When I go to a flea market, for some reason I always start to get anxious. I have my guard up, expecting people to try to rip me off and requiring that I try to bargain with them. I also feel incredibly stressed, looking out at what seems to be a never-ending stretch of booths that I’m going to have to dig through to find some treasure before I can leave with it being a success. Needless to say, “bittersweet” is the best description of my relationship with flea markets. But that was until I met TV’s next big personality. And “personality” is a loaded term with him. He’s a grateful dead loving, thrift store wearing, optimism inducing, true master of flea markets, and they call him The Flea Man.
His take on Flea Markets is that they’re like a vacation. You hang out outside, eat good food, get a beer, listen to music, and peruse the booths on a casual treasure hunt filled with all sorts of adventures and history. I was pretty confused, as what he described was a magical place, and there was even a mention of cupcakes in there. By the end of it all, I was squirming to get to a flea market and relax. ________________________________________________________________
How did you get in to the flea market business?
It was a hobby that snowballed. I started out in the late 70s. My father passed away and a family member and I took items from our house to the flea market to sell since my mother was getting re-married and the house was getting sold. I watched people buy used spoons…and my mind exploded. I couldn’t believe the things getting sold. I couldn’t believe the potential. It was only a week later that while we were selling the stuff from the house, I bought a stack of colored vinyl, tiger-striped, ‘Paul McCartney in Japan’ albums- each one was $1, I bought probably 20-30, put them on the table with my family’s stuff and watched as I sold each one to other dealers for $10-$20 each. And all of this took place within a radius of 30 feet, and I was probably 15 or 16 years old. It blew my mind, melted out of my ears, and I totally knew what I was going to do.
What’s the biggest discovery you’ve ever had at a Flea Market?
The biggest discovery actually wasn’t at a flea market. It was cases and cases of comic books that were found in the trash- because not only am I flea marketer, but I’m a trash picker. Better that than a nose picker! I found cartons and cartons of comic books from the 1930s-1970s. They were on their way to a dumpster. I ended up selling those to dealers, who then took them to flea markets.
Now I’ve also had many other great discoveries. You know, “big” is relative. It’s not always in terms of dollar value. One of the bylines of the show is “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. I buy and sell, so for me, it’s not always the actual profit that makes it a great find. Recently, just two weeks ago, I traded Star Trek stuff that I got from a flea market for close to nothing and I traded it for 6 vintage, 1968-1971 muscle bikes- Sting Rays and Choppers- and then I turned around and re-sold them for a lot and kept 2 for myself. So it’s all about the barter. Some people say “what’s the biggest, what’s the best” but it’s hard to qualify that because there are so many angles to that very simple question.
So do you prefer to only shop for things in person or do you ever shop for vintage treasures online? What resources do you use?
I troll Craigslist! It’s a gold mine if you know where to look. I’ve bought very cheap stuff on ebay as well- but it takes dedication and time.
So when you find something truly unique, how do you know what it’s worth? Are you constantly researching things, do you check ebay- how do you determine if it’s a “steal”?
I never research. You know, it’s common sense- and this is one of the things I talk about on the show: I’ve learned at flea markets that it’s okay to ask somebody if you can get a cheaper price on something as long as you do it with class, you’re not rude, and you ask with the expectation of them saying no and aren’t disheartened. You have every right to ask somebody for a lower price, and they have every right to say no. This translates itself to many other areas. I actually said to my dentist at one point “I have no dental, can you give me a lower price”- I learned this at the flea market! The flea market can be use as a metaphor. Everything is negotiable, it just depends on your tone and the behavior you use. You know a smile will get you just about anything as long as it’s sincere.
Everything is always worth whatever someone is willing to give you for it. We’ve probably got the most “real” reality show there is because there are no set-ups and everything is “real”. There isn’t another show like it. If you pick one of the other similar shows, for instance, Antiques Roadshow. You bring something in, they tell you it’s worth $10,000. Go try to sell it for $10,000. Please. You won’t get it. You know what it’s worth? It’s worth what someone’s willing to pay for it.
On the show I take people to the flea market, or we go through their attics and I show them how to sell it, take them on ebay and see what the stuff is selling for- chances are what they have isn’t the only one of its kind that has ever been seen. But what it’s selling for is one thing; what somebody’s actually bidding for it is another.
How do you know when someone’s trying to sell you a fake?
You just know. It’s a gut feeling. You know, one of my mantras is not to spend too much money. Not three weeks ago I bought 4 framed posters from Howard University- it’s the premiere African American educational institution in the U.S. How did I know? Because I read a lot. I knew about Howard because anybody who watches TV sees Bill Cosby walking around in Howard shirts all the time. The posters were from the 1950s, I got them each for $1. Nobody wanted them. They were each about 2×2′. So now I’ve made a $4 investment. I brought them home, took pictures, and went on the internet and got in touch with the Howard University theatrical dept. The called me back and said “how much do you want”. Let’s put it this way, I made a LOT more than I put in. So, in answer to your question, it’s a $4 investment. Worst comes to worst, I lost $4. I probably had a 4,000% profit.
Out of this interaction, some guy at a flea market who didn’t know what he had but couldn’t care less, I had a $4 investment, and Howard University currently has them hanging up in the theatrical dept. Everybody won. The flea market is a place where everybody should win. Everybody.
Do you feel some flea markets are better than others? If so, how do you find a good one?
I highly recommend digging. When I go to California, there are one or two markets in San Francisco that I love. Nobody is allowed to sell anything that’s less than 25 years old, so there’s no pocketbooks and socks, which is nice. But it’s a double-edged sword because there are a lot of dealers. I like to climb through people’s sh**. You can tell if it’s coming from someone’s storage facility or someone’s basement, and usually you can tell that just by the smell!
Do you ever hunt at thrift stores?
Yea I always go to thrift stores. I’m wearing thrift store shorts as we speak. You can’t beat thrift stores. They’re part of this whole mentality.
So what sorts of things do you teach people on your show?
Well I teach people respect, how to make money, how to have a good time, and how to cherish what you have as compared to what you want.
Do you think there’s an unspoken etiquette at flea markets?
There is in my booth! I would say it’s just a humanistic approach to getting everything accomplished: you want your table clean, you want people to smile, and you want money in your pocket. There’s no reason to hurt anybody, rip anybody off, sell anything that you shouldn’t sell. Nothing in life, much less the flea market, has to be an unpleasant experience. I have found flea markets to be freeing and interesting, educational, and exciting. You meet people, get something to eat, listen to music, you’re outside..it’s a way of life. I look at it like a vacation and you should think of it that way.
The Flea Man comes on National Geographic and only started last week, so there’s plenty of time to catch up! At first glance he may seem like a rough guy from Jersey who got lost and ended up in a flea market, but I assure you he’s overflowing with personality, seems to know everything about anything, and is a genuinely happy guy that has never met a stranger. Check out his show- it definitely beats a lot of the crappy shows out there and he’s going to change your flea market mentality for the better.