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Ashby Flea Market a good deal in a bad economy

29 March 2009 No Comment

By Huda Ahmed/510 Report

Liz Martin sits on the passenger’s side of her shabby gray van – the side away from the sun – which is parked on a Saturday afternoon next to the spot where her merchandise is on display at Berkeley’s Ashby Flea Market. She keeps her eyes on three stools supporting organized piles of colorfully embroidered used bed sheets and pillows folded in plastic bags. Martin, who is 82, has been a vendor at the flea market since it began more than 32 years ago, and she never has left her spot.
At first, she said, “There was nothing here. It was kind of a hard time but we stuck around. I used to make 75 cents a day, but I stayed here and the flea market got built up.” Martin is wearing a red spotted shirt and long colorful skirt; time has not had much effect on her dark skin. Through the van’s half-down window, she muses, “I really do not know why they called it a ‘flea market.’ All I know is that when they first said ‘flea market,’ I thought they were talking about selling fleas.” She bursts out laughing.
In fact, the flea market at the Ashby BART station is a Berkeley landmark, which many customers from around the Bay Area visit for the good deals. The market is open only on weekends, but it provides a valuable service to both the vendors who want to earn a living by selling new and used merchandise, and for customers looking for bargains.  Some people go to the market for the fun of the day or to just have a glimpse of the merchandise.
The market is divided into rows of stalls; the floor is covered with merchandise shaded by brightly colored umbrellas and small tents. One can find nearly anything needed to furnish a full house: records, jewelry, clothes, incense, tools, books – even African masks and old portraits of American celebrities. Groups of drummers sit next to the Ashby BART’s main entrance and play African music. The smell of hot dogs and Mexican food from mobile booths fill the air; children play around or cling to their parents’ clothes. On a perfect sunny day, the market is like an open mall where families can relax.
People also find it a good place to re-sell used objects, or buy secondhand items to furnish their houses. A shopper named Elizabeth, who gave only her first name, was looking for a good, cheap piece of furniture for her daughter who recently bought a condo and ran out of money to furnish the place. “Furniture is just as good old as new,” she said. “People come to the flea market both because they want to recycle things and for clothing. You see here things you do not see anywhere else.” But Elizabeth predicted that the slow economy would push people to try shop carefully. “After a few more months when needs pile up, I expect more people would be looking at flea markets and thrift stores,” Elizabeth said. As she walked away, she kept her eyes open for worthy items she might buy.
For some vendors, the flea market provides a second income, if not the main way they pay their bills. Dray, who goes only by her first name, is a 58-year-old woman with 18 grandchildren, who works part-time building computers for Oakland high schools and sells jewelry and clothes at the flea market on weekends.  As she uses her long red artificial nails to arrange her colorful handmade jewelry, displayed atop three stools, she says, “I come here to supplement my income and pay my bills to go back to school next fall.”
The flea market was established in 1976 right after Ashby BART was built. It was formed to sell antiques and used objects. The vendors began to organize their merchandise on stools and advertised their trade by telling friends.  People began to come over to browse the merchandise and maybe buy something. Today, the flea market is crowded on weekends, with more than 190 vendors and dealers.
Despite its popularity, the Ashby Flea Market has not escaped some threats to its location throughout the years. The last one, according to the market’s Web site, was a proposal by the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation to housing on the west parking lot. But Errol Davis, the flea market’s general manager, says that although the issue is not entirely settled, he considers it a “cold case” that is unlikely to move forward anytime soon. “I think they stopped because of the economy,” he says. “We are fine for now.”
And as jewelry seller Dray points out, the country’s recession is actually good for the flea market and its culture of deal-making. “People do not have money to buy expensive stuff. I’m helping the economy, I’m helping the people,” she says. “It is a good place to bargain and make money.”

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