Some questions about flea markets
March 15, 2009 11:28 PM   Subscribe

I have some questions about flea markets.

So I have been to a few fleamarkets in my time, and after talking with people about them I find that opinions vary widely. So I have a few questions:

1. How do *you* define a flea market? I have read the dictionary definition and the wiki entry, asked people I know, I have my own theories etc., so tell me what you think. Do the antikvaari of Scandinavia and the fancier vintage stores of San Francisco count? Does it have to be outdoors? The residents of Budapest throw out what they do not need every now and then on the street, all of them at once. Is this a flea market? I guess I am looking for common threads in what the hive mind calls a flea market. Some of you might say "the internet" and I would agree, for example.

2. Do you know of any scholarly research or articles on flea markets? Do tell. I have looked at Google Scholar, perhaps you know other resources.

3. Recommend me some interesting flea markets to visit please. For example the Japanese take on second hand+vintage+flea market junk is interesting. Perhaps its crazier in the Congo or Chile? Dunno. Tell me.

4. How small can a flea market get? Are they self similar? Is a collection of flea markets a flea market too? Do they have some structure? Etc.

I hope this is not considered chatfilter. I'd like to know what the hive mind thinks of flea markets so I thought of some questions milling in my head which is quite the flea market itself. Some of these questions seem simple to me but might be wildly different in your minds. So yeah. Also it is nice that I can select 'grab bag' in Category.
posted by sidr to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
1. I would say a fleamarket needs to be commercial (ie. people selling things, not just giving them away or swapping), and there needs to be more than one seller (quite a few - maybe more than 5?). I also think for it to be a 'flea' market the general quality of stuff needs to be not that great. You might be searching for diamonds in the rough, sure, but the rough is the norm. And most things need to be second-hand. But it's not something I've ever really thought about, so that's just off the top of my head, and maybe those conditions are necessary but not sufficient. I think perhaps also it needs to be not continuously trading - once a week maybe, or once a year, but not every day - and in a space that's impermanent. I'm not so sure about this one though.

3. I went to a few brocantes in Paris that were cool. There's one that's particularly large and famous, but I don't remember which. Some of them definitely veered on a bit classy to truly be flea markets in my opinion.

2. I read an article on the subculture of dressing in second hand clothes from fleamarkets, which is not exactly what you're looking for, but there are some more general points in there that might send you in some interesting directions. There's a preview of the article here.
posted by Emilyisnow at 12:29 AM on March 16, 2009

There's one that's particularly large and famous, but I don't remember which.

I'm guessing you mean here. "Puce" = "flea", btw, and the traders have been in that location since the latter part of the nineteenth century.
posted by Wolof at 2:09 AM on March 16, 2009

Response by poster: i find that subcultures link pretty interesting, thanks emily. and are there internet communities built around flea markets? surely there's a facebook group or or something out there?
posted by sidr at 3:21 AM on March 16, 2009

Here in Norway flea markets are usually fund-raisers for some lokal sports club or marching band or whatever. They accept donations, which they often collect from the donator, sort them and keep them in storage until the day arrives, when everything is laid out for sale at once. This is usually in a school gym or other fairly spacous facility, but sometimes outdoors. Here are some pictures from one.
posted by Harald74 at 3:57 AM on March 16, 2009

A flea market in the UK is called a boot sale. I assume it is in Ireland as well, although I have not been to one. This is my personal definition of flea market:

1/ It must be outdoors, or in a marquee.

2/ There must be at least 10 sellers, selling in a defined space and vending out of the back of a vehicle or off of a standard card table. Or two.

3/ It must consist of 99% used goods, 99% of which must be crap.

4/ Any food sellers present at the the flea market must serve predominantly crap food who's primary purpose is to keep you from freezing to death, dying of dehydration, or starving on the spot.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:16 AM on March 16, 2009

Here in the U.S., the classic flea market is held outdoors, on the weekend (a few will run Saturday and Sunday, but most will be just one day), from Spring to Fall. One of my local flea markets had their first operating day yesterday, another starts up in 2 weeks. Both are in drive-in theatre parking lots, which is a very common location for them to be held (even though the space may no longer be used as a drive-in). There will be sellers who are there every week, and always have the same spot, and there will be sellers who just show up once with a car load of crap to get rid of. Sellers will pay some fee to the flea market operators (typically, somewhere around $10 - $20).

The goal for the seller -- especially the latter kind -- is: DON'T BRING THIS STUFF HOME. So, start selling cheap, and get cheaper / accept offers as time goes by. Sellers who are there every week will be less likely to reduce their prices substantially, but are still cheaper than stores: the guy who sells used DVDs sell them for $3.00 - $5.00, rather than $5.00 - 8.00. The comic books that would be for $3.00 in the comic store are selling for $1.00, etc.

But, we also have indoor flea markets. These are a bit different in that usually a seller will have a stall and be there every week (they don't have to lug their stuff home at the end of the day), paying a monthly rent. And, of course, they run in the Winter as well. Still, the general rule is cheap, cheap, prices for the stuff that has been through the mill of consumerism and is one step away from a landfill.

When the weather warms up, these indoor flea markets will often open up some of their parking lot space to sellers who want to show up for one week with a car full of stuff.

"Vintage stores" -- especially fancy ones in S.F.! -- are in no way related to flea markets! Neither is, I must say, "the internet".

I depend partly on flea markets for my living (I'm pretty good at digging through the crap and finding the stuff that will sell on eBay), feel free to mail me if you have any questions.
posted by the bricabrac man at 5:53 AM on March 16, 2009

The appropriately-named bricabrac man pretty much nailed what a flea market is in the US. Just wanted to add/emphasize a couple points:

The only way flea markets are related to "vintage stores" is that often the vintage store owners/employees buy stuff at the flea to re-sell in their shop (at a gazillion-percent markup, of course).

Here in California, the terms "flea market" and "swap meet" were once interchangeable. Now, "flea markets" are more commonly being called "outdoor antique markets" to differentiate them from "swap meets," the latter of which are not antique markets at all, but gatherings of vendors selling cheap manufactured junk (like 99-cent store merchandise). At swap meets, the merchandise is usually new, or at least contemporary. At flea markets, the merchandise is usually vintage/antique/old.
posted by chez shoes at 6:14 AM on March 16, 2009

I don't know too much but since your example mentioned Chile I might as well try to resolve that one (I can't compare it to Congo...but its sure nothing like the one in those Norway photos)

Where I live, there are 3 very big consistent outdoor flea markets (hundreds of vendors each). Sundays, Saturdays and Thursdays are the biggest days, though in some cases people setting up everday and others dont operating during the weekdays. One of the flea markets includes a huge veggie market, another an entire tools/home section (I mention this because the vendors specialize in it and the stuff mostly isnt used as was discussed as possible criteria).

The vendors typically are the same everytime, they buy the things they sell from people or otherwise come across it (as, for example, sometimes a thrift store will toss out its extra stuff on the street and people will carry it off... a lot of it probably makes it back to the market). They pay a small fee to set up for the day, though there are days when many people don't sell anything.

Things sold, other than those specifics, include in general used clothes, shoes, household junk, ripped DVDs, records, stands of new cheap clothes or imitation brand name, hit or miss electronics, etc...

One of the weird things in my opinion is a lot of the used clothes come from small town midwest (US) community or high school sports teams. These things obviously trickled down through a thrift store. Some people sell "antiques" but in general have done little research. Some people sell current currency, claiming it as antique, for a ridiculous value. (you can buy a 2005 US quarter for the equivalent of US$0.75.)

Most things go on the floor, are lugged around day and day again, through the rain and passing dogs and whatever filth is on the ground. Sellers generally lay out each item separately...there's seldom a "sift through this box/pile" layout.

Some risks at the flea market include- of course getting ripped off on the price, pick pocketing, buying a movie and getting a blank dvd, broken electronics, and even possibly scams like buying a used camera for super cheap only to walk away and discover there is a brick in the camera case, or an associate of the seller robs you of what you just bought after you leave the stand, oh yes... and literally- fleas.
posted by nzydarkxj at 6:22 AM on March 16, 2009

1. There are two types of fleamarkets: indoor and outdoor markets. Outdoor markets are pretty much what the bricabrac man describes, large sales held on a marking lot or other outdoor space where sellers rent rickety wood tables. Sales there might range from cheap, but new, dollar-store type items to "specialty" items (at the fleamarket that was local to me growing up, there was a table where an old veteran sold coins to coin collectors) to people trying to get rid of their garage-sale type fare. There's often some kind of hot dog cart for food.

Indoor markets are usually in large, warehouse-type buildings or old former department stories. They have dedicated shops, like malls, that sell items very cheaply compared to normal retail stores. These shops are always independently owned (ie: not chains). Many of these stores will be general 99-cent store types, but often there will be specialty stores, such as discount book or toy sellers. They won't have people selling random, used junk usually--too expensive to rent a shop, I guess. There is normally a food court. Indoor markets have a very distinct smell. I'm not sure why.

I don't really recognize anything else as a flea market. I am 99% sure that vintage shops don't count--there needs to be, minimally, a number of sellers selling stuff for cheap. And there needs to be a physical space. The internet doesn't count either.

I can't really answer your other questions, besides to say that my favorite fleamarket is The Englishtown Auction in NJ.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:28 AM on March 16, 2009

With regards to more sources for articles and information on the topic. I would go to your library. Many libraries have access to article databases and the librarian could help you search.
posted by Gor-ella at 6:45 AM on March 16, 2009

bricabrac man's definition is basically mine too. But I have to add that in my limited experience, at a "flea market", one might find items for sale that may or may not have been obtained by the seller either truly illegally or through some other kind of shady dealings. So as a buyer, you are never absolutely sure that that generic Leatherman or package of washcloths wasn't originally stolen (or "lost in shipping") off the back of a truck.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:32 AM on March 16, 2009

my experience is primarily with flea markets around new england - former factory towns like providence, ri and new bedford, ma. those markets tend to mirror bricabrac man's description of indoor markets: former warehouses or textiles mills crammed with stalls which the sellers rent week after week, leaving their goods on-site. when you visit year after year and notice the same folks, often with many of the same items lying more or less unmoved on their tables, it becomes obvious that many of them are there more to be part of the community and shoot the shit than to actually transact business. one by one the markets tend to evaporate over the years, as the mill buildings are prone to fire, bulldozing and condo-ization.
posted by messica at 7:56 AM on March 16, 2009

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