“There are good days, and there are bad days, and this is one of them,” Lawrence Welk once remarked, and I’ve found that kind of ambiguity reflects the essence of expat life. Traveling back and forth between two countries twice a year, crossing an ocean and nine time zones in each direction, words like “normal and “home” shift their meanings so abruptly I sometimes suffer from culture lag. When I find myself feeling like a stranger in my own country, I know there’s a simple, sure-fire remedy that will help me re-connect with what it truly means to be an American.
I go to a flea market.
I love flea markets and all their various cousins: swap meets, rummage sales, garage sales, yard sales, estate sales, antiques markets, and white elephant sales. If you’ve never been to one, picture a giant, open-air, pop-culture museum where you’re allowed – encouraged, even – to play with all the displays. Sellers will explain the history, cultural significance, and use of each item; often your fellow shoppers will chime in with, “White go go boots! I wore a pair to the Beatles concert in 1964.” The people watching is some of the finest in the nation; the tattoos alone are worth the visit.
And then there are the bargains. In 1959, my mother was working at the parochial school rummage sale when a woman she knew paid $3 for a face powder compact, and the shiny decorations on the lid turned out to be real diamonds. Let me hasten to add, that’s never happened to me. But I have bought great stuff that seemed ludicrously undervalued, such as a carved mahogany cabinet for $28. If you fall in love with something, chances are you'll be able to dicker over the price until it becomes affordable. (Try doing that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art!)
This summer, it suddenly struck me that when international visitors arrive, eager to experience “the real America,” this is where I should be taking them. Oh sure, they can also go to New York, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon if they must. But for a close-up, hands-on, take-home-a-piece-of-it experience, I’m recommending a day at a flea market.
So as a public service for any of my readers who may be visiting America this summer, here’s my short course in flea markets.
Finding one. There are more than a thousand permanent flea markets in the country, and countless more temporary venues, so chances are you can easily locate one with a simple Google search. Most are free, but the larger ones with higher quality goods may charge an entrance fee, typically $5 or $10; some charge extra for early admission, giving professional resellers a head start on the best bargains.
Choosing one. Generally a flea market or swap meet involves dozens or hundreds of individual stands, many run by collectors who travel the circuit. A yard sale, garage sale, or estate sale is usually a single family selling off personal belongings; an estate sale implies (but doesn’t always deliver) higher quality goods. A rummage sale or white elephant sale is usually a fundraiser sponsored by a church or school.
Dickering. It’s optional and not the elaborate haggling you may have done in, say, Istanbul. If the red cowboy boots you want are priced at $25, you can ask if they’ll take $15 or $20. They’ll say yes or no, and that’s pretty much it. Flea market pros know to the penny how much they want to make on each item; families running yard sales usually just want to move the stuff at any price.
Buyer beware. This is a cash-only, no-guarantees, no-returns business. Check everything carefully before you buy. And of course, watch out for pickpockets.
So why settle for the usual round of conventional tourist sites when you can enjoy an offbeat American icon? Whether your flea market souvenir is a piece of vintage jewelry, an antique baseball glove, an early edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, a Malibu Barbie lunchbox, or nothing at all, you’ll certainly take home priceless memories and a better understanding of America, in all its loony splendor.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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