the chico flea market people : a mini ethnography

It is not known how long Chico’s Flea Market has been in operation. Sure, this fact may be available as a citation in a book somewhere, but in the dusty wood paneled halls that typify Chico’s flea market life, the number is unimportant. 20 or 30 years some might say. Perhaps an old timer might know, but they tend to be more guarded, and will not so easily divulge their ancient secrets.

The market itself is located on a fairground site. The fairground is a state property. Some say the only place the market might be free to exist. The general consensus seems to be that the city makes no money from the resale of used goods, and so the merchants who deal in junk are relegated to their small reservation. City police are not even supposed to respond to crimes; the highway patrol must be called in.

Social and Political Organization
Chico’s Flea Market is somewhat of a tribe. Its leader is a man named Cal. Cal is one of those larger than life characters. Though at least partially relegated to his electric scooter, his presence is not diminished (he seems as if standing up he might be over 6’6”). Cal is the leader, but he does not spend much time directing everyday life at the market. His role is to make smart decisions, which might improve the collective wealth of the community. For this merchant class, that means finding ways to get more people into the market. Cal explains that he purchased the rights to hold the Flea market for $300 a little over a year ago. At that time he says morale was at an all time low. He says the previous owners were hated, and “ran the business into the ground”. Even though the market has been running for possibly over 30 years, finding customers can still be difficult.
Cal estimates that he may have spent as much as $15,000 on advertising in the last year alone. Although he is quick to note, that the greatest prestige may have been accumulated through the retooling of the snack bar. Cal notes that a regionally famous appraiser “with followers and groupies” eats breakfast religiously at the flea market every Sunday. This has brought increased business to the market from wealthy bay area antique dealers, increasing cal’s prestige.
Though Cal may have gained prestige through his advertising and snack bar efforts, reciprocity and prestige plays little role in day-to-day activities. Because of the increased business brought on by Cal’s efforts, he has been able to open a long dormant wing of the market. Though the location is not the most desirable spot among the vendor booths, because placement is first come first serve, the previous owners of the flea market are stuck in the new-old area. It seems to be the flea market equivalent of being stuck out in the sticks.

Economics
“Some weekends we all do well, some weekends one person might clean up and the rest do not so well, some weekends no one makes anything.” Cal goes on to explain that the primary distinction between the merchants at the flea market, and those somewhere else (downtown seemed to be a popular comparison) is that the flea market sellers are primarily here for social benefits. They take joy out of seeing that their preciously accumulated goods directly find their way into new hands, and also in connecting with other packrats.
Items are priced according to tiny stickers which identify their cost. However the bargain is one of the purest arts of the swap meet. Typically it works something like this: A seller may have an item marked several times higher than the price they are willing to sell. This is because those less skilled in the art of the bargain may foolishly pay the full price. A skilled bargainer will immediately cut the price of whatever is being offered in third. The merchant will then laugh, partially as a custom because of the absurdity of giving an item away for such a low price, and also because he senses a skilled negotiation is about to take place. After the initial low-balling, and then laughing, the delicate tango of raise and call is enacted. The merchant offering a slightly higher price, the customer lowering it a little more, until finally the end result should be somewhere around half of the original price, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the individual bargaining skills of either the merchant or customer. The most skilled customers will be able to negotiate a fair price without feigning exasperation and pretending to walk away. Though this ace in the hole does often work, all too often the result may be an equally skilled merchant, who refuses to take the bate, and lets the customer walk off, knowing firmly that “he’ll be back”

Taboos
There are only three rules at the Chico Flea Market: No drug paraphernalia is to be sold. No live animals may be sold. And all merchants are required to get along with customers. This isn’t to say that they have to all be friends, but if any disagreement shall occur; the merchant is to notify Cal immediately. Anyone caught taking matters into their own hands before Cal has had the chance to conduct an official investigation may find himself or herself subject to disciplinary action including suspension and or expulsion from the market.

Other Customs
Cal tells me that though his band is isolated, (he says he has little contact with other flea market chiefs in the area, and that there may be a national organization, but he is not affiliated) building rapport with the neighbors is very important to him. It is because of this belief, that Cal donates 100% of his popcorn sales to the Butte Humane Society. In addition to supporting the animals, Cal also reaches out to surrounding businesses like the Tower Mart. Cal says that he tells everyone the Flea Market is behind the Tower Mart, in exchange he is allowed to place flyers in the windows. Cal believes his recent successes with the flea market are fully thanks to his family first mentality. His son and daughter in law run the snack bar, his son serves as his 2nd in command, and his wife put up the original money for the purchase of the name. This is reinforced when Cal hands me his business card, which proudly reads “Cal – Owners hubby”. As I interview Cal, his attention is constantly diverted for a question, or a greeting, or to yell something at a man with a very long beard. It is clear that if this is a family, Cal is clearly a popular dad. ”Watch my booth for me, i’m grabbin a smoke” an expressionless woman mutters as she walks past Cal’s son, her eyes never making contact with his as she plods past. “No problem” replies the son, his face also expressionless. “What was I saying?” asked Cal, having finished his conversation with the man in the distinguished beard. “iiiii think I got everything I need” I reply. On my way out I spot an amazing pin depicting slimmer of the Ghostbusters, with text reading “time for slime” though I had no money to buy it, something tells me I’ll be able to find it next weekend. And if not: Hey, there’s always the snack bar.

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