They're known by many names: flea markets, swap meets, bazaars, dirt malls. Each one conjures up thoughts of card tables with junk piled on top, beneath and all around, in short an outdoor version of Fred Sanford's house. And each one sounding unsavory enough to manage expectations and not gloss over the fact that most of this stuff was, to at least one person prior, trash. Not that its a bad thing, some people embrace, even revel in that fact-- I do.
In operation since 1996 and located in Bernal Heights beneath the junction of 101 and 280, the Alemany Flea Market is no different. According to Gary Gentry, who oversees the administrative operations of the flea market, 8,000 to 10,000 people visit the market's 150 to 250 vendors every Sunday between 5 am and 5 pm.
As diverse as the array of antiques, clothes, food and old-fashioned flea market junk is, the individuals who accumulate and sell the stuff are often the real attraction. "He's not here today," said Gentry, "but there's a guy who brings all kinds of weird stuff: caskets, mannequins. Actually, he'll even carve a mannequin's head to resemble your face." Uhh, alright. Actually, my reaction at the time was that I was sorry to have missed out. Upon further reflection, however, I decided having a mannequin with my face carved into it might not be the irresistible conversation piece it first seemed.
For many of the sellers, this is how they make their living. George Feldman has been at it 50 weeks a year for 23 years (taking into account the customary two weeks vacation). Today, he had spread out on his table an array of earthenware vessels, some of which were said to be 600 years old. That came as something of a shock to me as my flea market experiences in New Jersey mostly involved people selling at low, low prices things that had fallen off the backs of trucks (wink). However, his potential buyers didn't even flinch when he made a price of nearly 400 dollars for a set of two-foot tall vases. He is a regular at flea markets all over the Bay Area and for him, market day is a borderline religious experience. "The breath of life is in the market culture. There's communication; there are thousands of years of history behind this."
Not everyone out here sells Michael Delane has been a firefighter for 36 years, but likes selling as a hobby in his free time. "It gives you peace of mind," said Delane, "interacting with people. The connections you develop with other sellers, its almost like a functional dysfunctional family."
Then there's Jose Jimenez, the skittish belt salesman who, after one question, was (hilariously) asking for his lawyer. Not only that but he didn't even make an effort when providing me with a phony name. When I asked him for confirmation on the spelling, he just looked at me blankly and said, "Um." On our separation, my parting, "Take it easy, Jose," didn't register even a flicker of recognition on his face. Its always better when the performer doesn't break character.
The Alemany flea market, the one thing this wide range of strange and wonderful people have in common, is widely considered to be the premiere weekly market in the area (a monthly flea market held on an airstrip in the naval base at Alameda was described as being between four and ten times the size of Alemany). Feldman, who frequents weekly markets up down the peninsula declares this the best market in 100 miles. "A good market develops when a consensus is formed," he explained. "You need people who have quality items to sell, and you need people who appreciate it-- and have money." And with the unsavory connotations of the word embraced, this flea market delivers.