December 7, 2006
story and photos by HANK SIMS
How's your Christmas shopping going?
If you went to Flea Mart By-The-Bay on the weekend after Thanksgiving, you could have chosen from records, books, tools, jewelry, leather goods, toys, video games, T-shirts, cheap electronic geegaws, guitars, unfinished ceramics, original Native American art, fishing gear, classic Budweiser steins, decorative figurines, collectible coins or baseball cards -- all under the same roof, all at very reasonable prices, many of them lovingly collected or handmade by the friendly people who were offering them up for sale.
You could have bought the Manual of the Grasses of the United States -- a beautifully illustrated Dover publication detailing over 1,400 species, including maps of their historic ranges -- for 50 cents. Fifty cents spent at the Flea Mart would have easily bought you or a loved one at least 10 times that much pleasure, guaranteed. Amazon sells the same book for $12.97. You could have bought a used but perfectly functional power drill for $15. You could have bought Pez dispensers or collectible knives. You could have bought a copy of Nicole Holofcener's wonderful movie Lovely & Amazing on DVD for $3. (You could have, but I beat you to it.)
But the weekend after Thanksgiving was your last chance. And if you never made it to Flea Mart By-The-Bay at all, all I can say is that you missed. You missed.
Take the whole concept of the mall and turn it on its head. That's what Flea Mart By-The-Bay was. Mall merchandise is generic, boring and overpriced. Flea markets have unique, dead-cheap, intriguing selections. Malls have minimum-wage sales clerks who would rather be doing something else. Flea markets have vendors who love their little stands more than any other place in the world. Malls are vast and alienating. Flea markets are welcoming, warm and individual. They exist to celebrate human diversity in its aesthetic and mercantile forms.
But like everything else good in this world, they've been dying out. Vendors at Flea Mart By-The-Bay received their written notice back in September -- the last weekend in November would be the last weekend for the institution, which for 20 years has made its home inside an old Simpson Timber mill building at the foot of Del Norte Street in Eureka. People were sad. On the flea market's last Saturday, Sharon, a 70-year-old woman who for 10 years had a toy, movie and video game shop at the flea mart -- "everything from Atari to Xbox," she said -- had an anecdote about it. (Like many people at the flea market, Sharon didn't want to use her last name. Like all of them, she had a zillion anecdotes.)
She told it again -- for the hundredth time, no doubt -- right after she helped set up a kid with a new memory card for his Gameboy. There's one customer, she said, that has come to the flea market every day it has been open -- every Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- for as long as she can remember. He'd spend a good portion of the day there, too, going around from booth to booth and talking with all the vendors.
"One day I asked him, `What are you going to do when we close?'" Sharon recounted. "He said, `I'm just going to stand outside the gate and cry.'"
The last weekend in November was bitter cold. People walked into Flea Mart By-The-Bay bundled up, and unzipped their jackets once inside. The crowd was more diverse than you usually see around Eureka. There were lots of old folks, some in wheelchairs. There were families speaking Spanish, and families speaking Asian languages. There were kids running up and down the aisles, seeking out their parents to beg for a particular toy.
One regular -- a middle-aged guy, clearly a bit more well-to-do than the average flea mart customer -- brought his son, a grown young man, to check out the guitars in 75-year-old Andy Anderson's shop, the one in the back of the building guarded by the big buffalo head. When Anderson saw the guy coming, he lifted his little microphone to his throat to capture and broadcast the vibrations of his vocal cords. The customer beat him to it.
"Hey, Andy!" he said. "I brought my son this time!"
Anderson's response echoed out of a little speaker. "Has he got money?" he said.
"He's my son! He hasn't got any money!"
"Open up your pocket," Anderson said, waving his arms frenetically and bulging out his eyes to compensate for his inability to put any spin on his voice. "You brought him into this world. Open your pocket." The son, cooler than these old men, looked away at the floor with a half-smile.
Anderson was the philosopher of Flea Mart By-The-Bay. Though of Swedish and German stock himself, he sold mostly Native American works of art. A long time ago, he said, he started going to powwows, and he just kind of fit in. He's a wiry old gentleman, and he was wearing a black hat with an eagle and a cross pinned to the front. He looked like he had just stepped out of the Civil War.
The customer who had just entered, he said, wasn't the usual flea market customer. "You get a lot of retired people coming in here," he said. "It's something to do on a Saturday or Sunday. They can't afford to do anything else on a fixed income. It gives 'em something to look forward to."
Now, Anderson said, he worried about what would become of people like the ancient fellow who sat in his antique coin booth all weekend long,
socializing with his fellows and his customers while breathing from an oxygen tank. "If you gotta sit around, you're not going to last," he said.
Preston Properties, the Fortuna company that owns the old Simpson mill, says that it never made any money off the market, and that's easy to believe. A little space like Anderson's cost around $120 per month to rent -- an unbelievably low price for a place you can lock your things up in at night. There's probably 100 more profitable ways to use a large warehouse space on the waterfront, even one that's currently the subject of environmental litigation. (Humboldt Baykeeper brought suit against Preston Properties and Simpson a few months ago, claiming that contamination from the old mill operation was seeping into the bay.) It's a wonder that Flea Mart By-The-Bay lasted as long as it did.
Doe Neal, a manager at Preston Properties, said Monday that the company has been thinking for quite a while that it has been time for a change of plan at the old mill. The company had to consider the much-improved business climate in Eureka, as well as the strong local real estate market. A few months ago, Neal said, her boss -- Patrick O'Dell, the former Fortuna newspaper and publication magnate, long-time owner of the old Humboldt Beacon -- finally decided that the time had come.
"The economic conditions in Eureka tell us that this could be used in a better way," she said. She added that the change was in no way prompted by the recent lawsuit -- it's just that the company finally got around to it. "We have a lot of other businesses, and it was just the right time to look at this."
Neal said that she's already in talks with businesses interested in the property. Some would like to lease it, others would like to buy it. She said that it was too early to give specifics. In the short-term, she said, Preston Properties might use the Flea Mart space to expand the RV storage operation it already runs at the site.
She was conscious of the fact that Flea Mart By-The-Bay was its own little world, and that that world would be no more. The company threw a party for the vendors a few weeks ago. "We had a lot of good things being said," she said. "The vendors said they had appreciated the time they had spent there. I think it ended on a nice note."
There were flea marketers for whom the money wasn't really the point -- the majority of them, probably -- and there were flea marketers who really were hoping to make something like a living. Probably the best representative of the latter group was 24-year-old Saeed Owen, who had decked out his booth with carpeting and wall hangings. For the last six months, Owen -- a sleepy-eyed guy with a three-day beard and a black coat, dressed as if he was staying on the sane side of goth -- had been running a sword-and-sorcery shop with his wife.
Left: Saeed Owen
The walls of his shop, which cost him $150 to rent, were covered with swords, maces, other sorts of medieval weaponry. They were good sellers, he'd found. Before he went with this line of goods, he and his wife had a vintage clothing stall in the flea market for a year and a half. It was a headache, he said -- surprising the number of kleptomaniacs one had to deal with. The sword business was clean. He said that lately, on a good weekend, he'd make between $600 and $800 bucks..
"It's like a real shop in the mall," he said. "A cheesy, funky mall."
The life seemed to suit him, and on that Saturday Owen was already nostalgic for it. The threat seemed to lurk that now he'd have to go out and join the square world. "I'll never be able to afford another place like this," he said. And it wasn't just the low rent, either -- it was the fact that the flea mart allowed him to live at ease: "Pay taxes. Accept money from customers. Order. It's really simple and clean. I'll miss it."
What would he do next? Owen said that he'd thought about trying to get a spot in Old Town, maybe splitting the rent with some other vendor. He didn't seem to be that hopeful.
Right around the corner, in a booth he has occupied for seven years, was Tommie Fowler the silversmith. Fowler, who has been making jewelry ever since he came back from Vietnam, had definitely been one of the people who did Flea Mart By-The-Bay more for the love of doing it than of any dreams of getting rich. Like everyone else in the market, he also had sideline products, just because he likes them. Fowler's tastes, apart from silver, appeared to tend toward baseball cards and old tin advertisements.
But Fowler's first love was for jewelry-making. The self-described "Arcata hippie" of the flea mart bunch, he said that the way he prefers to work is to get to know a person first, and then to design a piece of jewelry special for them. He's made rings for whole generations of families -- a wedding ring for one, a graduation ring for another. He had some rings available for walk-in customers on his shelf. They were absurdly cheap.
Right: Jerry Camuso
That weekend, Fowler was shutting the shop down. It would have been difficult, he said, because his service in Vietnam left him physically disabled, but many of his old customers volunteered to come and help him clear out.
"The flea market has been more than the people know, out there," Fowler said. "I have the same people come by and talk every weekend. Some people say hi, they never buy a thing."
There was a lot of talk around the market about what people would be doing next. Some said that they'd bring their gear out to the Redwood Acres fairgrounds once a month, to sell at the smaller community rummage sale they hold out there. Andy Anderson said that he couldn't do that -- his stuff was too heavy, or fragile, and he was getting too old to haul a bunch of stuff from place to place. But a lot of vendors were telling their customers that they'd see them at Redwood Acres.
The big hope, though, was that Jerry Camuso would be able to pull his plans for a new flea market together. Camuso, who rented four separate shops at Flea Mart By-The-Bay to sell his antiques and collectibles, is clearly a tougher-minded vendor than were most of his colleagues. He did the shop as a sideline -- he works days as a carpet installer. On Sunday, he and a crew of other guys watched the football game on a TV he has set up in the shop while he laid out his vision for a new market. He spoke of it in the future tense, not the conditional.
"It won't be a `flea market,'" he said. "We can't use the name. It'll be called Old Town Mercantile and Bazaar. I've got about 26 people here who are going to go with me." And he's still looking for more.
Camuso said that he has hired an attorney and a real estate agent, and he's already in talks with the owner of a large, empty old building on the Eureka waterfront near Old Town. (He's not yet at a stage where he can disclose the location to the public, he said.) The way he envisions it, the Mercantile and Bazaar would be a large space, much like Flea Mart-By-The-Bay but perhaps a little more orderly. Most of the old flea market vendors would be able to set up shop. There would be multiple snack shops. There would be live music. ("Acoustic music," Camuso assured.) And the mercantile would be able to play a big part on Arts Alive! night, he figured, with acres of wall space available and room for a more popular band.
It sounded like a can't-miss proposition, but Camuso allowed that there have been some hitches. First of all, he discovered that the California Coastal Commission would have to be persuaded to sign off on it, and the Commission historically closely scrutinizes the conversion of industrial space into retail space. But he wasn't much troubled by all of that -- Camuso seemed fairly certain that the Mercantile and Bazaar would be operative by next summer.
Many people, including Tommie Fowler, had high hopes for the Mercantile and Bazaar. But that didn't diminish their sadness at seeing the Flea Mart By-The-Bay pass into history. "The new place will be different," Fowler said. "Nothing will be like this was."
Above: Lori Jackson and her "flea market kids," Anita Caraway and Ashley Creel.
It was getting on toward 5 p.m. on the last Sunday of Flea Mart By-The-Bay. The light was growing faint, some of the chill had come back into the air. Near the entrance, among the collection of skulls, figurines and other assorted knick-knacks, Lori Jackson, who has sold at the flea market for 14 years and has managed it for two, was working her table with Anita Caraway and Ashley Creel, both 19 years old. Caraway and Creel were two of her "flea market kids," as she called them. Both of them had been at the market just about every weekend since they were tiny children. She had hired each of them to man her tables. She'd taken them to Disneyland once.
Jackson said that her flea marketing days were over -- the closure of Flea Mart By-The-Bay put her out of her job managing the place. Now she'd have to find another job. It was a big disappointment to her, she said, that she couldn't talk Preston Properties into at least keeping the Flea Mart open for the holiday season. That's when most of the vendors do most of their sales. "I did ask," she said. "They said no."
The girls were pretty certain that Jackson, who they loved, was making the right decision to get out of the flea market business. They were pessimistic about the Mercantile and Bazaar's chances. Creel was certain that the city would never allow it. "It'll attract the wrong kind of crowd, in their eyes," she said. "They're not going to want that on their new waterfront."
Right: Bill Timm
The market was closing. The old man with the coin shop who Andy Anderson had pointed out, who he had been especially concerned for, stopped by Jackson's table to say goodbye. "It's been a pleasure knowing you, too, George," she said, and the old man wheeled his oxygen tank down the aisle for the last time.
Outside, Bill Timm, a vendor who specialized in salvaging and fixing old appliances, stood and gazed back at the flea market. He wore a brown fedora and an oil- and paint-stained jacket. "I've saved a lot of stuff from getting thrown away," he said. "Anything that's sort of repairable but is headed to the dump. It's a community service, the way I look at it."
Timm said that his shop at the flea market was really just sort of an advertisement for his handyman skills. People would come in, see that he could fix things and hire him to fix their stuff on the weekdays. Now he wouldn't have that anymore.
"Yeah," he said after a pause. "It just reminds me that the big money people in control of the real estate are the ones who decide things. I don't know -- maybe keeping stuff out of the dump isn't worth anything to people anymore."
Then Lori Jackson pulled down the overhead door, and Flea Mart By-The-Bay was gone.
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