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photos by Mary Siler Anderson & Nancy Cordua

IT'S NOT LIKELY TO SHOW UP ON A MARKET SURVEY, PROBABLY WON'T BE INCLUDED IN the latest economic projection or be mentioned when development proposals are made. Yet, it is the most basic of economic enterprises, and perhaps the best and last bastion of genuine free market capitalism
and private enterprise.

I am referring, of course, to the flea market. Nowhere is the dictum to buy low and sell high more devoutly practiced than on the local flea market circuit. And I do mean local. Money spent at the flea market doesn't go to enrich multinational corporations or Wall Street big-wigs. Certainly not. Flea marketeers are rugged individualists shrewd enough to see value in the myriad cast-offs of consumerism. No junk bonds here; just junk.

On the grand scale, flea markets happen all along the coast, from Baja to B.C., but you don't have to travel that far to find a good bargain. There's an active and thriving flea market circuit right here in Humboldt County, with two separate venues in Eureka and a third in Ferndale. Each has its own distinct character.

As you might expect, the Ferndale flea market has a suitably Victorian ambience. It's held inside a well-lighted exhibit hall at the Ferndale Fairgrounds and many of the displays are built around items that probably qualify as genuine antiques. Still, it's not an antique show; it's a flea market. It's got a little bit of everything, from pots of tomato plants to used clothing to old television sets and record albums to unfinished craft projects to I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea. When it comes to flea markets, variety is the defining characteristic.

Ferndale flea markets are always held on a Sunday, but that's as regular as the schedule gets. It's a strictly volunteer enterprise, and, as she is the chief volunteer, Pat Tomasini arranges the markets to suit her schedule. When she decides to have one, she puts a classified ad in the local newspapers to alert potential vendors to call and reserve a table or two. (The next Ferndale flea is set for Dec. 13.) Tables rent for $10 each and, especially at Ferndale, need to be reserved in advance. Tomasini's reward for doing all the work is free table space. Any proceeds from the market go to the fairgrounds.

Volunteer she may be, but Tomasini runs a tight ship. Vendors at Ferndale fleas are expected to arrive an hour before the scheduled opening time so they can have their displays completely set up before the public is admitted. Vendors are also expected to take some pains in creating their displays, so that they are neat and pleasing to the eye. Tomasini exercises a certain amount of quality control, too. She won't allow dirty merchandise or anything that strikes her as "too junky." She expects everyone to stay till closing time as well. It's bad for business to have vendors packing up and leaving halfway through the day.

The Ferndale Flea always draws a full house of vendors and good crowds of shoppers who start lining up at the door, with their 50 cents admission in hand, 10 or 15 minutes before opening. It adds an air of excitement to have a few dozen people swarm into the hall as soon as the doors are open, but a successful market will have a steady stream of browsers all day.


The Redwood Flea Market happens once a month in the exhibit hall at Redwood Acres. I couldn't find anyone who remembered how long it's been going on, but one vendor told me it was a well-established event when she started coming way back in 1977. Like Ferndale, Redwood Flea Markets are generally held on Sunday and there is a 50-cent admission fee.

Larry Plantz is the guiding light of this flea market, and has been for seven years. Like Tomasini, Plantz brings the enthusiasm of a true aficionado to his work, but his approach is a bit more laid back. Official set-up time is the night before, at which time a lot of inter-vendor trading goes on. But if you can't make that, Plantz allows vendors to set up after the doors open at 8 a.m.

Leaving early is bad form here as well. Vendors are requested to stay until at least 2 p.m. no matter how bad a day they're having, and most of them do. The old hands will tell you that sometimes the best sales come in the last two hours of the day.

A good many of the vendors at Redwood Acres are regulars. They're there every month, or almost every month. For them, the market's not just about making sales and doing business. It's a social occasion, a chance to get together with flea market friends and swap stories about fabulous treasures uncovered in unlikely places.

On the whole, you will find nearly as many antiques at Redwood Flea Market as at Ferndale, as well as a fair number of items which, while not exactly antique, are old enough to be interesting. The larger size of the Redwood Acres venue means more variety and there's a good amount of turnover in that each market brings new merchandise to the tables. Sometimes this is due to the traveling vendors who come down from Crescent City and Gold Beach especially for the Redwood Acres Flea. And sometimes it's the occasional vendor who for one reason or another can't manage a garage sale at home. There'll be different merchandise on the tables of regular vendors, too, because they've been out collecting and have boxes of "new" stuff to display. Like a river, the flow of goods through the flea market circuit never stops.

Camaraderie is the prevailing theme at Eureka's other flea market venue, Flea Mart by the Bay, which is situated in a vast and venerable warehouse located just off Broadway at the foot of Del Norte Street. There's a sign on the west side of Broadway pointing the potential customer in the right direction. Flea Mart by the Bay is coming up on its 18th birthday, according to manager Leah Patton. It's as close to a corporate venture as these things get. And there is no admission fee.

Here again is a flea market with its own unique charm, something like an old-time carnival, probably because of the Christmas lights hung here and there to brighten the interior. All it wants is some cotton candy and a merry-go-round.

Flea Mart by the Bay is open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and it has about 60 permanent vendors. Most of them are set up in closet-sized cubicles with chicken wire and lath doors, but some have their wares spread out on regulation flea market tables. Altogether, it's the equivalent of 60 tiny stores selling everything from old paperbacks to surplus belt buckles to used lamps to well, suffice to say it meets the flea market criteria for variety on all fronts. There are even a smattering of antiques, and more rusty hardware and old implements than I have ever seen in one place.

The occasional or one-time vendor is rare at Flea Mart by the Bay and perhaps for that reason is made to feel extra welcome by the regulars. There's probably less turnover in merchandise here than at Redwood Acres, but the sheer volume of stuff is such that it would take a few trips to confirm that.

One thing you may be wondering about is how flea marketeers go about acquiring inventory. Well, they do it the old fashioned way; they buy it. They shop estate sales, yard sales, garage sales, warehouse sales, even thrift stores (which are a whole world in themselves). And there are those marketeers who run the risk of bad karma by taking advantage of naive first-time vendors who have underpriced something valuable. It happens. After all, the underlying strategy is buy low, sell high. It doesn't always work, of course. Every marketeer has a story or two of being forced to let something go for less than she paid for it.

From a shopper's point of view, there are two general approaches to flea market shopping. Get there early for the best selection, or get there late for the best bargain. Either way, good flea market etiquette allows for price negotiation between vendor and customer. If you see something you want, but the price seems too steep, feel free to offer less.

If your offer is accepted, well enough. A counter-offer puts the ball back in your court. A flat refusal, however, should not be taken personally. It just means the vendor is inclined to wait for a better offer. And there's always next week, or next month, or next year.

All three local flea markets feature a snack bar. Flea market cuisine will never make the pages of Modern Gourmet, but it has its fans. The desserts come highly recommended and some people swear by the nachos. My personal favorite is the popcorn at Redwood Acres. It's made in one of those popcorn machines and comes out all covered in butter.

As a general rule, the best and biggest flea markets happen between September and April, when they're not competing with yard sales and other outdoor activities. The Redwood Acres Flea Market has scheduled two-day (Saturday and Sunday) events through December.

To find out when the next Ferndale Flea is scheduled (after Dec. 13), check with the County Fairgrounds office or keep an eye on the Garage Sale section in the classifieds. Ferndale Fleas are always advertised in the Tri-City and the Times-Standard. If you don't mind a bit of driving, flea markets are also held at the Del Norte Fairgrounds in Crescent City. Call the fairgrounds at 464-9556 for more information.

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