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Online auctions transforming flea markets

The popularity of online auction houses is transforming the age-old ritual of the Sunday flea market.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true"><p>The Washington Post</p></a

Joe Bumb's trove of local sports memorabilia -- baseball cards, jerseys, autographed photos -- was once the centerpiece of his flea market store, attracting eager collectors from all over the world. Today Bumb displays them more out of habit than in hope that someone will buy them. He knows shoppers will go to the Internet in search of a better deal.

The popularity of eBay and other online auction houses is transforming the age-old ritual of the Sunday flea market. Some have been depleted as vendors find it more lucrative to put their best stuff online. Others have been remade as clearinghouses for cheap, mass-produced goods from places like China, Taiwan and Mexico.

The result is that going to flea markets, once known for their quirkiness, is no longer about the hunt for a unique item amid a lot of junk, some customers say. It's now about running errands.

Bumb's antiques and collectibles store, American Precious Metals, which his family has operated for 25 years, is a rarity in the flea market world nowadays. Nearly all other 2,200 spaces on the 45-acre swath of desert that is the San Jose Flea Market are taken up by vendors hawking things like shiny plastic toys, shifts for baby girls in every pastel color imaginable, rows of cowboy boots and prints of Jesus Christ.

"It's like a giant Wal-Mart," said Rich Alvari, director of sales for the flea market. "You don't see that garage sale knickknack stuff that people used to love to explore."

As the Internet continues to expand as a place of commerce, it is changing the relationships between sellers and buyers, giving some a boost and stifling others. This year, about 63 percent of Americans are expected to buy something online, for a total of $79 billion, according to research firm Jupitermedia Corp.

The San Jose Flea Market, the largest open-air market in the nation, still attracts a huge number of customers, up to 60,000 in a weekend, but the experience is radically different than even a decade ago. Instead of suspense, there's reliability. Instead of meandering, there's efficiency. Bargaining is more of an exception than the norm.

"I do sometimes find some unusual stuff here, but mostly I buy things like socks and sunglasses," said Jennifer Costa, 46, an information technology coordinator from the area who was shopping on a recent weekend with her husband.

Michael Shahrabani, 46, a real estate developer from Arlington, Va., who once furnished his entire house with vintage furniture from flea markets around the country, said he thinks the community atmosphere of many flea markets is being destroyed.

"I know eBay has its place but... it's not as much fun. Buying something on the Internet just doesn't have the same feel as interacting as a vendor. Vendors have a story about the things they are selling. It may have been a family heirloom or come from countries far away," said Shahrabani, who operates a flea market in Arlington that is trying to preserve its secondhand roots.

Part discount store, part carnival
Flea markets -- part discount store, part carnival -- have been around in one form or another for centuries, but they began to boom in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. The San Jose Flea Market opened its doors in March 1960. It was the creation of George Bumb, who was in the landfill business and who kept finding usable castoffs in his junkyards. He wanted to create a place where people with items they no longer wanted could link up with people who wanted those items.

Over the years such commerce became an important part of the country's entrepreneurial culture, providing an opportunity for someone to start a business without putting a lot of money down and without making a long-term commitment. The number of flea markets has been steadily growing, according to the National Flea Market Association, with 2.25 million vendors and $30 billion in sales annually.

Joe Bumb, 50, George Bumb's nephew, was one of the lucky entrepreneurs who got a boost from the flea market. His store has a revenue of about $100,000 each month, although in recent years business has become more difficult. He sells mostly jewelry these days, but finds that people don't believe they're getting a bargain unless they check it out on the Internet.

"Eventually I won't need a store or rather the store won't help much anymore," Bumb said. "I will be doing this from my garage with a computer."

The Internet side of his business is thriving, with revenue of $20,000 a month and growing. Neil Lopez, 40, the online sales manager, now a variety of items, from Barbies and Nintendo systems to rare coins. "Customers that we had coming through our doors, say, seven to 10 years ago, they just don't come in anymore. They are online," he said.

The customers who do show up are far more sophisticated than in years past, said Julie Campbell, 46, manager of the Bellwood Flea Market in Richmond, Va.

"The ones that come into flea markets, if there's something in particular they like -- let's say Spiderman lunch boxes -- they look it up in books and eBay before coming so they know the prices," Campbell said. Same for the vendors selling them. While it's possible to occasionally find a bargain, she added, it's less likely nowadays that someone will find a 50-cent gold necklace or a first-edition Beatles record for $5, as some of her acquaintances reported they did in the past.

In the Washington area, a number of flea markets are held, including in Georgetown, Eastern Market, Bethesda, Columbia and Arlington.

New generation of entrepreneurs
The Internet has made it possible for a new generation of entrepreneurs to thrive in the great Silicon Valley tradition. They buy new items wholesale and sell them at a profit at the flea market. With rents starting at only a few hundred dollars a month, the risk is minimal.

Vincente Velazquez and his wife, Esther, buy new women's dresses wholesale for $22 and sell them at the San Jose Flea Market for $45. Mercedes Lara, 32, who runs a baptism and communion store that sells children's clothing, said part of the appeal of the flea market is the diversity of merchandise.

"At some retail stores the same stuff is there for months," said Lara, who works with her mother, daughter and two sisters-in-law. "Everybody brings in new stuff all the time here. It changes daily."

Campbell said that while the number of vendors selling new items has grown to more than half of her Richmond market over the past few years, she tries to keep encouraging people to bring in stuff from their attics or garages.

"To me that's what a flea market is -- secondhand items, recycling them to a new family," she said.

Shahrabani is also among those trying to hold the line. About five years ago, he started a new market near the Court House Metro station in Arlington that only accepts vendors selling original or secondhand wares -- "stuff you wouldn't find at a shopping center," he said. One vendor sells old advertisements, another vintage books. There are a few landscape photographers and a woman who makes her own purses.

Shahrabani said that a few days ago a vendor showed up with 200 copies of the new Harry Potter book and wanted to sell them at the market. Although the market was only 60 percent full, he turned her away.

"I said, 'That's not the kind of item we want to have here,' " Shahrabani remembered telling her. "The flea market is not just about how much rent we can get but it's about creating an event, an atmosphere."

It's an emotional reaction that Alvari, from the San Jose Flea Market, shares, although he is resigned to the new reality.

"Part of us are a little disappointed in what's happened" to flea markets, Alvari said. But, change "is the nature of everything. It's the nature of progress."