Flea for Service

People who sell secondhand goods hang in despite hard times. 

By Liz Spikol 
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 14, 2009

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Quaker City Flea Market in the shadow of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge is more than a century old. Many of the items for sale on the outdoor tables look about that age too. On a recent Sunday afternoon, there are fragments of a Mister Potato Head; an Iron Butterfly album; an antique washboard; a painted plastic virgin and child; a pink violin; and a glass table with a naked mermaid pedestal. So many reverberations—tacky and urbane—of history.

Customers walk up to tables then veer away without buying anything. The vendors look disappointed. 

Fior Fernandez, a friendly ponytailed blond, has been in the business for 16 years. She’s here with her kids, her Chihuahua and her partner, Lily. Things aren’t great. Lately she gets more people trying to sell stuff to her, she says—and as we’re talking, someone sells something back to her that they bought last weekend. 

Then there are the dolls. 

“We wash them, comb their hair, wash the clothes,” Fernandez says, pointing to a gleaming pile of Barbies for sale. “Other vendors sell them for less, but they’re all dirty.” Fernandez charges more for her dolls, but the dirty ones sell. 

And that’s not all: “More people are stealing from the table,” Fernandez says. 

“And it’s not kids,” Lily adds, from behind dark glasses. “It’s older people.”

Still, Fernandez and Lily are hanging in. They like the energy here. The flea market brings out all kinds, Fernandez says, including the Sneaker Man. 

That’s Anthony Martin, owner of Sneaker Junction at Third and Market, who sells here on weekends. Surrounded by shoeboxes, Martin says things haven’t changed much in the 10 years he’s been here. “People always want to save money,” he says with a shrug, as his helper “Lefty” hands a bag to a customer. 

I walk past a food truck with a sign that reads “se necesita empleada” (worker wanted), and go inside Quaker City’s main building. One stall is filled floor to ceiling with pots and pans; I’m marveling at the complexity of the towers of metal when a pot clangs to the floor and an older woman with short gray hair goes inside to pick it up. 

Her name is Dot—“just Dot”—and the pots are in one of the three stalls she has. Business for pots and pans and ceramic figurines isn’t as brisk as for sneakers. A family walks by her area disinterestedly. “See?” she says. “That’s what they do now.” 

Dot’s been in the flea market business “forever,” working with her husband Mort before he passed. At flea markets in the old days, she says, people would bring things from their homes and sell them, so they didn’t need to turn a profit. But vendors like Dot make money by reselling, which is why she can’t bring her prices down. She pays $75 a weekend for each stall in this building. “It’s about rent,” she says. “It’s about gas.” 

Gas is a lot cheaper in New Jersey, where the Tacony-Palmyra Flea Market is. This market is very different from Quaker City: There are no vendors selling Columbian sausage sandwiches, or rheumy old men talking about why they don’t sell tweezers. It’s a capitalist vibe: all new products, albeit many of them discretionary. How many of us require a Scarface blanket, for instance? 

Cousins Mohammed Adad and Mohammed Diab work for their cousin Abdel. As the blankets they sell flap in the hot breeze, the cousins talk over each other about the drop in profits: They used to sell 50 “pieces” a day; now it’s 25. Both Mohammeds are in college, but their cousin does this full-time. “The economy is really bad now,” Abdel says. “Even the drug dealers are going out of business.” 

A few places down, vendor Sharon Gardner—who with her family sells new clothing and handbags—sees similar changes, but takes it more in stride. 

“People want things but they want to buy them cheap,” she says, with the hint of her native Jamaican accent. As an example, Gardner talks about some old shoes—discarded by her teenage daughter—that she put out on the table for $5. The shoes sold right away, while her pristine merchandise languishes. 

Gardner, who has a master’s degree, works here because she was laid off from her technical support job last February. But her attitude about the flea market is good. “This is fun,” she says. “For now.” ■

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