The flea cir­cus

Here’s a place you can find most things you wished you had in your child­hood, writes Ja­cob Bern­stein

New Straits Times - - SUNDAY VIBES -

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.


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.

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