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Bad economy brings new vendors to swap meet

on October 31, 2009

Saturday at the Richmond Parkway Community Marketplace feels like a ghost town. About 30 vendors set up on a lot made for 200 booths. The three-year-old Richmond flea market, hidden behind an auto wrecking lot on Gertrude Ave, attracts new vendors and shoppers every week through word-of-mouth. Lately, the word is that it’s a great place for the unemployed and underemployed to make extra money.

Leonet Gonzalez sets up his booth next to the food carts.

Leonet Gonzalez sets up his booth next to the food carts.

Leonet Gonzalez, 50, paid $20 to set up shop, and displayed used books at the front of his table. He also sells worn Levis, vintage thermoses and dozens of mini-flashlights imported from China. It was Gonzales’ first day as a vendor at the Richmond flea market.

Visitors can hear Spanish throughout the market. Smells of fried dough, burnt cinnamon, and grilled meats are signals that fresh churros, pupusas, and tacos are around the corner. Gonzales picked a lonely spot in the back, near the pupusa cart and the taco truck. “There’s less competition and it’s near the food, where people always gather,” he said.

Visitors buying fresh fruit at the flea market.

Visitors buying fresh fruit at the flea market.

At one point Gonzalez owned three successful discount stores in Oakland and Mexico City selling salvaged products from Costco. In 2005 after a crippling decline in sales, he switched his small business strategy away from storefronts to flea markets. Since then he’s been a regular at the Oakland Coliseum swap meet and recently expanded to Richmond and Alameda.

Shoppers at a nearby booth browse slowly looking through a black tangle of electronic cords and adapters hoping to find a replacement, perhaps, for a lost phone charger. Others come to the flea market for necessities like fresh fruit, toilet paper, and even live chickens.

Shoppers and vendors bring their families too — older kids act as part-time help and younger children play at the feet of parents or relatives. In one play area small children spend hours jumping in a Spiderman bounce house. Older children race through a bounce house obstacle course.

Leonet Gonzales' first day as a vendor at the Richmond flea market.

Leonet Gonzales' first day as a vendor at the Richmond flea market.

Gonzalez worked hard to attract the attention of 800 – 1,000 visitors on Saturday. On Sunday, foot traffic quadruples and about 150 vendors line the aisles. Admission is free on Saturdays and only one dollar on Sundays.

But more foot traffic doesn’t always translate to more sales, especially for new vendors like Gonzalez. “Sometimes it is about the customers trusting you, seeing you there every week. I have to be persistent, always showing up with good products,” he said.

Vendor Robert Shipao, 54, said he’s here because he was laid off three months ago. “I’m looking for a job right now but on the weekends I can come here and make a few extra bucks,” he said. Shipao worked for 24 years in the electronics industry. His booth features a glass showcase with hand-written signs advertising affordable batteries and servicing for watches and laser pointers.

People who have jobs may come here for a new source of income to support their family’s growing need. Jesus Resendia, 36, collects scrap metal and fixes appliances during the weekday but on weekend he sells ceramic dishwares, shoes (all size 7), bags, toys, and clothes. He displayed his items neatly on blankets or in vintage suitcases. Resendia doesn’t mind waking up at dawn for a day at the flea market. He said, “If can make $200 a day doing this, then it’s not hard work.”

Closeout items include figurines made out of nuts, bolts and screws.

Closeout items include figurines made out of nuts, bolts and screws.

The slow economy has forced many young entrepreneurs like Celina Feng, 25, out of business. Feng has been clearing her inventory at the Richmond flea market since closing her gift store in Oakland Chinatown. For a mere $2, shoppers can buy expressive figurines made out of nuts, bolts and screws. Sprayed with chrome-colored paint, these tiny decorations can pass as museum gift shop items.

Although Gonzalez recently closed Legogo, his Oakland flagship of 11 years, he keeps a positive attitude. “I know more about shoes, antiques, computers, cameras and even diamonds and crystals just by talking to my customers” he said. “I have a degree in international trade from Instituto Politécnico Nacional in Mexico City, but I’ve learned so much its like being back at school. I would say I have master degree in flea markets.”

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