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The ubiquitous swap meets of San Diego

A sense of belongings

With poles of open-sided tents supporting flat or peaked roofs, the market begins to take on the outlines that have defined cities. - Image by Paul Stachelek
With poles of open-sided tents supporting flat or peaked roofs, the market begins to take on the outlines that have defined cities.

I'm not a regular at Kobey's Swap Meet. I've only been four times, but I already have "friends" there. Peggy and Jim Ciriello ask whether I’ve used the cast-iron corn bread skillet I bought from them two weeks ago. ("Twice, thank you.'') Scott Christie, who sells mainly clocks and American art pottery, asks me whether I know which company made the dishware that’s marked with an outline of California. (I don't, but I tell him I'll try to find out.) Donald Gonzales, an insurance broker and occasional seller from whom I bought a '50s lamp, asks me whether I've found anything good this morning. ("Not yet.")

Gerry Burris, a construction project manager, scores tools at Kobey's.

And Gerry Burris, a construction project manager whom I’d met just once before, shows me today’s find (“It’s the portable band saw I’ve been looking for for three years”).

I’ve used the cast-iron corn bread skillets twice now.

Swap meets, also called flea markets, are temporary villages like the one in the Broadway musical Brigadoon, usually taking shape, flourishing and closing up in less than a day. Some, in fact, bloom just once each year like the cactus flower, others once a week or once a month, though Kobey’s occupies San Diego’s Sports Arena parking lot four days a week.

This is not Horton Plaza.

But no matter where or when they happen, to experience the magic of the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Brigadoon, you have to get to the site, usually a parking lot or a field, very early.

At 6:59 a.m. the used-stuff section of the Spring Valley Swap Meet is just an asphalt parking lot. But outside the fence waits a ragtag convoy — cars, vans, pickups, and one metallic-blue BMW, some of them there since 4:00 a.m. to make sure that they get a vendor space. At 7:00 a.m., when the gate opens, the land rush begins.

If you don’t know Louis Vuitton, you shouldn’t be buying LV at a flea market.

With the majority of selling spaces unreserved, sellers hurry to stake out their places, often next to someone they already know, someone who’ll look after their goods when they go off to get something to eat or to pee, someone with whom they can talk of purchases and sales and thefts and politics as they re-create, for a few hours, the neighborliness of a town. The market, however, would seem to provide sellers as well as buyers little more than a Brigadoon social life, one that’s as ephemeral as the market itself, since, for the most part, they see each other only there.

It’s 6:30 a.m. on the third Sunday of the month, and beyond a chainlink fence the asphalt parking lots at the Veterans Memorial Stadium in north Long Beach recede into the winter blackness. At this hour, only a few dozen of the four-or five hundred stalls that will eventually cover the area have been set up. Nonetheless, when the gate opens, the early crowd — dealers scouting wares for their shops and collectors hoping to find “finds” before the dealers do — rushes in.

Shoppers scurry around with flashlights as if seeking sustenance, drawn from one stall to another as if to outposts on the prairie. But as time passes and more stalls spring up, the collector who’s been foraging, eyes focused on tables and blankets, searching out Fuller Brush Company letter openers or Bakelite bangles, is apt to be confused at finding rows of tables strewn with stuff where previously there was nothing. He or she may, in fact, become disoriented or think “I’ve been robbed" on discovering that the stall where early-morning purchases were left has “disappeared.” But just as once-familiar childhood landmarks — a farmer’s fruit stand or a whole town — have disappeared, they have simply been overtaken by urban sprawl.

As stall after stall is constructed of goods around a vehicle or by borders of tables or with poles of open-sided tents supporting flat or peaked roofs, the market begins to take on the outlines that have defined cities wherever mankind has thrived since ancient times. It is the same well-known footprint of the town center, a grid of avenues and cross streets divided into store-sized plots, and it seems to rise out of the ground the way excavations reveal the outlines of ancient cities.

And just as archaeological finds made at those cities have helped us understand past civilizations, the finds we dig up at flea markets can help us understand our own. A few weeks ago, at a market in Pasadena, I found a bulging school composition book, its pages swollen with taped-on objects. What I had in my hands was a window into Southern California life more than 70 years ago. On the cover was written in pencil “M.E. — Memory Book, March 17-1922." On the back was printed a map of California showing the state’s population “2,377,549, Census 1910.” This scrapbook, begun on March 17, 1922, recorded events in the life of a young personal historian. From a taped-in envelope containing an invitation to a Halloween party I learned her name — Marguerite Elliott — and her address — 7769 Exchange Place, La Jolla. From her San Diego High School report cards (she took English, French, art, and physical education) and travel and concert memorabilia, I deduced that she was about 15 years old and from a prosperous and culturally active family. Records of her travels, including brochures for Elsinore Hot Springs and for Casa Loma Hotel in Redlands showing pre-freeway auto routes and bus lines, help give us a feeling of what life was like in Southern California at the time. It’s as close to living history as we can get.

The flea market has its own history, which happens to be as disputable as the source of its name. As a piece of ground assigned to peddlers, the “flea market” is said to date from 1312 when King Henry II, fearing that London’s itinerant sellers (and their fleas) were spreading disease, ordered them confined to the Haymarket, now an important business street. Or the market might have been named for the peddlers themselves who, having no fixed place of business, bounced around like fleas, or for their wares, which were insignificant, a common meaning of “flea” in the 14th Century. Whatever its origin, the name not only held on in English, but traveled well: it shows up in French as le march aux puces and in German as der Flohmarkt (though the earlier Trodelmarkt is more commonly used).

Markets that continue to occupy the same ground for a long time tend to act like homesteaders, setting down permanent roots. In Spring Valley, the new-goods section of the market has metal-framed booths. In Chicago, Maxwell Street, where generations of immigrant merchants got their start, is so entrenched in the urban fabric that the city is having trouble redeveloping the market grounds for other uses. In Paris, the centuries-old Porte de Clignancourt flea market with its narrow “streets” has come to resemble a medieval town. But no matter how much it may look like a town or even like a shopping mall that looks like a town, a flea market is still a flea market.

“Hi, Katie, how much do you want for that piece of shit?” “This piece of shit here, Tom? It’s two and a quarter.” “No, Rosie, that piece of shit over there.” “Oh, that piece of shit. That piece of shit’s four and a half.” “Four-fifty for that piece of shit? I wouldn’t give you more than three hundred for it.” “Sold.”

This is not Horton Plaza. We don’t show a tag to the salesperson at Nordstrom and ask, “Will you take $10 for this?”

If we think we can get a better price, we comparison shop in another store. In fact, for most Americans the ageless tradition of negotiating prices is as alien as a North African souk. At flea markets there is simply no fixed price. So either we trust ourselves or trust the seller. If we don’t know the value of what we’re buying or if we’re not willing to say, “Hey, I got something I like and that’s what counts,” we may be angry if we feel we’ve paid too much. No group seems to be immune from being stereotyped as the perpetrators of a dishonest deal or from stereotyping others (except, of course, the one each of us identifies with). Listen to the rap singer Sir Mix-A-Lot (on shopping for Louis Vuitton gear) in his song “Swap Meet Louie”:

  • Her name is Mary Pong and she got it goin’ on
  • swap meet weave with the swap meet thongs
  • leather mini-skirt with a Oriental drawl
  • little Mary Pong is raw
  • she said I wanna make your girlfriend look good
  • start buyin’ all the Louie in the hood...
  • but you’re drunk and you just got paid
  • so you bought the gear and lil Mary Pong said “see ya”
  • little did you know it was made in Korea.

(Used with permission, American Recording Company)

Was the seller at Kobey’s trying to take me when he swore that the $250 Louis Vuitton garment bag he was fondling was not only “genuine” but “costs $1400 at Horton Plaza”? Does it? Does Louis Vuitton even make a garment bag? As Sir Mix-A-Lot would put it, I don’t know “jack about Louie.” And if you don’t either, you shouldn’t be buying LV at a flea market.

Though what about $24 for a cast-iron skillet? If you’re a collector and it matters to you that it was made before 1955 (which, if you’ve done your homework or if Jim Ciriello did it for you, you could tell from the mark), you probably did okay. But remember that there’s almost never an established price for used things. If, let’s say, Jim bought the skillet for $6 and sold it to you for $24 (after a weeklong restoration), he made an honest 400 percent profit. If another seller bought the same skillet for $1 and was selling it for $12 (unrestored), you’d probably have felt that he was more “honest” because he was charging less, when in fact he or she was making 1200 percent profit. It’s the peculiar unpredictability of flea market pricing that is based on what the seller feels like charging. So prices may be higher or lower or exactly what they are somewhere else, even at the same market.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the flea market is anarchic, even though one Sunday in the new section of Kobey’s I passed signs offering “Flea Control,” “50% Off All Books,” “Beef Jerky,” “Auto Sales and Leases,” “Gourmet Coffee,” “Live Rent-Free, Buy a Home,” “Andrews Optical,” “Office Supplies,” “Iguanas, now $19.95, were $29.95.” Sales of some products are usually prohibited — guns, ammo, fireworks, and drug paraphernalia among them. At Spring Valley, prohibitions also include animals and at Kobey's, tobacco products. But when a flea market restricts itself to sellers of used goods or concentrates them in a defined area, it is reflecting a centuries-old phenomenon — artisans or vendors of the same wares clustering together in markets and districts of cities. In the ancient medinas of North Africa, you can still see all the dye makers in the street of the dye makers, and the tapioca sellers in their street, and the rug dealers in theirs, and so on. In Paris, Le Sentier is the fabric district, and New York has its diamond district, and so on. This traditional clustering sometimes survives even when a culture is transplanted geographically, a dozen or so Indian restaurants line both sides of a one-block stretch of East Sixth Street in New York City, and there are Ethiopian restaurants grouped in one block of Los Angeles’s South Fairfax Avenue.

But shopping malls are far more controlled than flea markets. Malls are rigorously regulated environments whose management defines the “tone” of the mall as well as the desired age and income level of the customers. It carefully controls what is sold and who sells it. As Margaret Crawford, the architecture historian, has observed, “(The mix (of stores) is established and maintained by restrictive leases with clauses that control everything from decor to prices” so that “apparent diversity masks fundamental homogeneity.” A mall may have only two shoe stores, one up-market, one bargain, and only one bookstore and one CD store, and so on.

One of the great lures of the flea market, especially the used-goods market, is that the variety of merchandise is so unpredictable you never know what you’re going to come home with. There is no open stock. There is no “Do you have this pre-worn cowboy boot in size 8 1/2?" or “Does this dilapidated dresser come in limed oak?” Everything is a discovery, and, if you’re attracted to something at a price that allows you to buy it, it’s a treasure. It’s not unusual for a flea market shopper to point to a glove stretcher or a pair of spats and say to a companion, “Wow, I haven’t seen one of them since I was in my grandmother’s house.” There is also the intrigue of coming across something you didn’t know existed and whose function you don’t know. Is the pierced English porcelain platter really the watercress strainer the dealer claims it is? Could be. And the two mechanical devices that clamp onto countertops: it makes sense that one is a cherry pitter and the other an apple corer. “But what is that?” I’ve asked a seller only to have him confide, “I don’t have the slightest idea. Someone left it in the garage.”

Yet items once in everyday use, from telephones to teapots to automobile hood ornaments, whether selected by private collectors or museum curators, can reveal not only how people lived but also the ways in which industry and design have developed. Many of these artifacts, which make up museum shows like “The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941,” which originated at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, can be culled from markets. They include tableware by Russell Wright, dishware by Eva Zeisel, metalware by Raymond Loewe, designers who helped transform industrial design in America, and pieces by numerous unknown artists who also contributed to it.

Still, if the goods at flea market stalls often look like random collections, it’s because they often are. At the extreme, sellers put out merchandise they have never seen until someone pulls it out of a box and asks its price. But other sellers have an almost curatorial sense of what they’re selling. At a corner space at Robey’s, amid magazines, ceramics, and bronze sculptures, I have been struck by groupings of fishing reels, hand-carved walking sticks, and especially cast-iron kitchenware in the space of Peggy and James Ciriello of San Marcos. He’s a retired fire marshal from Connecticut and not at all shy about telling you that he and his wife are selling pieces of “American history,” which they are.

Their array of cast iron is a lesson in how Americans used to cook (and a few still do). Little changed from 19th-century farm and chuck wagon implements are the covered casserole with a metal handle for hanging inside a fireplace or over a camp stove, a two-burner-long griddle and a cartwheel pan that turns out pie-shaped wedges of corn bread. (Following Jim’s instructions, I filled the pan’s cavities with jalapeno-laced dough, covered it with waxed paper, put it on the stove top, and produced eight lovely browned sections of spicy corn bread.) And Jim taught me how to recognize old and new Griswold, “the king of cast iron,” and how to tell (by the size of the mark) whether a piece was made before or after Griswold was bought out by a rival company.

That same Sunday morning I was drawn to an especially uncluttered space. The merchandise was varied — an oak end table, a ’60s black-and-white coffee table, a jeweler’s ring sizer (a large metal loop with 29 different-sized loops hanging from it), and an audio cassette of Ross Perot’s election campaign song, “Amazing Race.” But a pair of brushed aluminum sconces, a Chase chrome cocktail shaker, and the Dazor office lamp I bought told me that the seller, Donald Gonzales, an insurance broker, had an eye for modern American design. A brief conversation revealed that, like Jim Ciriello, Donald repairs or restores what he sells, and he knows what part it plays in America’s history.

Where the merchandise sold at flea markets comes from is not an easy question to answer. Most wares seem to come from legitimate sources, though from time to time sheriff s deputies can be seen checking out the goods. In Chicago I was told about the guy who went to Maxwell Street (which has a questionable reputation) looking for two hubcaps for his 1953 Chevrolet. “No problem, mister. Come back in half an hour,” the auto parts seller reportedly told him. “We’ll get them from the warehouse.” Half an hour later, voil£, two hubcaps for a 1953 Chevrolet. Of course, when our guy went back to his Chevy, he needed two more hubcaps.

Even museums and galleries have problems with provenance, for despite the fact that the origin and history of ownership of many of their holdings can be documented, some turn out to have been stolen or, in the case of antiquities, plundered. So what can we know about a chair or a painting or a fork that’s just come off the back of a pickup truck? At my only garage sale, an antique dealer bought an art deco console bowl that I had bought at a flea market in London. The next day, at a flea market near my home, the very same bowl, with its distinguishing base chip, was on sale with a large sign in front of it reading, “Deco bowl brought from England by my aunt.” But it’s actually not uncommon for flea market goods to come from flea markets. I’ve seen pieces carried from one space to another in the same market by savvy sellers, and Scott Christie, pointing to his display at Kobey’s, told me, “ I bought that Roseville vase and that Van Briggle piece at Spring Valley yesterday morning.”

Occasionally, though, someone unloads the contents of an apartment or a house. Salt shakers still spilling salt, egg cups with egg drips on them, six-month-old canceled checks. We don’t live in a country like Argentina, in which it’s been common for people to “disappear.” But how then could this happen? A death, natural, we like to presume. But no relatives? Or relatives who’ve taken the good stuff and had someone else take all the rest away? Menus from 1940s cruises to Hawaii. Three generations of family photos. Wide men’s ties. A worn-out pair of shoes. Sweaters unraveling at the neck. The shards of a life.

We may even be confronted with the contents of a home that never existed. Once I found myself standing in front of a lot of ugly stuff — well, just stuff, ugly is not only relative, it’s also mutable, ugly this week, hot next week — trying to figure out who could have, would have, made a set of teacups shaped like logs, when the seller, who had put out his garage-sale buys and thrift-store treasures, said to me playfully, “Why don’t you take it all. I’ll give you a good price.” And he wasn’t referring just to the dishware. Then I really looked at what was in front of me: an imitation-leopard-skin chair, wagon wheel headboards for twin beds, a particle-board dresser with Louis XIV detailing, five highball glasses with gold coins stamped on them, a 1920s torchere, a multicolored shag rug. I was still holding a log-shaped cup when the seller broke into my inventory reverie. “I sold the teapot an hour ago, but everything else is still here.” So it was, enough to furnish a home.

“Out of body. Back in a few minutes.” A joke on a flea market shopper’s T-shirt, yes, but recently, after spying a stack of Sunset magazines from the 1930s on a blanket, I sat on my heels and started leafing through them. Under covers showing sleek phaetons on a coastal road and bougainvillea-draped patios, I was getting a look at what were then (and to a large degree are now) the ideals of Southern California living, from Spanish Colonial Revival to Schindler modern. But until someone tripped on me, I had no idea where I was nor how long I’d been reading magazines. This out-of-body experience is well-known to browsers in bookstores and record stores, but at the flea market it can happen with old postcards, travel brochures, menus, family photos, any collection of things that transport us, however briefly, into another place and another time.

Sometimes we may be happier not knowing what karma objects carry with them. At a Trodelmarkt in Berlin, a 1930s family portrait album embossed with the name Lipsky and the city Minsk caught my eye. As its empty die-cut photo spaces stared at me like the eyes of the dead, I shuddered, reminded of what happened to my annihilated Polish-Jewish family.

But then, more recently, on a sunny flea market morning closer to home, I picked up what looked like a brightly colored, carved baseball bat and asked, “What is this?” “It’s a pinata breaker,” the seller said, amazed at my ignorance, “and it’s only $2.” I thanked her and put it back on its blanket. Then she told her 9-year-old son to give it to me. He balked. “Give it to him,” she repeated firmly. Then I heard her say to him, “I told you we’d get rid of it.”

Until recently, buyers at these temporary markets represented social extremes — the poor on the one hand and antique dealers and decorators to the affluent on the other. But with our taste for jumbling the new and the old, with those in their 20s and 30s living with the ’50s and the ’60s, and with more and more disposable income going into collectibles, people who've furnished their luxurious (and not-so-luxurious) homes with flea market buys are featured in newspapers and magazines, and sellers at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena rattle off the names of movie and television stars who buy from them. But urban and suburban flea markets in America are far more than a necessity for those just scraping by or a would-be gold mine for the bargain hunter or a playground for the chic shopper.

George Carlin does a smart comedy routine he calls “Stuff,” as in, “Your house is nothin’ but a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff!” So I called him to ask what he thinks the market means for us, and he gave this sober reply. “In our fragmented world, the flea market can give people a sense of belonging, it can make you feel that you’re part of a community.” For inveterate flea marketeers like me, going to the flea market is like going to Main Street in the mythic, friendly small town I didn’t grow up in but, through TV series and movies, came to believe most everyone else lived in. At the market I know I’m going to see dealers who I call by their first names and who call me by mine. And I will run into more friends and colleagues there than I do when I shop near where I live.

Carlin is probably also right when he says that “people are bored or lonely or unhappy — frustrated — so they look outside themselves to exercise power through shopping.” At the flea market, he says, it’s “I decide whether I’ll buy this or not and at what price.” And it’s easy to come away from a market happy, even if you aren’t looking for anything in particular. I’ve heard a buyer, contemplating the contents of a stall, turn to her companion and say, “We’ve got lots of everything, but I guess we need more.” And a public relations executive revealed a lot about what people buy when she told me, “I never collected anything, but when I go to flea markets with friends, I’m drawn to things I had when I was a child.” Tapping into our nostalgia for old objects puts us in touch with our own past, with our childhood, our innocence.

Deborah Brown, who shares a home with Gerry Burris, the construction company manager, says admiringly, “Where I see a pile of junk, he sees individual things and knows what they’re worth.” Not only does he score tools of his trade, like the portable band saw, but he has largely furnished their home with flea market finds, especially wrought-iron furniture and ornaments that go well in the hacienda-style structure.

My flea market day has been made by something as simple as a 1937 Sunset magazine or a set of eight picture postcards from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. But even for those looking for a treasure, the flea market can be more satisfying than, say, the lottery. The odds of actually getting rich by finding a treasure at the market — a painting worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, say, are minuscule (to say nothing of the odds against me — or you — recognizing its value). But the odds of coming away from the market with something you like — even if it’s something you don’t need — are very good.

And at the flea market, you are an archaeologist digging through a jumbled history of the popular (and not so popular) culture of the U.S., with shards of Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa thrown in. And you don’t have to dig in the dirt to find it, though it would be smart to bring a hat for protection against the sun. Or you could buy one at the market: a World War II kepi or a ’50s picture hat or a vintage Stetson or — most appropriate of all — a real pith helmet. And what would you find when you uncovered the Pharaoh’s tomb? A Griswold corn bread skillet, a pinata breaker or, if /ou were especially lucky, a teenage girl’s menu (“Bread and Honey, Nuts, Tomato Salad, Cake, Cocoa”) for a 1922 Halloween party.

From Marguerite Elliot's Memory Book

On April 14, 1922, when the Elliots “stopped on the way to L.A.," Marguerite picked wildflowers (stem and leaves taped in book) and spent the night at the Clark Hotel, Los Angeles (cake of soap with imprinted wrapper), “where we ate supper at Pasadena" (business card of McCoy s Cafeteria), traveled on the Red Car line (Pacific Electric Railway Co. fare receipts), “ate lunch at Bullock’s" (color postcard of “The Foyer, Tea Room’ and envelope and stationery imprinted ‘Bullock’s, [a shield], Los Angeles, Rest Room"), spent an evening at the movies (printed program from the Kinema Theater, Los Angeles: Topics of the Day, Screen Snap-Shots, Charles Chaplin in Pay Day, Kinema Pictorial Review, Eddie Horton at the Morton [organ), and finally the feature film My Lady Friends), then, in October, after Marguerite went to Nancy Brimmer’s Halloween party (invitation in the envelope addressed to Marguerite bearing a two-cent U S. postage stamp canceled October 23, 1922), the Elliots gave their own Halloween party (on the sample invitation envelope is Marguerite's homemade pumpkin postage stamp with hand-inked cancellation, “Pumpkin Town, Oct. 28, ’22" — and I thought I was the first kid in the world to design stamps and cancellations); on Easter weekend, 1923, they drove to El Centro and Redlands (envelope containing a letterhead from Hotel Casa Loma, Redlands, “60 miles from Los Angeles on three paved roads’). The window into Marguerite Elliot's world closes with the program for the La Jolla Opera Company’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan's lolanthe and two slightly stained white paper doilies from the “Classical Club picnic, Coronado, June 2, ’23."

Some San Diego Area Flea Markets '

Kobey’s Swap Meet

  • San Diego Sports Arena parking lot
  • (used-goods entrance on Kurtz Street)
  • 226-0650
  • Hours: Thursday through Sunday. 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
  • Entrance fee: $1 00
  • Seller spaces: $6.00 to $25.00

Spring Valley Swap Meet

  • 6377 Quarry Road. Spnng Valley 463-1194
  • Hours: Saturday and Sunday. 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
  • Entrance fee: 50 cents, children under 12 (with adult) free
  • Seller spaces: used goods $7.00, new goods $14.50

El Cajon (also called Bostonia) Swap Meet

  • Aero Drive-In
  • 1470 Broadway, El Cajon
  • 444-8800
  • Hours: Saturday and Sunday. 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Entrance fee: Saturday 50 cents. Sunday 75 cents
  • Seller spaces: Saturday $8.00, Sunday $10.00

Santee Swap Meet

  • Santee Drive-In
  • 10990 Woodside Avenue North, Santee 440-6161 (recording), 745-3100
  • Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 6:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.; call for additional hours
  • Entrance fee. Saturday 50 cents, Sunday 75 cents
  • Seller spaces: Saturday $7.00, Sunday $9.00

Overheard At Local Flea Markets

“Looking for something special?"

“No, nothing in particular."

“Well, we’ve got plenty of that."

French tourist to his companion:

C’est chouette. mais je n'ai pas le fric." (“It’s cute, but I don’t have the money.")

German buyer aloud to herself: “Aber das ist wansinn teuer. (“But that’s crazy expensive ”)

Guy in cowboy hat to his girlfriend after he’s spied a blanket covered with machine parts: “Junk!"

“Any old watches today?"

‘Any fraternity pins?"

“Any submarine memorabilia?" “Any Siamese cufflinks?"

“Any meat grinders?"

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With poles of open-sided tents supporting flat or peaked roofs, the market begins to take on the outlines that have defined cities. - Image by Paul Stachelek
With poles of open-sided tents supporting flat or peaked roofs, the market begins to take on the outlines that have defined cities.

I'm not a regular at Kobey's Swap Meet. I've only been four times, but I already have "friends" there. Peggy and Jim Ciriello ask whether I’ve used the cast-iron corn bread skillet I bought from them two weeks ago. ("Twice, thank you.'') Scott Christie, who sells mainly clocks and American art pottery, asks me whether I know which company made the dishware that’s marked with an outline of California. (I don't, but I tell him I'll try to find out.) Donald Gonzales, an insurance broker and occasional seller from whom I bought a '50s lamp, asks me whether I've found anything good this morning. ("Not yet.")

Gerry Burris, a construction project manager, scores tools at Kobey's.

And Gerry Burris, a construction project manager whom I’d met just once before, shows me today’s find (“It’s the portable band saw I’ve been looking for for three years”).

I’ve used the cast-iron corn bread skillets twice now.

Swap meets, also called flea markets, are temporary villages like the one in the Broadway musical Brigadoon, usually taking shape, flourishing and closing up in less than a day. Some, in fact, bloom just once each year like the cactus flower, others once a week or once a month, though Kobey’s occupies San Diego’s Sports Arena parking lot four days a week.

This is not Horton Plaza.

But no matter where or when they happen, to experience the magic of the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Brigadoon, you have to get to the site, usually a parking lot or a field, very early.

At 6:59 a.m. the used-stuff section of the Spring Valley Swap Meet is just an asphalt parking lot. But outside the fence waits a ragtag convoy — cars, vans, pickups, and one metallic-blue BMW, some of them there since 4:00 a.m. to make sure that they get a vendor space. At 7:00 a.m., when the gate opens, the land rush begins.

If you don’t know Louis Vuitton, you shouldn’t be buying LV at a flea market.

With the majority of selling spaces unreserved, sellers hurry to stake out their places, often next to someone they already know, someone who’ll look after their goods when they go off to get something to eat or to pee, someone with whom they can talk of purchases and sales and thefts and politics as they re-create, for a few hours, the neighborliness of a town. The market, however, would seem to provide sellers as well as buyers little more than a Brigadoon social life, one that’s as ephemeral as the market itself, since, for the most part, they see each other only there.

It’s 6:30 a.m. on the third Sunday of the month, and beyond a chainlink fence the asphalt parking lots at the Veterans Memorial Stadium in north Long Beach recede into the winter blackness. At this hour, only a few dozen of the four-or five hundred stalls that will eventually cover the area have been set up. Nonetheless, when the gate opens, the early crowd — dealers scouting wares for their shops and collectors hoping to find “finds” before the dealers do — rushes in.

Shoppers scurry around with flashlights as if seeking sustenance, drawn from one stall to another as if to outposts on the prairie. But as time passes and more stalls spring up, the collector who’s been foraging, eyes focused on tables and blankets, searching out Fuller Brush Company letter openers or Bakelite bangles, is apt to be confused at finding rows of tables strewn with stuff where previously there was nothing. He or she may, in fact, become disoriented or think “I’ve been robbed" on discovering that the stall where early-morning purchases were left has “disappeared.” But just as once-familiar childhood landmarks — a farmer’s fruit stand or a whole town — have disappeared, they have simply been overtaken by urban sprawl.

As stall after stall is constructed of goods around a vehicle or by borders of tables or with poles of open-sided tents supporting flat or peaked roofs, the market begins to take on the outlines that have defined cities wherever mankind has thrived since ancient times. It is the same well-known footprint of the town center, a grid of avenues and cross streets divided into store-sized plots, and it seems to rise out of the ground the way excavations reveal the outlines of ancient cities.

And just as archaeological finds made at those cities have helped us understand past civilizations, the finds we dig up at flea markets can help us understand our own. A few weeks ago, at a market in Pasadena, I found a bulging school composition book, its pages swollen with taped-on objects. What I had in my hands was a window into Southern California life more than 70 years ago. On the cover was written in pencil “M.E. — Memory Book, March 17-1922." On the back was printed a map of California showing the state’s population “2,377,549, Census 1910.” This scrapbook, begun on March 17, 1922, recorded events in the life of a young personal historian. From a taped-in envelope containing an invitation to a Halloween party I learned her name — Marguerite Elliott — and her address — 7769 Exchange Place, La Jolla. From her San Diego High School report cards (she took English, French, art, and physical education) and travel and concert memorabilia, I deduced that she was about 15 years old and from a prosperous and culturally active family. Records of her travels, including brochures for Elsinore Hot Springs and for Casa Loma Hotel in Redlands showing pre-freeway auto routes and bus lines, help give us a feeling of what life was like in Southern California at the time. It’s as close to living history as we can get.

The flea market has its own history, which happens to be as disputable as the source of its name. As a piece of ground assigned to peddlers, the “flea market” is said to date from 1312 when King Henry II, fearing that London’s itinerant sellers (and their fleas) were spreading disease, ordered them confined to the Haymarket, now an important business street. Or the market might have been named for the peddlers themselves who, having no fixed place of business, bounced around like fleas, or for their wares, which were insignificant, a common meaning of “flea” in the 14th Century. Whatever its origin, the name not only held on in English, but traveled well: it shows up in French as le march aux puces and in German as der Flohmarkt (though the earlier Trodelmarkt is more commonly used).

Markets that continue to occupy the same ground for a long time tend to act like homesteaders, setting down permanent roots. In Spring Valley, the new-goods section of the market has metal-framed booths. In Chicago, Maxwell Street, where generations of immigrant merchants got their start, is so entrenched in the urban fabric that the city is having trouble redeveloping the market grounds for other uses. In Paris, the centuries-old Porte de Clignancourt flea market with its narrow “streets” has come to resemble a medieval town. But no matter how much it may look like a town or even like a shopping mall that looks like a town, a flea market is still a flea market.

“Hi, Katie, how much do you want for that piece of shit?” “This piece of shit here, Tom? It’s two and a quarter.” “No, Rosie, that piece of shit over there.” “Oh, that piece of shit. That piece of shit’s four and a half.” “Four-fifty for that piece of shit? I wouldn’t give you more than three hundred for it.” “Sold.”

This is not Horton Plaza. We don’t show a tag to the salesperson at Nordstrom and ask, “Will you take $10 for this?”

If we think we can get a better price, we comparison shop in another store. In fact, for most Americans the ageless tradition of negotiating prices is as alien as a North African souk. At flea markets there is simply no fixed price. So either we trust ourselves or trust the seller. If we don’t know the value of what we’re buying or if we’re not willing to say, “Hey, I got something I like and that’s what counts,” we may be angry if we feel we’ve paid too much. No group seems to be immune from being stereotyped as the perpetrators of a dishonest deal or from stereotyping others (except, of course, the one each of us identifies with). Listen to the rap singer Sir Mix-A-Lot (on shopping for Louis Vuitton gear) in his song “Swap Meet Louie”:

  • Her name is Mary Pong and she got it goin’ on
  • swap meet weave with the swap meet thongs
  • leather mini-skirt with a Oriental drawl
  • little Mary Pong is raw
  • she said I wanna make your girlfriend look good
  • start buyin’ all the Louie in the hood...
  • but you’re drunk and you just got paid
  • so you bought the gear and lil Mary Pong said “see ya”
  • little did you know it was made in Korea.

(Used with permission, American Recording Company)

Was the seller at Kobey’s trying to take me when he swore that the $250 Louis Vuitton garment bag he was fondling was not only “genuine” but “costs $1400 at Horton Plaza”? Does it? Does Louis Vuitton even make a garment bag? As Sir Mix-A-Lot would put it, I don’t know “jack about Louie.” And if you don’t either, you shouldn’t be buying LV at a flea market.

Though what about $24 for a cast-iron skillet? If you’re a collector and it matters to you that it was made before 1955 (which, if you’ve done your homework or if Jim Ciriello did it for you, you could tell from the mark), you probably did okay. But remember that there’s almost never an established price for used things. If, let’s say, Jim bought the skillet for $6 and sold it to you for $24 (after a weeklong restoration), he made an honest 400 percent profit. If another seller bought the same skillet for $1 and was selling it for $12 (unrestored), you’d probably have felt that he was more “honest” because he was charging less, when in fact he or she was making 1200 percent profit. It’s the peculiar unpredictability of flea market pricing that is based on what the seller feels like charging. So prices may be higher or lower or exactly what they are somewhere else, even at the same market.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the flea market is anarchic, even though one Sunday in the new section of Kobey’s I passed signs offering “Flea Control,” “50% Off All Books,” “Beef Jerky,” “Auto Sales and Leases,” “Gourmet Coffee,” “Live Rent-Free, Buy a Home,” “Andrews Optical,” “Office Supplies,” “Iguanas, now $19.95, were $29.95.” Sales of some products are usually prohibited — guns, ammo, fireworks, and drug paraphernalia among them. At Spring Valley, prohibitions also include animals and at Kobey's, tobacco products. But when a flea market restricts itself to sellers of used goods or concentrates them in a defined area, it is reflecting a centuries-old phenomenon — artisans or vendors of the same wares clustering together in markets and districts of cities. In the ancient medinas of North Africa, you can still see all the dye makers in the street of the dye makers, and the tapioca sellers in their street, and the rug dealers in theirs, and so on. In Paris, Le Sentier is the fabric district, and New York has its diamond district, and so on. This traditional clustering sometimes survives even when a culture is transplanted geographically, a dozen or so Indian restaurants line both sides of a one-block stretch of East Sixth Street in New York City, and there are Ethiopian restaurants grouped in one block of Los Angeles’s South Fairfax Avenue.

But shopping malls are far more controlled than flea markets. Malls are rigorously regulated environments whose management defines the “tone” of the mall as well as the desired age and income level of the customers. It carefully controls what is sold and who sells it. As Margaret Crawford, the architecture historian, has observed, “(The mix (of stores) is established and maintained by restrictive leases with clauses that control everything from decor to prices” so that “apparent diversity masks fundamental homogeneity.” A mall may have only two shoe stores, one up-market, one bargain, and only one bookstore and one CD store, and so on.

One of the great lures of the flea market, especially the used-goods market, is that the variety of merchandise is so unpredictable you never know what you’re going to come home with. There is no open stock. There is no “Do you have this pre-worn cowboy boot in size 8 1/2?" or “Does this dilapidated dresser come in limed oak?” Everything is a discovery, and, if you’re attracted to something at a price that allows you to buy it, it’s a treasure. It’s not unusual for a flea market shopper to point to a glove stretcher or a pair of spats and say to a companion, “Wow, I haven’t seen one of them since I was in my grandmother’s house.” There is also the intrigue of coming across something you didn’t know existed and whose function you don’t know. Is the pierced English porcelain platter really the watercress strainer the dealer claims it is? Could be. And the two mechanical devices that clamp onto countertops: it makes sense that one is a cherry pitter and the other an apple corer. “But what is that?” I’ve asked a seller only to have him confide, “I don’t have the slightest idea. Someone left it in the garage.”

Yet items once in everyday use, from telephones to teapots to automobile hood ornaments, whether selected by private collectors or museum curators, can reveal not only how people lived but also the ways in which industry and design have developed. Many of these artifacts, which make up museum shows like “The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941,” which originated at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, can be culled from markets. They include tableware by Russell Wright, dishware by Eva Zeisel, metalware by Raymond Loewe, designers who helped transform industrial design in America, and pieces by numerous unknown artists who also contributed to it.

Still, if the goods at flea market stalls often look like random collections, it’s because they often are. At the extreme, sellers put out merchandise they have never seen until someone pulls it out of a box and asks its price. But other sellers have an almost curatorial sense of what they’re selling. At a corner space at Robey’s, amid magazines, ceramics, and bronze sculptures, I have been struck by groupings of fishing reels, hand-carved walking sticks, and especially cast-iron kitchenware in the space of Peggy and James Ciriello of San Marcos. He’s a retired fire marshal from Connecticut and not at all shy about telling you that he and his wife are selling pieces of “American history,” which they are.

Their array of cast iron is a lesson in how Americans used to cook (and a few still do). Little changed from 19th-century farm and chuck wagon implements are the covered casserole with a metal handle for hanging inside a fireplace or over a camp stove, a two-burner-long griddle and a cartwheel pan that turns out pie-shaped wedges of corn bread. (Following Jim’s instructions, I filled the pan’s cavities with jalapeno-laced dough, covered it with waxed paper, put it on the stove top, and produced eight lovely browned sections of spicy corn bread.) And Jim taught me how to recognize old and new Griswold, “the king of cast iron,” and how to tell (by the size of the mark) whether a piece was made before or after Griswold was bought out by a rival company.

That same Sunday morning I was drawn to an especially uncluttered space. The merchandise was varied — an oak end table, a ’60s black-and-white coffee table, a jeweler’s ring sizer (a large metal loop with 29 different-sized loops hanging from it), and an audio cassette of Ross Perot’s election campaign song, “Amazing Race.” But a pair of brushed aluminum sconces, a Chase chrome cocktail shaker, and the Dazor office lamp I bought told me that the seller, Donald Gonzales, an insurance broker, had an eye for modern American design. A brief conversation revealed that, like Jim Ciriello, Donald repairs or restores what he sells, and he knows what part it plays in America’s history.

Where the merchandise sold at flea markets comes from is not an easy question to answer. Most wares seem to come from legitimate sources, though from time to time sheriff s deputies can be seen checking out the goods. In Chicago I was told about the guy who went to Maxwell Street (which has a questionable reputation) looking for two hubcaps for his 1953 Chevrolet. “No problem, mister. Come back in half an hour,” the auto parts seller reportedly told him. “We’ll get them from the warehouse.” Half an hour later, voil£, two hubcaps for a 1953 Chevrolet. Of course, when our guy went back to his Chevy, he needed two more hubcaps.

Even museums and galleries have problems with provenance, for despite the fact that the origin and history of ownership of many of their holdings can be documented, some turn out to have been stolen or, in the case of antiquities, plundered. So what can we know about a chair or a painting or a fork that’s just come off the back of a pickup truck? At my only garage sale, an antique dealer bought an art deco console bowl that I had bought at a flea market in London. The next day, at a flea market near my home, the very same bowl, with its distinguishing base chip, was on sale with a large sign in front of it reading, “Deco bowl brought from England by my aunt.” But it’s actually not uncommon for flea market goods to come from flea markets. I’ve seen pieces carried from one space to another in the same market by savvy sellers, and Scott Christie, pointing to his display at Kobey’s, told me, “ I bought that Roseville vase and that Van Briggle piece at Spring Valley yesterday morning.”

Occasionally, though, someone unloads the contents of an apartment or a house. Salt shakers still spilling salt, egg cups with egg drips on them, six-month-old canceled checks. We don’t live in a country like Argentina, in which it’s been common for people to “disappear.” But how then could this happen? A death, natural, we like to presume. But no relatives? Or relatives who’ve taken the good stuff and had someone else take all the rest away? Menus from 1940s cruises to Hawaii. Three generations of family photos. Wide men’s ties. A worn-out pair of shoes. Sweaters unraveling at the neck. The shards of a life.

We may even be confronted with the contents of a home that never existed. Once I found myself standing in front of a lot of ugly stuff — well, just stuff, ugly is not only relative, it’s also mutable, ugly this week, hot next week — trying to figure out who could have, would have, made a set of teacups shaped like logs, when the seller, who had put out his garage-sale buys and thrift-store treasures, said to me playfully, “Why don’t you take it all. I’ll give you a good price.” And he wasn’t referring just to the dishware. Then I really looked at what was in front of me: an imitation-leopard-skin chair, wagon wheel headboards for twin beds, a particle-board dresser with Louis XIV detailing, five highball glasses with gold coins stamped on them, a 1920s torchere, a multicolored shag rug. I was still holding a log-shaped cup when the seller broke into my inventory reverie. “I sold the teapot an hour ago, but everything else is still here.” So it was, enough to furnish a home.

“Out of body. Back in a few minutes.” A joke on a flea market shopper’s T-shirt, yes, but recently, after spying a stack of Sunset magazines from the 1930s on a blanket, I sat on my heels and started leafing through them. Under covers showing sleek phaetons on a coastal road and bougainvillea-draped patios, I was getting a look at what were then (and to a large degree are now) the ideals of Southern California living, from Spanish Colonial Revival to Schindler modern. But until someone tripped on me, I had no idea where I was nor how long I’d been reading magazines. This out-of-body experience is well-known to browsers in bookstores and record stores, but at the flea market it can happen with old postcards, travel brochures, menus, family photos, any collection of things that transport us, however briefly, into another place and another time.

Sometimes we may be happier not knowing what karma objects carry with them. At a Trodelmarkt in Berlin, a 1930s family portrait album embossed with the name Lipsky and the city Minsk caught my eye. As its empty die-cut photo spaces stared at me like the eyes of the dead, I shuddered, reminded of what happened to my annihilated Polish-Jewish family.

But then, more recently, on a sunny flea market morning closer to home, I picked up what looked like a brightly colored, carved baseball bat and asked, “What is this?” “It’s a pinata breaker,” the seller said, amazed at my ignorance, “and it’s only $2.” I thanked her and put it back on its blanket. Then she told her 9-year-old son to give it to me. He balked. “Give it to him,” she repeated firmly. Then I heard her say to him, “I told you we’d get rid of it.”

Until recently, buyers at these temporary markets represented social extremes — the poor on the one hand and antique dealers and decorators to the affluent on the other. But with our taste for jumbling the new and the old, with those in their 20s and 30s living with the ’50s and the ’60s, and with more and more disposable income going into collectibles, people who've furnished their luxurious (and not-so-luxurious) homes with flea market buys are featured in newspapers and magazines, and sellers at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena rattle off the names of movie and television stars who buy from them. But urban and suburban flea markets in America are far more than a necessity for those just scraping by or a would-be gold mine for the bargain hunter or a playground for the chic shopper.

George Carlin does a smart comedy routine he calls “Stuff,” as in, “Your house is nothin’ but a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff!” So I called him to ask what he thinks the market means for us, and he gave this sober reply. “In our fragmented world, the flea market can give people a sense of belonging, it can make you feel that you’re part of a community.” For inveterate flea marketeers like me, going to the flea market is like going to Main Street in the mythic, friendly small town I didn’t grow up in but, through TV series and movies, came to believe most everyone else lived in. At the market I know I’m going to see dealers who I call by their first names and who call me by mine. And I will run into more friends and colleagues there than I do when I shop near where I live.

Carlin is probably also right when he says that “people are bored or lonely or unhappy — frustrated — so they look outside themselves to exercise power through shopping.” At the flea market, he says, it’s “I decide whether I’ll buy this or not and at what price.” And it’s easy to come away from a market happy, even if you aren’t looking for anything in particular. I’ve heard a buyer, contemplating the contents of a stall, turn to her companion and say, “We’ve got lots of everything, but I guess we need more.” And a public relations executive revealed a lot about what people buy when she told me, “I never collected anything, but when I go to flea markets with friends, I’m drawn to things I had when I was a child.” Tapping into our nostalgia for old objects puts us in touch with our own past, with our childhood, our innocence.

Deborah Brown, who shares a home with Gerry Burris, the construction company manager, says admiringly, “Where I see a pile of junk, he sees individual things and knows what they’re worth.” Not only does he score tools of his trade, like the portable band saw, but he has largely furnished their home with flea market finds, especially wrought-iron furniture and ornaments that go well in the hacienda-style structure.

My flea market day has been made by something as simple as a 1937 Sunset magazine or a set of eight picture postcards from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. But even for those looking for a treasure, the flea market can be more satisfying than, say, the lottery. The odds of actually getting rich by finding a treasure at the market — a painting worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, say, are minuscule (to say nothing of the odds against me — or you — recognizing its value). But the odds of coming away from the market with something you like — even if it’s something you don’t need — are very good.

And at the flea market, you are an archaeologist digging through a jumbled history of the popular (and not so popular) culture of the U.S., with shards of Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa thrown in. And you don’t have to dig in the dirt to find it, though it would be smart to bring a hat for protection against the sun. Or you could buy one at the market: a World War II kepi or a ’50s picture hat or a vintage Stetson or — most appropriate of all — a real pith helmet. And what would you find when you uncovered the Pharaoh’s tomb? A Griswold corn bread skillet, a pinata breaker or, if /ou were especially lucky, a teenage girl’s menu (“Bread and Honey, Nuts, Tomato Salad, Cake, Cocoa”) for a 1922 Halloween party.

From Marguerite Elliot's Memory Book

On April 14, 1922, when the Elliots “stopped on the way to L.A.," Marguerite picked wildflowers (stem and leaves taped in book) and spent the night at the Clark Hotel, Los Angeles (cake of soap with imprinted wrapper), “where we ate supper at Pasadena" (business card of McCoy s Cafeteria), traveled on the Red Car line (Pacific Electric Railway Co. fare receipts), “ate lunch at Bullock’s" (color postcard of “The Foyer, Tea Room’ and envelope and stationery imprinted ‘Bullock’s, [a shield], Los Angeles, Rest Room"), spent an evening at the movies (printed program from the Kinema Theater, Los Angeles: Topics of the Day, Screen Snap-Shots, Charles Chaplin in Pay Day, Kinema Pictorial Review, Eddie Horton at the Morton [organ), and finally the feature film My Lady Friends), then, in October, after Marguerite went to Nancy Brimmer’s Halloween party (invitation in the envelope addressed to Marguerite bearing a two-cent U S. postage stamp canceled October 23, 1922), the Elliots gave their own Halloween party (on the sample invitation envelope is Marguerite's homemade pumpkin postage stamp with hand-inked cancellation, “Pumpkin Town, Oct. 28, ’22" — and I thought I was the first kid in the world to design stamps and cancellations); on Easter weekend, 1923, they drove to El Centro and Redlands (envelope containing a letterhead from Hotel Casa Loma, Redlands, “60 miles from Los Angeles on three paved roads’). The window into Marguerite Elliot's world closes with the program for the La Jolla Opera Company’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan's lolanthe and two slightly stained white paper doilies from the “Classical Club picnic, Coronado, June 2, ’23."

Some San Diego Area Flea Markets '

Kobey’s Swap Meet

  • San Diego Sports Arena parking lot
  • (used-goods entrance on Kurtz Street)
  • 226-0650
  • Hours: Thursday through Sunday. 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
  • Entrance fee: $1 00
  • Seller spaces: $6.00 to $25.00

Spring Valley Swap Meet

  • 6377 Quarry Road. Spnng Valley 463-1194
  • Hours: Saturday and Sunday. 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
  • Entrance fee: 50 cents, children under 12 (with adult) free
  • Seller spaces: used goods $7.00, new goods $14.50

El Cajon (also called Bostonia) Swap Meet

  • Aero Drive-In
  • 1470 Broadway, El Cajon
  • 444-8800
  • Hours: Saturday and Sunday. 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Entrance fee: Saturday 50 cents. Sunday 75 cents
  • Seller spaces: Saturday $8.00, Sunday $10.00

Santee Swap Meet

  • Santee Drive-In
  • 10990 Woodside Avenue North, Santee 440-6161 (recording), 745-3100
  • Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 6:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.; call for additional hours
  • Entrance fee. Saturday 50 cents, Sunday 75 cents
  • Seller spaces: Saturday $7.00, Sunday $9.00

Overheard At Local Flea Markets

“Looking for something special?"

“No, nothing in particular."

“Well, we’ve got plenty of that."

French tourist to his companion:

C’est chouette. mais je n'ai pas le fric." (“It’s cute, but I don’t have the money.")

German buyer aloud to herself: “Aber das ist wansinn teuer. (“But that’s crazy expensive ”)

Guy in cowboy hat to his girlfriend after he’s spied a blanket covered with machine parts: “Junk!"

“Any old watches today?"

‘Any fraternity pins?"

“Any submarine memorabilia?" “Any Siamese cufflinks?"

“Any meat grinders?"

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