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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Meet Lovers

For some people the swap meet is part of their weekly routine, but for others it’s as foreign as a trip to the moon. Some people recoil from used clothing and knickknacks, repulsed by potential germs. They’d rather roll around at the dump in ant-covered rotting banana peels than go to a thrift store or garage sale. And then there are those of us who love the treasure hunt of thrifting. Which type are you?

If you’re horrified by the idea of buying (or even touching) other people’s things, you may feel that the topic doesn’t appeal to you and that you should stop reading this post before you feel queasy. That’s okay. But I encourage you to keep reading—just another paragraph or two—just to see if there’s something intriguing about the meet that you don’t know about yet. I’m biased, of course, because I like thrifting, and I say to those who haven’t tried it: you’re missing out.

Thrift stores and garage sales and swap meets have something in common, of course, but they are also different from each other and each deserves its own blog post. So for now, I’ll focus on the swap meet, and if you’ll remind me sometime soon, I’ll share thoughts on its cousins: thrift stores and garage sales.
Today I wandered through my local swap meet--quite by accident. I had an errand to do across the street from the meet and because I finished early, I decided to head over. It had been over a year since my last swap meet visit. The last time I’d been was a day I was selling things with a friend. It was the first time either of us had sold at the swap meet and it was a mixed experience. I sold very little and was disappointed, but my friend made some money. She’d been back since to sell but I hadn’t. But today was a good opportunity to pop into the meet to see if I could find some unusual, mismatched buttons for an upcoming art project. No dice on the buttons but I found some other small items for FAPs (Future Art Projects) so it was time well spent.

For someone like me, who loves a good back story and has tons of questions about people, places and events, the swap meet is a gold mine. It’s completely different from shopping at a chain store. You’ll find me in chain stores each week, so I’m not condemning them, but today’s topic is the magic of the meet, so right now I’m focused on its charms.

The items found at a swap meet are as varied and individual as the vendors themselves. I love the unpredictability of what you’ll find at the meet, even within one stall. The selection is incongruous: shoes might be cuddled up to plastic toys, vintage bake ware, fishing gear, 1970s neck ties, potted plants and cologne. If you need VHS tapes of every Friends episode made, I suggest you race down to the Sports Arena before someone else grabs them. It’s chotchke and gewgaw heaven.

Today I bought items at two stalls and spoke to several vendors. I asked whether today was busier than usual with Christmas drawing nearer. I was curious about whether the vendors sell here weekly, this being part of their regular gig. One man said he wasn’t a regular seller, but that he needed to sell stuff before moving out of the area. Another vendor had things organized by price, and I got the impression that he does this regularly and has a detailed system. The wannabe Lois Lane in me had too many questions to ask casually while sifting through old jewelry. I didn’t think I should fire question after question at the vendors, but with each answer more questions were born. I wondered how time-consuming it was to collect the items they planned to sell. Did they go to garage sales and thrift stores six days a week in order to have enough inventory for one day of selling? Was selling their main gig, something that covered their bills? Or was selling on weekends a supplement to the jobs they held during the week? Was it a pain in the neck to haul a van full of stuff at six a.m., unload it, spend all day hoping people would buy things, deal with lowball offers, watch for thieves, and then pack it all up that afternoon, drive it home, and flop down, exhausted, hoping the wad of cash earned would cover the gas it took to drive to the meet? Or at least cover food this week? It takes so much effort to transform an empty parking lot into a temporary mall for a few hours. I wondered if the vendors hated the repetitious nature of set up and break down. Or did they feel that this beats a tedious desk job, any day? Did they like working outdoors, watching the variety of people who come to the meet? Did they befriend other regular vendors or was there fierce competition for business? Do they resent that people often haggle about price at a swap meet, or do they figure it’s all still worth it, because the vendors are their own bosses and they name the price? Which personality types are drawn to selling? How long have they been selling here?

One vendor (the guy about to move) looked weathered, his face proof that he’d worked outdoors for decades. But he smiled and seemed glad that someone was talking to him beyond grunting, “How much?” The guy with the impeccably organized stall looked bored. The sweet grandma-type who claimed she was just cleaning out her house played hardball with prices. The vendors fascinated me. How about a reality show about the colorful characters who are swap meet vendors?

If you haven’t dipped your toe into swap meet shopping, let me give you a small sample of what you might find there: mugs, electronics, 1980s telephones, Christmas decorations, detergent, socks, smart phone cases, potted trees, fresh produce, dream catchers, a nearly life sized Barbie head for hair styling (which I remember as a hot toy in the 1980s), size 15 rubber boots, vinyl records, brass belt buckles, old tee shirts, new pants, a sequined party dress, vintage sewing machines, a needlepoint pig (part of a larger collection of pigs of various materials and sizes), skate boards, shoe laces, new shoes and old jewelry. Such an eclectic mix. If anthropologists of the future study the people of 2015 they will conclude that we like stuff, we have a lot of stuff, and the moment we drop a bag of stuff we don’t need at Goodwill, we immediately go to swap meets to get even less essential new old stuff. Future anthropologists will conclude this: humans in the twenty-first century exhibited classic hunter-gatherer tendencies. They may have a point. Sociologists may want to station themselves at swap meets to analyze social behaviors and interactions. You like people-watching? Go to a swap meet.   

Is there really any harm in bringing home a couple of things? Exhibit A: my house is full of things I use and don’t use, and even as I resolve to donate a lot of it to my local thrift store, I still bring home more stuff on a daily basis. Is it the gatherer in me? Do I want to be prepared? Is it the mom in me, who wants to have on hand whatever the kids might need? Is it the artist in me, who likes assembling strange combinations of things and turning it into art? (D) All of the above?

Today’s unplanned visit to the meet planted lots of questions in my mind. Perhaps I’ll formally interview some vendors at some point, in exchange for lunch. I’m fascinated by the vendors, and I want answers!

Now I ask those of you who consider yourselves swap meet avoiders, has today’s post about the swap meet changed your mind in any way? Or has it confirmed your suspicions that going to a swap meet is even worse than going to the DMV? I still think you should try it at least once, just to see. If you do go, bring one dollar bills and take your multi vitamins first. You’ll need energy because there may be some intense haggling over price. And if it comes down to it, I might have to arm wrestle you for those Friends VHS tapes…


  1. The anthropologist in me loves the anthropologist in you. Geegaw!

  2. Yay!!! Thanks. I love your comments, Kim. You have a great way with words...