By Marguerite Richards
“If you really want to get the good stuff, you gotta get here early, when they’re still unloading. You catch ‘em unprepared, when they haven’t set their prices yet.” Sounds like what you might hear whispered from an expert to a novice in a barter-centric society like in Thailand or Morocco. But this is something you’ll overhear at a Francisco Bay Area flea market. The flea market, or “the flea” for short, is not only a place to hunt for buried treasure, but also where crafts people and vendors from all over come to show off their collections. And while there are some regulars who hide out until the moment they smell a serious shopper, many vendors love showing up to the Bay Area’s fleas for their social atmosphere.
“It’s a real conversation piece,” one vendor recently told me as she maneuvered a hand letterpress and explained how it functioned. “I’ve been meaning to set up a stand so that folks could come by to press their own names, and leave with something fun.” This woman had a huge collection of typeset alphabets, all mismatched pieces on display so users could create their own art. It was clear this friendly lady wasn’t here to make a buck, but that she was all about the social situation. She was just one of the dozens of friendly folks manning the booths at the Treasure Island Flea market, a monthly San Francisco favorite.
Here’s how to attack this and other Bay Area flea markets.
Chatting Up the Natives
At the entrance to the Treasure Island flea, I met an old cowboy in full costume, strumming his guitar. A young man came to make a request, and in response the cowboy staunchly replied, “I don’t play what I’m told, I play what I want!” and then pointed to his tip jar and went on strumming. What a character. Like in any country, you may feel worlds away on how to approach these locals, but if you do it with a smile, you can’t go wrong. If you find a friendly vendor, you'll be sure to partake in a truly local experience. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions: for many, the social element of the flea is the most enjoyable aspect of their work.
Chances are good any vendor knows the value of his goods, but they may try to get more than it’s worth. Learning the art of the barter starts with having a sense of humor. You need to go in with a smile. There’s no fun in being serious: after all, it’s just a flea market!
A rule of thumb is to allow the vendor to propose the starting price, and you follow with what you think the item’s worth, for you. If the vendor doesn't lower the price, simply thank him or her and walk away. Never scoff at the price and certainly never walk back. The moment you give any sign of truly wanting the item, you lose your power in the barter. To keep the upper hand as the client, feel confident that you'll find the same treasure elsewhere for a lower price. The vendor very well may call you back to renegotiate.
Ready to try your hand? Here's our round-up of the best fleas in the Bay.
Every Wednesday and Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., check out the flea on Alemany Blvd. in San Francisco. The locals will tell you that every visit is a different experience. Sunday is the bigger day to go, when you’ll find ten times the vendors. To get there, take the Muni 67 bus from the 24th Mission BART stop. Note: If you’re a serious antique shopper, the Alameda Point Antiques Faire will steal many of the best antique vendors on the last Sunday of the month.
The Berkeley Flea Market, every Saturday and Sunday all year long (7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.),is located just a block from the Ashby Bart station— a super-convenient location for those traveling from San Francisco. With up to 280 vendors, this is free flea is a mainstay, going strong for nearly four decades now.
Treasure Island Flea
Traveling to San Francisco’s Treasure Island to find your pirate’s booty is a perfect idea. This is a great place to have lunch too: you’ll find half a dozen gourmet food trucks. Seating is limited to a couple of picnic benches, so bring something to sit on, or head across the street from the flea with your pals to sit on the big rocks at the water’s edge for a delightful view of the Bay Bridge and the city skyline. Last weekend of every month, open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Entrance is $3. Take the Muni 108 from downtown SF for a ten-minute bus ride.
Alemeda Point Antiques Faire
This flea’s worth a mention for its ginormous size: a whopping 800 vendors will keep you strolling booth after booth all day long. Explore home deco, clothing, jewelry, art, and tons of collectables. A free shuttle will pick you up from the Fruitvale Bart station. Entrance price decreases as it gets later in the morning (6:00 a.m. $15; 7:30 $10; 9:00 a.m to 3:00 p.m. $5). These specialists know that the true pirates show up early!
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