Behind the old junks: An Ethnography of a Market place

Santa Cruz flea market is a place for bargain hunters. People going there are looking for bargains, but with good quality. Vendors sell ” a dollar store” items and junk they found in the basement. Hovewer, vendors are not allowed to sell alcoholic beverages, drugs, guns and ammunitions. I hardly find vendors selling wild animals, rabbits, dogs, cats, reptiles, and birds. Selling porn DVDs are also allowed as long as they are must put on the box and not displayed openly. I also almost never see vendors selling liquors or animals, except some of the vendors smoke marijuana, as the smell is so telling and strong.

The flea market is open from Friday to Sunday from 5am to 3pm. Sunday is the most crowded because people have more free time. Therefore, the price to rent the space is 50 dollars on Sunday, which is more expensive compared to Friday and Saturday. On Friday, the rent for the space is 20 US dollars, and on Saturday the rent is 30 dollars. The space is six feet by six feet.

Since the flea market is an open air space market, weather determines if people will to come or not to the market. When the sun is bright, there will be many more people come and the other way around. If the weather is sunny, all of the parking spaces are packed. Even people have to come earlier so that they can get a parking space. The most crowd time is from 12 to 2pm. However, many people also recognize that if they come late after 2pm, there many free goods given by vendors. This is because the vendors do not want to bring their bulky stuff back to their home.

Weather has a significant role to determine the condition of the market. Vendors usually reserve the space one or two days before Friday. The flea market office also will not refund the rented space if the rain falls during the weekend. Therefore, vendors cannot reserve earlier than seven days because the weather also less accurate if predicted seven days before. When the vendor reserves the space, he should pay attention to the weather because the ticket reservation will not be refund even though it’s rainy.

Weekend also has its different situations. Friday, Saturday and Sunday have its characteristics because they are distinguished based on the rent of the space and the price of admission. On Friday, the price of one-person visit is only one dollar. On Saturday the admission is one dollar a half and on Sunday is two dollars a half. On Friday, although the rent of the space is cheaper than Saturday or Sunday, not many vendors come and sell. Likewise, not many people come to visit; instead, most of them have packed their stuffs at 12.30 because the day is very hot. Nevertheless, Friday is the day that most of the trader’s intimacy is shaped. When not many buyers come, vendors have lots of time to chat among one another. Some of the vendors also buy another things in another vendor. For example, Liza, she is 45 year old, she usually buys an interesting DVDs from a vendor that next to her space. She said to me that she likes non-fiction films about adventure because she took anthropology in a college in Monterey. On Friday, some people also share information about a rare collection. Max, he is about 30ish, usually comes to his friend in another space selling bicycle spare parts. Max always pays attention to the things that he needs to upgrade his bike collections. And if he does not find the one that he likes, he just says to his friend “alright, so I see you on next Friday”, which means that the Max’s friend only sells the spare part on Friday. He will not show up on Saturday on Sunday.

Seeing is Believing 

There are many small things that I paid attention in my observation. However, they have been significant stories in constructing the whole narration of my monograph. I paid attention to the different days of the weekends, between Friday, Saturday and Sunday. During this spring quarter, I went to the Flea Market at least every Sunday. When I had more spare time I also go on Friday and Saturday, so that I can distinguish the market conditions based on the different days. I also observed the weather, the smells of the market, the language that the vendors use, and the exchanged commodities. I paid attention to the interaction among vendors and their interaction with customers. However, I had difficulties in understanding Spanish, is mostly spoken by the Chicano vendors. Some of the vendors also speak English, but they turn to speak Spanish when they talk to other Spanish vendors. Therefore, in terms of communication, I had easier to chat with white vendors because they speak English.

I followed a vendor that sells their product. By following a vendor, I know vendor’s pattern of selling at the Flea Market. The vendors should be very well prepared before going to sell. They tend to go early in the morning. The earlier the better because they can buy many good products at cheaper price from other vendors, which they can sell at higher price during the day. For vendors that priced their products, the buyers assumed that the products are like in the store, which have fix prices. They also have the change to the buyers who would break their money. The vendors also always keep paying attention to the weather prediction in the weekend and before they go. They also have to make sure that their mobile phones are with them. Mobile phone is very important to keep in contact with customers who order products. The vendors should also have maintained their good reputation by not selling broken junk, except telling the buyers first if their products are not working. This rule is very important because trade and exchange are about mutual trust and continuous relations between vendor and customers who usually come back almost every week.

I also track the products at a store called Goodwill, which most of the vendors buy wholesale. By tracking exchanged commodities, I am not only seeing the exchange that occurs in the market, but also considering the supply chain and the route of distributions. For example, when I asked one vendor selling bag, “why the quality of the bags that he displays decline over the weeks?” he said that he was always lost in bidding the wholesale bags that he bought in San Jose. Therefore, the quality products at the Flea Market have to do with supply chain that happens in the wholesale store.

In this research, I interviewed three white vendors and three Chicano vendors. My interview was based on the race and ethnic differences. The interview is semi-structured because I came every weekend without bringing the same questions. Sometimes my conversations were interrupted because the vendors would talk with customers. However, I also have many short conversations with vendors whom usually gone by the next week. They already moved to another market and showed up again within several weeks.

In the discussion about Flea Market, Paul Stoller (1996) gives me inspiration to see vendors in the flea market. He defines that vendors is a type of “informal economic”. To the state eye, vendors are considered informal because they only provide small revenue to the government income. The open-air market is seen cluttered, dirty, chaotic and ungoverned. Commonly, migrants, such as from West Africa or Latin America, dominate the market. Therefore, the flea market is the symbol of migrants and lower class space. In the flea market, most people speak Spanish. This language not only shows an intimacy, but also for some people, speaking Spanish can lower the price when they buy something. Spanish becomes a vernacular language. Vendors use the Spanish language when they recognize that their customer looks Latino, do not look like white people, Asian or Black American.

To compensate using the state space, the government charges vendors, which is incredibly expensive over time. Stoller gives an example that in 1996, to rent a piece of space in the 128 Avenue, New York, the vendors should pay 2,500 USD per year. Specifically on Sunday, in the Santa Cruz flea market, Carloz rents a space for 60 dollar with the size of six feet by six feet. To him, the price is still quite expensive. The price the space is also one of the factors that make the goods more expensive on Sunday.

The flea market is unique because the place cluttered and chaotic, like places in third world countries, but it is implanted in a firs-world setting, which is symbolize its order and cleanliness. Flea market is a third world space, which becomes the place for migrants to share the feelings of a common identity and to exchange cheaper goods. However, the flea market is inextricably interconnected with various zones of “first world” spaces. The various characteristics of vendors as I classify above, and also various background of customer proves that flea market are the space that connects the third and the first world.

In terms of sense, the flea market as “the third world space” is represented with its smell and odor (Classen, 1992). The filthy conditions of the market created specific smell, which symbolizes class and taste (Classen, 1992: 137). The repulsiveness of the odor and other physical qualities attributed to the flea market simultaneously differentiate this place from other places such as Whole Foods, Save Way, Trader Joe’s, and Cost Co, which also sell the same goods as flea market but they have different smell and odor. Therefore, odor might become a mark of space separation and barriers among groups of society to interact with one another (ibid, 157-8). In other words, odor contributes to the body sensory and order of a society. The certain smell of the flea market automatically creates border between migrants and upper middle class individuals who tend to spend their consumption in a fancy super market.

Although open-air markets look chaotic, the organization among vendors is indeed very well organized. Vendors from the same ethnic groups sell the same goods and they have very well organized one another. Here I conclude that economic and social lives are interlinked; they are not against each other. Besides maximization of profit, social reasons also drive the aims of economic transactions. Religious matters, family interests, and community bonds affect the direction and strategy of business (Gudeman, 2001, Tsing, 2009). Economic transactions not only circulate wealth among vendors, but also aim to strengthen political, religious and ethnicity affiliations (Geertz, 1968). Marilyn Strathern argues that the distinction between social and economic life is a framing from a capitalist worldview. She refuses the idea from neo-classical economics arguing that economy and social lives stand in different arenas. Instead, she believes the small and the large aspects of cultural issues intermingle with economic lives (Strathern, 1985: 192-3). Therefore, vendors’ activities not only aim to maximize individual profit, but also to enforce sovereignty of an ethnicity.

To see vendors’ activities, exchanges and distribution of commodities in the flea market, I will track the value or the most desirable human life that could embody in goods and interactions. Thus, the aim of trade and exchange could be both to gain the maximum profit, strengthen social solidarity and seeking a pleasure. The reasons why people conduct trade and exchange after conflict could be both in an object and a person. In other words, the value could be in the exchanged object or in the social relationships. Pierre Bourdieus’ approach about action of economic man argues that individual has self-interest to calculate, to make rational decisions in facing scarce resources, and to get maximum gain as much as possible. Thus, Bourdieu puts the value is in the action of economic man and its motivation to accumulate symbolic capital to get the real economic gain at the end (Bourdieu, 2005). To get at these less tangible dimensions of value, I will see the value starts from a notion of activity. Things could be valuable since they emerged through actions. In other words, commodities or tools can be significant and useful if they are valued through human actions, such as exchange, transaction, and ritual. Value embodies in action and human memory. Social actors themselves reincarnate and embody value through an ongoing process of social relations and actions, (Graeber, 2001: 211). Through the human’s action, I can trace the reasons why people who were previously involved in the war, would engage in the exchanges and economic transactions after conflict. Every individual, between communities, society and state has a contract that at the same time creates the value not only through properties, but also through words, and invisible attributes, like honor, forgiveness, love, respect, dignity and redemption (Graeber, 2011: 161). Therefore, value could be realized through the exchange because an exchange not only involves distribution of properties, but exchange can also create peace, solidarity and alliance.

Nevertheless, vendors do not see ethnic background when they are doing economic transactions. In other words, they have a “rationality” to maximize their business. They can do business with anybody because the most important thing is to earn a profit. Money has no smell, and any vendor can do business with any people regardless of their race, ethnicity, and religious background. The phrase “money has no smell” shows that albeit the same collective member of certain ethnic groups or small village clan runs market and every individual vendor has a desire to gain maximum profit. Therefore, my project argues that economic activities in flea markets have both social objectives and economic desires. This argument tries to go beyond the unending debate in classical economic anthropology between substantivist versus formalist anthropologists.

Following the Vendors and the Goods

On Sunday morning, at 6am, I follow a vendor; his name is Carloz. One day before, he already reserved the ticket for a space, in the flea market office and he had to pay 60 dollars. We went to the flea market by his car. When we arrived, I helped him to drop the boxes off. There are about six boxes; three of the boxes consist of DVD’s and VCDs and the others are clothing, toys and other merchandise.

We came very early, and the day was still dark. Some vendors already installed their tent. Interestingly, other vendors who also came early conducted “a guerilla” to find other products, which are cheaper than their own products. When Carloz had just put out bags from the boxes, a Vietnamese vendor came to him and asked a lower price for the bags. Carloz just gave some deal price and the Vietnamese took the bags. She increased the price twice when the bags moved to her table.

The first types of vendors are able to identify other vendors who sell their goods for cheap prices. Therefore, in the early morning, they also buy some other products from other vendors who sell their products for cheap. Back to the Vietnamese vendor story above, she also tried to buy all of the DVDs and VCDs from Carloz. Given that Carloz knew that the Vietnamese vendor would resell the DVDs with double price, Carloz increased the price a little bit. He asked the price 120 dollar for all of his DVDs, but then the Vietnamese cancelled to buy all of his DVDs and she started to move around finding other cheaper goods.

After 1pm vendors tend to lower the price to the half rate. However, many vendors just give their products to the people. Here, I refer to the idea of the “gift”. Vendors giving their products for free have many objectives, which depend on the kinds of products that they give. Vendors give bulky and heavy stuff, such as glass table or chairs, because they do not want to bring these products back with them anymore; they really want to release these bulky stuffs. However, some vendors also give their products for free after the buyers purchase some other stuff. Vendors also give some stuff to the buyers for making the buyers have a feel obliged to buy some other products. In this case, the meaning of gifts has two different aims. First, gift has a moral obligation for people to receive, and return back the gift by buying some other things from the vendors. Second, gift is to reproduce relations. As a social production, gift does not necessarily perform the wealth of the giver and the accumulation process of the receiver. In the afternoon, Carloz had successfully sold the three boxes of DVDs. He gets more than 60 dollar, which means his income for one day has passed his capital for renting the space.

In addition, I also visit Goodwill, a main store that supplies products to the Flea Market. The reasons I visit Goodwill is because I want to know where the things in Flea Market come. Marcus (1995: 106-07) suggests that one of the approaches of the multi-sited ethnography is to follow the people and the things. These techniques are to see the exchange and the movement of the subjects in particular cultural complexes, such as in the economic transactions, mode of migration, and pattern of trade. Following goods is to see the circulation of objects such as commodities, money, and gifts. Goodwill is a warehouse that was built in 1953, which nowadays has many branches around the US. It is also a non-profit organization that accepts donations from people who are willing to give their stuff. Most of the revenue of Goodwill not only comes from private donation and public grants, but also mostly comes from resale-donated goods. The price in Goodwill is very cheap because all of the donated goods are tax-free. The donation place is located at the back of the warehouse. Most people donate their clothes, household goods, furniture, books and fake jewelry.

One of the development programs from Goodwill is the establishment Santa Cruz Flea Market. Goodwill has operated this market since 2008. They have made a significant contribution to the revenue by operating this market. Goodwill aligns with small retailers and vendors by supporting them with the cheap goods. During the weekend vendors come to Goodwill, and there is a long line of vendors who wait to buy goods.


The Novelty Things in the Market 

There are three main sorts of vendors in the flea market. The first vendor is the one who has a settled place. Every week, they do not move around from the space that they rent. These vendors sell fixed price commodities, such as fruits and vegetables, food and beverages. The second type of vendor is those who buy wholesale products from a store called

There are three main sorts of vendors in the flea market. The first vendor is the one who has a settled place. Every week, they do not move around from the space that they rent. These vendors sell fixed price commodities, such as fruits and vegetables, food and beverages. The second type of vendor is those who buy wholesale products from a store called Goodwill, and then they sell these products in flea market. The products that they sell are various, from used tape recorders, VCDs, paintings, sofas and many other goods. From Goodwill, the wholesale price is 1,5 dollar/pound for any product. Vendors usually buy the wholesale from 300-500 dollar. In the flea market, these vendors sell their products in retail.

The third type of vendors is those who sell products just because they do not want their goods with them anymore. They usually sell products at a lowest price, so that all of their products can be sold as quickly as possible. Usually, after 1pm or when the flea market is almost closed, these vendors just give their goods to anyone who is interested. Vendors give free bulky stuff such as chairs, sofas, and glass tables. Unlike the first vendor, the third vendor usually does not sell goods regularly every week. Or, even though they sell almost every week, usually they do not have a regular space like the first vendor.

The third vendors also have a habit to hoard many goods, such as DVDs, clothes, shoes, and pants. Therefore, when they sell back their stuff, they sell it in a big number. For example, in order to attract people to buy things in many numbers, the vendors sell four VCDs for 5 dollars, instead of selling one by one. Unlike the first and second vendor, the third vendor usually just drops the products on the ground covered with tarpaulin. They do not put their products very neatly on purpose, because whenever they put their stuff on the table or under the tent, everybody can recognize that their stuff is more expensive and cannot be bid.

I also found some interesting findings about the third vendors who sell their stuff for house clearance. Specifically, the clothes that they sell represent a vendor’s size and their taste, in terms of the brand, color and design. Interestingly, if the whole family comes and sells at the flea market, we can guess the size of the clothes according to the family member that come to the market. This type of vendor is different from the “professional” vendors who sell products by understanding the consumer demand.

Anemarie Mol (2009) believes that taste provides pleasure. Consumption has to do with pleasure seeking. Therefore, people hoard things in order to gather their pleasure. In the third type of vendors that I described above, the goods that they sell in the flea market are showing their taste. However, buying something for pleasure is only true for the third type of vendor. They only sell their stuff whenever they do not like it anymore. Although Mol proposes good taste as a positive category, to me, after observing what happen in the flea market, “good taste” has interestingly been staged as a move in bourgeois social status.


Between Familiism and Friendship

In general, I found different patterns of trade between white and Chicano vendors. The white vendors do not have their family come and sell at the Flea Market. They also usually go with their partner, but mostly they do not ask their family to come consistently. Some of the white vendors also take their families, but they do not sell consistently as Chicano vendors. They only sell to clear their stuff from the house. They sell pants, clothes, porcelain, glassware and jewelry. However, they only show up one time. Likewise, another white vendors come with his partners and their dogs. They sell merchandise and outdoors equipment, but they do not show up every week.

While Chicano vendors involve their wife, younger brother, and sister in law at the Flea Market, some Chicano vendors also involve their nephew. Compared to the white vendors, most of the Chicanos sell fruits and vegetable. Two of the Chicano vendors, which are located opposite one another, bring their family. These two vendors sell the same goods with the similar pattern of trade. The first Chicano vendor brings their family. One of the vendors is a sibling. Two brothers sell seasonal fruits, such as oranges, jicamas, pineapples, and peaches, while one of the wives of the two brothers sells seasonal vegetables, such as spinach, chives, onions and garlic. This Chicano vendor has two children who are milling around the place. A similar thing also happened with the opposite Chicano vendor that also involves their family. The two couples that are fifties involve their two children. In selling their products, these two vendors also rent double space, so that, they can share the space among the families.

The pattern of trade among Chicanos is based on the “familiism”, while the white vendors is based on the brotherhood. The two Chicanos that I describe above do not get along with one another because they compete by selling the same products. They both buy their products from different places. The first vendor that I mentioned got the seasonal fruits and vegetables from the Northern part of California, Fresno, while the second Chicano vendor buys the wholesale fruits and vegetables from Southern California. The Chicano vendors share profit among their families. On the other hand, the white vendors are more individual. Instead of having family in the family market, the white vendors build a friendship among other vendors. While selling, they visit one another to chat. To them, selling on the flea market is a fun task rather than something serious.

In another spot, a new Chicano vendor blocks an old Chicano vendor selling the same Mexican food but with a different menu. Juan, the old vendor, was so annoyed because the new vendor blocked his truck. Juan works with his partner as a chef in the truck. To keep attracting customer to buy food in his truck, he adds a new employee who is his relative. His relative, who is his age, installs a new grill next to the truck. He bakes chicken and beef, so that the smoke temps the people to come. The smoke goes everywhere and reaches the new vendors that block his truck. Although the Chicano market is built based on familial network, the competition among vendor-based families is quite tense.

Different from the white vendors that build the vendor relationship based on friendships, the Chicano family deals with the trade very seriously and “professionally”. Two of the white vendors who I interviewed were saying that they have problems with their family. Their partners left them because of drugs addiction. Therefore, to have a friend in the flea market is very important to kill the loneliness. Two of the white vendors that I interviewed have known each other for more than fifteenth years.

In addition, when I interviewed one of the white vendors, he was smoking marijuana. The smell was so strong that I can tell. Classen (1997: 133) argues that odor and smell can be used as a basic categorization in seeing the similarities and differences across cultures. The smell of marijuana represents the working class and friendship. Because of the marijuana, some of the vendors know one another and start to have a conversation. White vendors smoke marijuana in the van, and they sometimes come out and talk to the customers. Some of the white vendors also share weed when they have spare time to talk. In contrast, the Chicano vendors do not smoke marijuana given that they also involve their families when selling.

Unlike market in Moluccas, Indonesia, in which the relationship is more shaped based on the familial and ethnic bonds, the Santa Cruz Flea Market, the relationship is more based on the friendship and collegiality. Mutual friendship is very highly stressed in this kind of interaction. What I mean by mutual interaction is a friendship that is shaped through the necessity upon things. In other words, market and their assemblages of things emerge the sense of brotherhood among vendors. However, I cannot generalize this finding, because some Chicano vendors selling fruits involve their family, such as wives and younger brothers. Therefore, they build more familial relationship rather than friendship.

Some vendors do not sell their stuff on Sunday because the rented space is expensive for them. They mostly only sell cheap stuff, which cannot cover the rented space on Sunday. They only show on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, the interactions among vendors are not that intensive because many people come, and vendors have to take care with their stuff and serve people who come. One example is Fred; he is about 55 year old. He only sells stuff on Friday because the rented space is cheap. He sells expired foods and beverages, such as olive oils, snacks, biscuits, ice tea, coffee, which have already expired for about more than six months. He gets these stuffs from some warehouses that sell the products very cheap. Because he sells every product more than half than the normal price in the stores, he only can afford the rented space on Friday. This is his rationality given that when he sells on Sunday, his profit will be regressed only for paying rent space. In conclusion, behind the brotherhood that is shaped on Friday, each of vendors also still has rationality to maximize their profit.


My fieldwork shows vendors at the Flea Market do not only seek a maximum profit but also build a social network and friendship. Vendors not only spare their time by talking with other vendors, mocking one another, but they also have a fetishism to see old beautiful and rare junks that can be found among vendors. Therefore, the value of the flea market is located both on the social relationships and commodity fetishism. This fieldwork extends applies to the debate in economic anthropology, between economic formalist and substantive. My findings show vendors have an interest on the money, but on the other hand, they also need to expand their social relations and enjoy the leisure time on the weekend. Moreover, in my classification, there at least three kinds of vendors that has different motives in selling their products. The variety of vendors shows that economic motives cannot be simplified into a two opposite debate in the classic economic anthropology between substantivist versus formalist. Different traders are intertwined and negotiating with one another. A trader’s set of interactions is linking many kinds of commodification, ranging from the most gifts to the most capitalized one. Therefore, there are multiple forms of traders trying to bridge all of these possibilities. Anna Tsing argues that in any case of chain of various kinds of commodities and the network of traders, there is any kind of reciprocities, ranging from the most money oriented to the most gifts liked (Tsing, 2009)

However, I also see that a flea market is not only a place for seeking maximum profit, but also a place to build a relationship and networks. The cheap, rare but good quality products in the flea market are the medium for building relationship. Gift giving not only occurs between the vendors and the customers, but also among the vendors themselves. I also conclude that the consumption practices at the Flea Market show the human fetish on things. Many people come to find and add a collection to the “old beautiful junks”. Things have a vibrant matter to attract people to come by their price.

In a broader sense, the flea market can be a mark of the economic condition. When the economy is in the downturn, the flea market activities are more alive. The customers tend to spend their money at this market, and also, there will be many new vendors selling their stuff. On the one hand, the vendor need sort of extra income, on the other hand, buyers need cheaper products than in the store. One vendor selling vegetable said to me “since more than three years, the sale of vegetables and fruits increase since people tend to cook than eating at the restaurant”.



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