Puget Sound-area flea markets are prospering in hard economic times, and you can find everything from bargain treasures to attic-clearing kitsch. This story was published September4, 2008, not June 23, 2013. Because of a technical problem, the correct publish date is not displaying properly on the story. We apologize for the error.
LAKEWOOD, Pierce County — Here at the Star Lite Swap Meet, along the stretch of folding tables filled with wicker baskets, metal ice trays and cassette decks, rumors are rampant that a flea-market scavenger scored a pair of Seven jeans, as in 7 for All Mankind jeans, which to teens qualifies as an “Antiques Roadshow” moment.
The tenor of flea markets remains the same, whether in Paris, New York City or around Puget Sound — though here, they tend to be found on old drive-in movie lots as often as on back streets or beneath bridges. They are filled with junk, lots of it — old, random and kitschy stuff, along with hidden bargains, or at least the belief that a hidden bargain lurks somewhere in one of those milk crates. For many, it’s as much a treasure hunt as a shopping excursion.
What was a niche market has become hip. Area flea markets report a rise in attendance this year. Credit a sagging economy with that. A Craigslist culture. Home-improvement shows that focus on decorating on the cheap and with recycled materials. And yes, “Antiques Roadshow.”
The usual silk-screen T-shirts and messenger bags bearing images of Che Guevara, Chairman Mao, Bob Marley and Bruce Lee are like clichés in flea markets. New this year: lots of Sonics T-shirts, mugs and other memorabilia. Must be an Oklahoma thing.
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And this just in: The National Flea Market Association reports that more flea-market vendors are selling new instead of used merchandise.
But most still don’t take credit cards. So bring cash and follow us as we sample some flea markets around Puget Sound.
Star Lite Swap Meet
Lakewood, Pierce County
Easily the most popular flea market in the region. When Midway Swap Meet closed in 2005 to make way for a Lowe’s home-improvement store, most vendors relocated to this former drive-in theater in Lakewood and took Seattle-area customers with them.
The result: Lakewood now runs the biggest flea market in Western Washington, boasting hundreds of vendors and crowds up to 8,000 on weekends.
The flea market operates six days a week, doubling in size on weekends. The vendors — and, often, the customers — are predominantly Latino, many of them Mexican-American. Lakewood mirrors the big swap meets in California both in its demographics and setup.
Some of the area’s best Mexican street food is sold here, with vendors hawking beef-tongue tacos and fruit plates topped with whipped cream and chocolate.
You can hear Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese spoken along the rows of booths. Vendors haggle with customers over a few dollars. Kids yell like carnival barkers to draw attention to their family’s stalls.
A lot of vendors sell new items such as dresses, Seattle tourist T-shirts with the salmon icon or Pike Place Market ($3 to $4) and wrestling masks.
Others sell collectibles and lots of Generation X memorabilia such as K2 footballs, Atari 2600s and John Riggins No. 44 Redskins jerseys.
But the usual flea-market junk still dominates here: used clothes and DVDs, car tools and truck parts, antiques and worn-out furniture.
Secondhand jeans are big: Levis ($7); used True Religion ($50). They cost up to three times that on eBay, and the True Religion denim offered on a recent visit didn’t look like a knock-off. The detailed stitching, the intricate embroidery and the signature wide legs — all indications of the real deal.
The young crowd usually cherry-picks the big-name designer jeans by noon, said jeans vendor Mark Strong.
Deals we found: Lightly worn Lucky jeans ($10) and black Diesel skinny jeans ($18).
Puget Park Swap
The row of bra vendors near the entry is deceiving. This may be the area’s most manly flea market. Lots of used crossbows, hunting knives, camouflage gear, power tools, Chilton repair manuals and motorcycle helmets.
Again, Latinos make up probably half of the estimated 200 vendors at this drive-in theater space, many selling mariachi outfits, Mexican pop music and DVDs.
Everett’s market also hosts dozens of local homeowners unloading stuff out of their basements, attics and mini-storage. Sort of gives it a neighborhood-yard-sale ambience. Better yet, they offer the best deals.
But you will have to work for it. Some don’t display or put price tags on teacups, toys or clothes. You dig through their boxes. Prices typically range from $1 to $5.
Among the more popular vendors is a couple selling $3 belts. Select a buckle from a box and a belt color, and the vendor tailors your belt on site.
The crowd, about 800, peaks around noon. The real bargains start in late afternoon when the crowd dies down and vendors slash prices. On a recent Saturday, many vendors started halving prices. Even the hot-dog vendors offered 2-for-1 deals.
Deals we found: An adult-size Darth Vader head mask with electronic voice box ($18), a set of four crystal glasses ($1).
Fremont Sunday Market
When veteran flea-market hunters say the Fremont market doesn’t sell a lot of junk, it’s not meant to be a compliment. Even the street-vendor food seems a bit uppity. One booth features steak frites paired with ginger beer. Another sells pizza slices baked in a portable wood-fired oven.
Fremont is more a hybrid market, with more than half of its 150 vendors selling arts and crafts, along with farmers selling produce and flowers and dealers hawking antiques and collectibles. The flea-market portion takes place mostly in a parking garage, with vendors selling used dolls, hiking jackets, Peanuts cartoon memorabilia and DVDs. Most used clothing, shoes, belt buckles and the like sell at a higher price here than at other flea markets.
Nancy Heinrich and George Tart, of Olympia, run one of the most popular stalls, selling “fun junk” art such as name bracelets made from letter keys from manual typewriters, postcards made from cut-up vinyl record covers and jewelry made from watches that don’t tick anymore.
Deals we found: Some interesting finds, but they don’t qualify as bargains. Worn vintage Converse shoes for $15. Even the fun junk jewelry can go for $20 and $25 per bracelet, priced higher than original jewelry sold at the market by some local designers.
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or firstname.lastname@example.org