Hauls of Justice
You know you want it – you can’t hide it. You covet that baby doll in the bad Dolly Parton wig, those dinged-up ’80s-era Technics turntables, that quickie paperback bio of Oliver North. You’ve got an itch for weird, one-of-a-kind objects that can only be satisfied by a good scratch through a decent flea.
Of all the Bay’s markets, the monthly Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire, positioned on the sun-swept expanses of the old Naval Air Station, is the grande dame – the largest of its kind in Northern California. San Francisco’s only weekly collectible flea, Alemany – described as Alameda’s “poor relation” by one Apartment Therapy wag – is smaller, funkier, and more urban.
But how could it not be, plopped at that crusty, dusty, twisted crook of 280 and 101, where industrial thoroughfare Bayshore meets highway-skimmer Alemany? Consider it the obsessively junk-collecting, eccentric little uncle to that old gal across the Bay – complete with taco and barbecue trucks and a gem of a street performer: an elderly, overall-clad one-woman-music-machine that plays a saw and homemade guitar while operating a purple cat puppet with a foot pedal. Eat your heart out, Girl Talk.
I want to be a part it, right here at the bad, bottomed-out side of Bernal Heights. My mission is to get a grasp of the Alemany experience from the other side of the stall – facing forward, slouch in place, gazing at the browsers as they stare at my wares, haggling with hard bargainers.
At the office a mere day before the flea, I’m nearly foiled by the rule that new vendors submit applications no later than two days prior to the market day, but the petite, all-business but blessedly flexible market-office gatekeeper Amalia gives me the thumbs-up anyway.
Doubtless used to dealing with all manner of trash-selling goofballs, she’s likely sized me up as one of those rare upstanding vendors who will make her market a more gentrified shopping experience. All I have to do is show up tomorrow when the office opens – an hour and a half before the market begins at 7 a.m., with the proper paperwork. At. Five. Thirty.
I wonder how closely each application is read, because you must include a list of all salables. At least 50 percent of each vendor’s goods must be “high-quality antiques, collectibles, and handcrafted artisan works.” The exception is the first Sunday of the month – dubbed “Garage Sale.” Otherwise, no new merchandise, power tools, stolen property, porn, bongs, Roman candles, fixies, live critters, counterfeit Vuitton, guns, or ammo allowed. The latter is ironic considering the locale’s rumored onetime use as a shooting range (the office staff has never heard of such a thing, instead saying the space has hosted a farmers market since 1947).
It’s dark and early and the sun is sending some dove-blue streaks across the sky when I show up with a few cobbled-together quasi-collectibles in the trunk. Junk, but hell, even junk is collected these days, if only by sanitation. I pull the Civic up to my assigned spot – thankfully not in the center of the market where there’s no concrete platform on which to set up, though I’m not enough of a flea-vet to get a coveted shaded stall.
Daydreaming about coffee, I dutifully stand in line next to six sellers in front of the office – mostly older, white, Latino, and Asian guys with proud potbellies, looking furtive and slightly sleep-deprived. A too-cheerful, pudgy security guard, armed with a Russian accent and drunk with power, tells me to get back in line. When he allows me in, it turns out that I’m short on cash for the $45 stall fee. Off to the ATM I go, lickety-split, then back. Forty minutes to go before the bewitching hour when we’re supposed to be completely set up, at the risk of market ejection.
I quickly lay out a straw picnic mat on the concrete platform and take out my wares: a ’30s-ish combo-school-chair-cum-desk that I scored free at a UC Berkeley warehouse giveaway – I slap an optimistic $50 sticker on that one. I’ve also got a few vintage-looking bits of clothing, a fondue pot, cookbooks, a memoir titled Bar Mitzvah Disco, three hideous, enameled light plates, a novel about Ambrose Bierce, a scarlet vase, and my flea-find-waiting-to-happen: a silver-plated, albeit tarnished, samovar with delicately articulated feline feet, given to me by a pal who wants $100. Gentlemen, start your haggling.
I look around. My kindred sellers haven’t made very much progress. They seem to be moving in slow motion – the tedium of the unload and set-up stimulating them to a speed just above standstill. One sports a miner’s headlamp.
Nonetheless, you snooze, you lose: The fact that the market isn’t officially open doesn’t stop the carrion from circling. Around 6:15 a.m., my first browser – a tall professorial type in tan leather – picks up the samovar, adjusts his spectacles on his nose, and studies its underside: “How much are you asking?”
“One hundred,” I say, adding lamely. “It’s antique.”
“English. Hot-water kettle. Silver-plated. I’d say 1890s,” he answers with a smile, wandering onward.
The early mob is fairly man-heavy: antiques of the beaten-down collector ilk. Lots of acid-washed mom jeans and Giants gear. Haunted and hungry-looking Chinese men with cocked brows slouch by, holding cigarettes in their palms like precious eggs. All men in search of that very specific item they need to complete that pin, photo, card, or deco collection – too obsessed to worry about their dress.
“Bet you wish that was sterling silver!” declares a clean-cut former homecoming king, of the samovar. A sad-eyed balding man studies Bar Mitzvah Disco solemnly, then forks over $2. My first sale of the day.
On one side of me are a troika of sellers who err on the antique side of the equation with dark Flemish-style paintings, Bavarian crystal, and gilt wall sconces. One huddles with buyers over jewelry and trinkets in a handheld case – all the better to make it seem like you’re getting an illicit, priced-to-move deal.
“Is a drug deal going down?” asks a friendly passerby, craning his neck.
On the other side, a middle-aged man with a stringy black ponytail named Tom peddles computer books, a sprinkling of costume jewelry, and ugly motel art from the wretched school of Thomas Kinkade. His truck is embellished with the likeness of a Boy Scout with “Junk Hauled” scrawled across it. He’s here weekly, swapping stories and selling everything cheap and on the fly.
He asks a mustachioed chum what he’s bought so far. “I don’t really need any more crap to add to my big collection of crap!”
Tom’s wares are mostly culled from storage locker clean-outs, but he does the occasional estate sale, which he either gets paid to clear out, or if the contents are primo, he pays to take away. He says he made his fortune in neon in the ’80s.
“Look around,” he says, scanning Alemany’s stalls. “It’s mostly junk.” A ball-shaped boyish man in a Batman T and Batman cap with a reflector light above the brim leans into Tom’s knickknacks. “But you gotta be careful,” he continued. "I’ve been written up. They’re keeping an eye on me!”
By 9 a.m., the wet chill has dissipated, and it’s shaping up to be a hot, bright Father’s Day. Women and children are starting to materialize, though the loners with rabbit’s feet dangling from their jackets continue to loiter, doing laps and double-checking to see if the prices have plummeted or if new items have emerged. The slow reveal is a sales strategy, too.
As is the fast exit: Tom’s ready to leave. “OK, you want these paintings?” he asks a middle-aged Latino man. “Twenty bucks.” The goal of all sellers, everywhere: load as little as possible back into the truck.
As the sun begins blasting down at 10 a.m., the tempting scent of fried pork ekes from Angelica’s taco truck. I’m afraid to tear my reddened peepers away from the much-eyeballed samovar.
A towheaded toddler, pushing his own stroller, fingers my light plates – the first interest in those today.
I’m pacing the concrete platform when an elderly man in a wheelchair, pushed by a clean-shaven Latino man, gestures toward the samovar.
“I’ll give you 20.”
“It’s actually $100,” I apologize. “Sorry, I’m selling it for a friend...”
But I don’t get to finish that thought, because mid-hop from the platform to the narrow step below, I miss the step and go down, twisting my ankle and banging my head with a plastic-sounding “plock” on the bumper of my own car.
“Are you OK?” It’s Alberto, purchaser of Tom’s motel-hell paintings and now occupying his space. He picks me up. “Just sit down,” he coos, fetching antibiotic lotion for the gash on my swollen foot. “It happened to me, too. You think this,” he gestures to his platform, “is much bigger.”
My foot can’t stop trembling, but I start to feel better when a handsome, Peruvian gay blade buys my cookbooks – sans haggling. “Just for the pictures,” he assures me. “I’ll enjoy them.”
That’s it for me. Though at 11 a.m., the hipster girls in leggings are just beginning to mass. Nevertheless, the neighboring antique dealers are complaining about how slow it is and how many bills they have. Dozens of potential suitors fondle the samovar, yet none succumb: They have an eye for quality – and bargains.
Amalia’s coworker – a vaguely vintage girl with bangs – strolls by to collect my stall fee.
“That’s all you have?” She stares skeptically at my junk, but before she can finish, another charge descends.
“You have to put me someplace else!” the seller barks, pointing in the direction of his stall. “I don’t want to sell by him! I don’t like his attitude!”
And despite the blood, sweat, and almost tears, I’m content. I managed to rid myself of a little clutter, meet some characters, and get an eyeful of drama along the way.
The Alemany Flea Market is on Sundays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. You must sell “collectibles” – the exception is the first Sunday of the month, when you can sell anything except auto parts and bicycles. For more market info and a list of what you can or can’t sell, go to http://sfgsa.org/index.aspx?page=1059. The stall fee is $45 cash. On market day, be sure you have change, bags, something to display your merch on; a hat, sunscreen, or parasol to block the sun; and layers for the shifting SF weather patterns. Be sure to bring your best retail face and techniques as well: It doesn't hurt to pay attention to the display (and styling) and to have amusing backstories about your wares.
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