The flea circus
Here’s a place you can find most things you wished you had in your childhood, writes Jacob Bernstein
AT 4 am. on the second Sunday of every month, headlamps light up like fireflies in Lot K of the Rose Bowl Stadium here. They are worn by collectors searching for treasure: Hans Wegner club chairs, perfectly aged Levi’s jeans (preferably from before 1971), and AC/DC and Wu Tang Clan concert T-shirts.
Owners of vintage-clothing stores complain relentlessly about the deals being “gone,” yet they not only come back, but also scale the chain-link fence at the perimeter to get a head start before the gates open at 5 am.
This is what Patrick Matamoros, a dealer who placed Kim Kardashian in a Sade shirt and Rihanna in a Whitney Houston one, did in August, shortly before he nearly came to blows with another vintage dealer.
The immediate cause of their spat was a Black Crowes T-shirt, but the kerfuffle was years in the making.
The other dealer, Kelly Cole, who owns a store on La Brea in West Hollywood, had long said that Matamoros was a shoplifter and claimed he had a video to prove it. Matamoros taunted him to release it, but Cole never did.
Then things boiled over as they stood on opposite sides of a clothing rack, just before dawn, arguing over who first reached the black, white and pink skeleton-print shirt.
Matamoros pulled it in one direction. Cole pulled it in the other. Even with headlamps on, it was hard to see what was happening, but everyone around heard the sound as it ripped down the middle.
Cole started laughing. As he saw it, there was nothing else to do. But this enraged Matamoros.
“It just seemed so condescending,” Matamoros said afterward.
The argument escalated quickly. “I called him a thief and a liar,” Cole said.
Matamoros said: “I said if he called me a thief again, bad things would happen.” Cole sneered at him and walked away. Once he saw the price tag, Matamoros turned regretful. “It was US$150 (about RM623),” he said. “It wasn’t worth US$50.”
Still, he bought it from the seller. Partly because he felt responsible for destroying it. But mostly to spite Cole. “I haven’t had a chance to repair it yet,” he said.
All over the East Coast, flea markets are withering away. Buyers don’t want to bundle up on winter mornings and scour for merchandise that can be found easily on eBay, Etsy or 1stdibs, with better guarantees. Sellers don’t want to load pickup trucks with merchandise that can easily be sold online.
Once frequented by Andy Warhol, Greta Garbo and Susan Sontag, the major weekly Manhattan flea markets in Chelsea began downsizing in 2005, after almost 30 years. The outpost inside the parking garage on West 25th Street closed in 2014.
The Brimfield Antique Show, which specialises in furniture and is held three times a year in Brimfield, Massachusetts, is hanging on, but bringing in fewer and fewer A-list dealers. Yet in Los Angeles, good weather, job scarcity and higher commercial real-estate costs have fuelled a thriving swap-meet scene.
The Melrose Trading Post, a weekly rain-or-shine flea at Fairfax High School in West Hollywood, has live bands and food trucks serving breakfast burritos. So many sellers angle for stations that organisers now have a lottery for spare spots.
In May, the 15-year-old Saturday afternoon swap meet in Silver Lake went from once a month to every week. About a third of its sellers are old flea market types who never made the digital transition, according to Fiora Boes, the event’s organiser. But at least half are in their 20s and early 30s, selling handcrafted woodwork, homemade fruit spreads and 1990s street wear.
“What’s driving them is the desire to be cool and to have the next post on Instagram,” Boes said, as she described how “these kids” scour through social-media posts, Goodwills and rag houses for rare finds. “Then they wear it once or twice and sell it at the flea — or over Instagram — and buy something else.”
The 2,500 sellers pay about US$100 for a booth at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, which for 50 years has taken place on the second Sunday of every month in the parking lots surrounding the 90,000-seat football stadium that the UCLA Bruins call home.
EVERYTHING’S COMING UP ROSE BOWL
The Rose Bowl flea was started by Richard Gary Canning, whose firm RG Canning Attractions began with concert promotion and car shows. The market was intended as a peripheral revenue stream.
“We never thought we’d give up concert promotion and just have this, but that’s what happened,” said its chief administrative officer, Mike Redd, 71, who has been at the Rose Bowl more or less every month since 1968.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the Rose Bowl’s biggest market was antiques, Redd said. In the early 2000s, the vintage-clothing market exploded and the Rose Bowl became a religious ritual for hoarder hipsters united in the desire to get baked and beat each other to Cross Colours jackets, Chanel handbags, Charlie Brown sweatshirts and other assorted pop-culture peculiarities.
After rolling in before dawn, sellers use the next few hours to set up their stations and buy among themselves. Around 8 am, the Bowl becomes a street-style spectacular, as the bearded and tattooed rummage for Red Wing work boots amid collectors like Lisa Eisner, a jewellery designer and frequent companion to Tom Ford; transgender actress Candis Cayne; and Brad Pitt, known among this crowd as much for his furniture expertise as for his movies. A few years back, Redd said, Pitt came in and spotted a chair he wanted. The seller was asking US$600 for it. Pitt knew it was worth much more than that. So he pulled out a wad of cash and gave the seller a US$2,000 bonus.
Americana from every era proliferates at the Rose Bowl, but great antiques, formal wear and fancy jewelry are in shorter supply. In the lot adjacent to the vintage clothing section, a seller had hundreds of Star Wars toys, which came from his personal collection and became a job when he got laid off from work and his wife told him to start divesting.
Brian Cohen, a 44-year-old dealer who that morning was selling a rack of ’50s-era harlequin print shirts, priced at US$50 each, said: “There could be an ensemble Christopher Guest movie based on the cast of characters at the Rose Bowl.”
Cohen, wearing a retro flattop, as if he was the sidekick from a James Dean movie, wasn’t being judgmental. In 2008, he plunked down US$25,000 on a black crepe Hawaiian shirt with swirling tigers and bright red clouds. “I only wore it once,” he said. “It’s sitting in a bin with a bunch of other shirts, being enjoyed by no one.”
Yet he can’t seem to part with it. “I might never be able to get it again.”
He had a Pavlovian response to the stench of vintage clothes wafting through the dry Pasadena air. And he was fascinated by the people: driven by a compulsion to acquire, yet seldom displaying any serious inclination toward power and wealth.
Indeed, many were selling simply so they could keep collecting. “The biggest thrill wasn’t really making a profit,” Cohen said. “It was finding that new rare piece for the collection.”
Soft toys for sale.
Judy Spizer at her station.
Kyla Kennedy with the denim she is selling at her station.
Louie Brock among her ware.