s Swap Meet, 10th and 11th streets, Antioch, the “Rummaging” update says about 125-150 vendors sell to a crowd of about 2,000.
Berkeley Flea Market
The balance of old goods and new imported products makes the Berkeley Flea Market (at the Ashby BART station parking lot, Ashby Avenue and Adeline Street) the closest thing to a bazaar the East Bay is going to get. Offerings verge on the exotica, mostly of the African, Asian and Guatemalan kind. Many regulars sell handmade pine furniture, futons, bath crystals, cleaning products and electronic equipment.
There is some saying about being rich in friends, but a little lucre helps for all those birthdays, weddings and other occasions requiring a memento. Those without the filthy stuff (money, that is, not friends) can get elegant presents here. For my Ph.D. friend majoring in Buddhist studies and leaving for Thailand, I bought a one-person clay teapot shaped like Buddha: Steam from the hot water rises from its belly. Trust me, it looks much more dignified than it sounds and cost under $20.
If you don’t take advantage of the BART convenience, you can park in an Ashby Avenue lot or, if crowded, get back out on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, turn right on Ashby Avenue, turn right on Adeline Street and quickly get into the far left lane. Turn left onto Emerson Street (don’t miss it) and right onto Tremont Street. Behold, the parking lot on the other side of the station.
Norcal Swap Meet/Laney College
The Norcal Swap Meet/Laney College at 7th and Fallon streets, Oakland, epitomizes the urban experience. No, it’s not the Oakland location or its multicultural ambience. The northeast corner juts off underneath the 880 overpass. Nothing quickens your bargaining instinct better than standing beneath an overpass in earthquake country.
This is the neighborhood block sale of penurious dreams: toys, clothing, housewares, clothing, tools, clothing, furnishings, clothing. The raw elements are spread out on the concrete, like the wrought-iron sewing machine base awaiting the marble or wood top for a fascinating table.
Then there is the one splendid oddity that prickles your skin and addles your mind. For me, it was the $350 giant bellows standing atop its own curved brass stand. It could have easily stoked embers at a castle or hotel lobby and was larger than the fireplace in my apartment. Such are the irrational flea market fevers that can infect your soul.
You can also get new the staples of life, such as dish scrubbers, socks and Hanes Beefy-T shirts, as well as fruits and vegetables. Besides the groceries, food trucks selling Mexican wraps and hot dogs soothe grumbling bellies. Disadvantage: The portable toilets aren’t too clean or well-stocked and sometimes don’t have working locks.
Coliseum Swap Meet
A smidgen larger than the Laney College locale, the Coliseum Swap Meet, 5401 Coliseum Way, Oakland, qualifies as an unqualified success. Unlike Concord, the drive-in has long shut down its projector, but the meet goes on every day except Mondays. Like Napa, the behemoth caters to a large Mexican clientele, with music, car stuff, books and clothes (or, msica, cosas del carro, libres y ropa).
Admission prices change from day to day, as does the number of vendors, but the largest turnout invariably falls on Sunday, with $1 admission to see about 400 vendors. The newer wares overwhelm the older, so traditionalists should group this visit with Laney College. Beware the deceptively deep parking lot dips. The snack bar retains the drive-in arrangement and charges those prices ($2 for a small soda). Bonus: Sizable and mostly clean restrooms.
Flea Market at 1651 Mission St.
Across the Bay Bridge and off the 101 Mission Street ramp, the Flea Market at 1651 Mission St. and Van Ness Avenue captures San Francisco essence. It squeezes in a thousand sundry items in one parking lot and the prices reflect the higher cost of city living. Mostly the stuff of garage sales, the market includes antiques and collectibles such as military goods. I espied one truly lovely mirror wall hanging woven with 100 Ching Dynasty coins. The dealer cheerfully told me the $100 price tag, a great haggling start-point for someone on the lookout for such unusual hand-crafted items.
New goods include foodstuffs (Celestial Seasoning teas) and designer sunglasses for around $75. More examples of San Francisco sensibilities are the girlie mags and gay porn videos. Just make sure the underaged in the party don’t start wandering over to the XXX signs. While not worth a trip unto itself, include it in a general San Francisco jaunt. (Another bargaining hint: It’s cater-corner to the Goodwill boutique, which is so big, a cafe will open on its premises later this year. Labels such as Eddie Bauer, Liz Claiborne and Perry Ellis sell here for about $3.95.)
Alemany Flea Market
Through the tunnel and over the bridge to Alemany Flea Market they go, they being a reporter and copy editor at this paper. Indeed, this is the stuff of crusades. A bend right before the Highway 280 Alemany Boulevard exit gives a sweeping overhead view of the throngs at this rectangular marketplace.
Flashbacks and epiphanies happen here. The flashbacks belong to those who have roamed their grandpa’s Vermont attic or grandma’s garden and see the same medicine tins, old-fashioned mirrors or wicker picnic baskets. The epiphanies come to those like myself, who in making the overseas move to America, sloughed off their possession to travel light and start anew. Wandering through the aisles is tantamount to sifting through archaeological digs in this strange new country. At the same time, you construct a past you never had by surrounding yourself with these vintage possessions.
In truth, this is more of an outdoor antique dealership with gorgeous furniture, irresistible collectibles, antique tools, wool rugs and kitschy jewelry. No nickel-and-diming here; we’re talking packing the wallet with 10s and 20s, a checkbook and a Visa or MasterCard. This is a spectacular place for shopping to outfit your home, business or humble cubicle. Added bonus: clean restrooms.
The sellers fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your miserliness know their items. They roughly know the history, the application and the price according to the latest antique books. Of course, the prices beg for discounts. People who hate to haggle (like myself) are behooved to do so. One of the aforementioned staff members bought a 1930s cigar humidor she now uses as a telephone stand; she walked away with it for 25 percent less than the $60 price tag.
Geneva Swap Meet
The last San Francisco circuit took me almost all the way to the Cow Palace. Just short of the arena, the Geneva Swap Meet, 607 Carter St., gathers every weekend at this drive-in lot. The frugal can become positively giddy here. Wicker baskets for 50 cents. Purses for 25 cents. Ten miniature books from Edgar Allan Poe to the “Language of Flowers” for $14. A delicate porcelain pin for $1. Parking for 75 cents.
Naturally, these are primarily small-ticket items, interspersed with occasional furniture pieces, new bodysuits, designer sterling silver jewelry and beauty-care products. Stooping or kneeling will be the predominant posture, so the dedication (not to mention good knees) to wade through dross must be resolute. Again, this is not a shopper’s destination, but a good place to get rid of change after Alemany.
San Jose Flea Market
This requires a journey, but the mammoth San Jose Flea Market, 1590 Berryessa Road, calls itself the original world flea market. Weekly herds numbering 80,000 descend upon this former cattle yard. About 6,000 sellers sell, bargain or practically give away mostly new (often repetitive) items in this international marketplace. Parking costs $3, but the market admission is free. That’s cheaper than Disneyland.
This territory requires a map to navigate. The information booth provides just that, stapled within a directory listing stalls by category and upcoming special events. Permanent structures sell new furniture, car items and haircuts.
The most glorious feature is the blessedly shaded “Produce Row, ” which bisects the market’s trapezoidal layout. Fruit, vegetables, nuts, fish and ethnic cooking ingredients and baked goods abound. Best yet, Preparada Fruta Fresca slices up fresh fruit or punctures a husked coconut for cooling refreshment.
Capitol Flea Market
I didn’t have a chance to visit, but you might want to see Capitol Flea Market, Capitol Expressway and Snell Avenue (6 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday), which has been open for about 20 years.
In the end, except for goods priced for nostalgic value rather than their true worth, these are items you wouldn’t otherwise hesitate to clutch in a store. But hey, the flea-bitten world operates under entirely different scales of economy. Only when you lose all sense of proportion have you truly captured the spirit of the enterprise.
Flea market hints
Wear sunscreen and a cap or hat. Pack a light backpack with tissue/moist towelette, water bottle and change. If you’re going to San Francisco, bring a sweater.
Unless you find the equivalent of your Holy Grail, don’t buy the first thing you see. However, if it is your Holy Grail, grab it politely and cling to it as you browse through the remaining merchandise. The more you buy, the more you can bargain.
If someone beats you to your potential prized possession, don’t buy the next thing you see to soothe your wounded soul.
Don’t buy something just because it’s cheap; get it because you can use it. If the item is priced absurdly high for your taste, chances are finagling will be useless.
Always make sure a great buy has all its parts intact and, if not, check if such parts are available. Check seams, edges, paint jobs and other fine details.
If you’re wondering if a high-value item (like a bicycle) may be stolen, ask if you can write a check; many legitimate vendors will accept it. You can always ease your conscience by checking serial numbers with the police after the purchase.
Stop buying for that friend who receives your bounty with a strained smile and hides it forever from the human race.
Finally, don’t cackle if you get a bargain. It’s quite unrefined.
Flea markets satisfy those hungry for fabulous finds
- Napa-Vallejo Flea Market, 303 S. Kelly Road (off route 29), Napa (6 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays).
- Solano Flea Market, Solano Way and Highway 4, Concord (6:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays, 5:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays).
- Trader Jack’s Swap Meet, 10th and 11th streets, Antioch (7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturdays).
- Berkeley Flea Market, Ashby BART station, Adeline and Ashby (8 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays).
- Norcal Swap Meet, Laney College, Seventh and Fallon streets, Oakland. Near Lake Merritt BART (7 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays).
- Coliseum Swap Meet, 5401 Coliseum Way, Oakland (6 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays).
- Flea Market, 1651 Mission St., San Francisco. Near the Van Ness Muni station or 15-minute walk from Civic Center BART (6 a.m.-4:40 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays).
- Alemany Flea Market, 100 Alemany Blvd., San Francisco (8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays).
- Geneva Swap Meet, 607 Carter (Geneva Drive-in), Daly City (7 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays).
- San Jose Flea Market, 1590 Berryessa Road, San Jose (dawn to dusk, Wednesday-Sunday).
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times