Lord Of The Fleas


If you want my opinion, I think it’s a pretty bad idea calling them ‘flea markets’. What you’re referring to is a loosely regulated Calcutta-style market full of people hawking old stuff they found in the deepest recesses of their garages and attics. When I’m buying something three times my age from a complete stranger, the last thing I want to think about are fleas or any other potential vermin who might have laid eggs in that old ammo box full of glass Coca Cola bottles.

My friends Dylan and Holly – or, put more bluntly, all of my friends – have been cruising LA area flea markets pretty regularly for the past few months, and as I’ve expanded into my own space and developed a more pressing need for décor, I’ve started tagging along.

I don’t really know what it is I’m looking for from a flea market, but whatever it is, I certainly haven’t found it yet. I think I should just resign myself to the fact that flea markets aren’t where I’m going to find a Nazi combat knife* or a first edition workprint from Star Wars with a bunch of heretofore unknown deleted scenes.

*As awesome as it would be to find Nazi war memorabilia at a flea market, I have to stop and wonder what the hell I’d do with it. I don’t know that I’d want to have something with a swastika on it mounted above my TV for all my guests to look at. Check it out, I got Hitler’s knife! Woah, no, calm down, it’s not like I agree with him or anything! I’m basically president of the Jewish people fan club. But still, Nazi stuff, right? It’s like the History Channel on my wall! Don’t tell Israel.

I wouldn’t take most of the stuff that I see at flea markets even if it was free. Turn of the century farm style dressers with fading turquoise paint just don’t make my balls tingle the way they do everybody else’s, I guess. Still, I enjoy going because it gets me thinking about why and how people sell the shit that they sell.

Magazines, for instance – I can see the reasoning behind buying an issue of LIFE magazine from Pearl Harbor or the day of the Kennedy Assassination, but why the hell are so many people trying to sell me issues of TV Guide from 1986? If I want to read a breathless preview for the second season of MacGyver, I’ll do it on the Internet, thank you very much.

Or the beads and jewelry! I’m not quite sure how one person selling homemade bead necklaces can set up shop next door to another person selling identical homemade bead necklaces and yet somehow the two of them both turn a profit. I mean, how are you competitive at that point? What do your bead necklaces offer that the other bead necklaces don’t have?

Colored glass dishes are the best example, though. If you want to know why, Google for your nearest flea market and go there. I don’t care where in the country you live - you’re going to spend most of your time walking past card table after card table loaded with glass dishes of all shapes, sizes, and colors, the likes of which your grandmother used to store hard candies in.

What aspect of American life in the 1930s and 40s necessitated the production quintillions of colorful little glass dishes? Was there just more little shit to keep track of back then? Did they pay day laborers in tiny ball bearings during the Great Depression? Or was it just a cultural thing that’s gone by the wayside now – was a little blue dish where you kept all your favorite racist newspaper cartoons and nasty unsent letters to Herbert Hoover?

In the 21st century, demand is definitely not keeping up with supply – I imagine that’s why everybody seems to have a few crates of these dishes to get rid of and why you ever see anybody buying them. I mean, I see people buying lots of weird shit at flea markets, but so far I haven’t seen any soccer moms haggling over a little orange glass dish.

”Wow, this just really speaks to me, y’know? This dish would finally make my house a home. It’s really sort of an emergency, too – I’ve got so much hard candy just lying around, but nothing to put it in! Are you sure you can’t go below $1.50 for this?”

On rare occasions, though, I do find things that I like. Today I bought some old movie posters for Chinatown and The Shining - because no living space is complete without a young Jack Nicholson leering at you from two different locations – and at the truly gargantuan Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena I stumbled upon a number of mid-century couches and chairs in one sun baked corner of the parking lot that really knocked my socks off.

Of course, I didn’t buy any of the couches or chairs – some of them cost upwards of $700, and who the hell takes $700 in cash to a flea market, along with a truck big enough to lug a couch home? Complications like these limit my flea market purchases to anything less than $40 and small enough to fit in my car, and most flea market items that meet those benchmarks are either creepy old dolls or colorful glass dishes.

I wonder what flea markets are going to look like in 75 years, when all the things we hold dear are just clutter in our grandchildrens’ basements that they’re desperately trying to pawn off on the antique crowd. I can only imagine that the smartass bloggers of the future are going to be bitching about how every table at every flea market is loaded with dusty old flash drives and iPod Nanos.

Truman Capps would browse more stuff if the damn vendors would quit desperately trying to talk him into a purchase.