It’s an early-morning feeding frenzy. A swarm of “sharks”—specialists, dealers, collectors, and seasoned deal seekers—dart through the aisles of the Santa Cruz Flea Market on a cold and blustery Sunday in November, systematically feasting on and devouring easy prey (flea market newbies, or “minnows”) with cold and practiced precision. It’s 6:45 a.m., still dark and grey out, when the first shark appears in front of our makeshift booth (some carpets laid with shoes, books and other household castaways, and a clothing rack hung with once-loved pieces). Hastily—and might I add, a tad bit scornfully—he appraises our messy rows of wares. He hovers for a moment and shrewdly watches GT’s former managing editor Maria Grusauskas and I finish unloading our packed cargo van.
Held on the grounds of the former Skyview Drive-In each week (weather permitting) since 1971, the Santa Cruz Flea Market has long been a popular local institution and weekend ritual. For decades, throngs of deal seekers, treasure hunters, people watchers, and pro/am junk slingers have happily skipped through the market’s labyrinth of aisles. Most don’t know that the flea market is officially on the chopping block.
The Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF)—a branch of Sutter Hospital—purchased the property that the Santa Cruz Flea Market sits upon in 2006, and long ago announced their plan to develop a maternity ward on the valuable piece of real estate, eliminating the iconic flea market for good. No one really knows how much longer the Santa Cruz Flea Market can remain open.
And the writing may be on the wall. Earlier this year, Goodwill Central Coast, which manages and runs the Santa Cruz Flea Market, leasing the land from Sutter on a year-to-year basis, announced that it will end Friday operations at the flea market starting April 1, because Sutter wants the lots for overflow weekday parking. At least for the time being, the market will still be open Saturdays and Sundays.
Sutter actually did shut down the flea market for almost six months in 2007, sending panicked vendors scrambling for other venues and sources of income, and triggering a backlash from locals who had relied on the marketplace for decades.
Relocating the flea market to the fairgrounds in Watsonville sounded like a good idea at the time, but things never really took off there. Vendors and customers simply wouldn’t travel. Bowing to pressure from local residents, Sutter officials eventually declared that they wouldn’t shutter the flea market overnight, but also admitted that they didn’t want to run the venue themselves. The medical provider sought an established local nonprofit to operate and manage the operation, and Goodwill Central Coast stepped up to the plate.
Since then, the fate of the market has hung in limbo while Sutter hashes out a plan.
“We purchased the land in 2006 with the intent that we may need additional facilities in the future,” says Sutter communication team member Callie Lutz. “We’re currently studying what the best use of the property will be to meet the needs of the community. At this time we don’t have specific plans yet for the site.”
While there was no fixed time frame at the beginning of their arrangement with Sutter, few at Goodwill expected that it would take this long for the hospital to develop an official plan for the land. “It’s staggering to think about building an entire new hospital from the ground up. They will get it done eventually though,” says Goodwill Central Coast CEO Ed Durkee. “The flea market will end eventually—they will build a hospital on the land. But I don’t know when that will happen.”
MEET THE SHARKS
Back on that Sunday morning in November, we soon learn that the shark in front of our booth has a name. He’s Ron Wagner, a 60-year-old Santa Cruz resident who has been coming bright and early to the Santa Cruz Flea Market since the 1980s. “I come to find treasures,” he says. “You know, to find something unique.”
He spots something peeking out of a box and picks it up quickly, turning it over in his hands. “How much for the recorder?” he asks. “How about a dollar?” Maria and I reply in unison. It seems like a tough decision for Wagner, and he massages the bone-white instrument in his right palm, playing with it thoughtfully. “OK,” he finally says. Our first sale!
As the morning sun climbs higher, we ask the grizzled flea market veteran to critique our spot and setup. He mostly approves, but tells us that some of our items—like my hodgepodge of pens and coloring books—need to be more visible, and less haphazardly displayed. Seeing us shiver in the cold, he also recommends that we dress warmer next time. Thanks, buddy.
Before he wades into the sea of vendors, Wagner sagely says, “The flea market is important for Santa Cruz. It keeps low-income families—and even kids like you—dressed and clothed. And it’s become a unique cultural spot in our county. It makes Santa Cruz a better place.”
I take a few minutes to peruse other sellers’ stations and meet Maddie Loveless, one of many neighbors who puts our effort to shame. With a grey Crocodile Dundee hat covering her long and shockingly red hair, 22 year-old Loveless sits behind a smartly laid-out table covered with rocks, gems, assorted picture frames, and a few eclectic antiques. Her setup looks professional and polished, each item perfectly placed. As a student at CSUMB, Loveless splits her time between studying in the geology department and working long hours in campus labs or doing survey work. Selling at the Santa Cruz Flea Market is her side hustle.
Loveless and her boyfriend (now fiancée) have been regular sellers at the flea market for more than five years. They are hooked. “The flea market is the last standing bazaar you can go to. It offers the freedom to do business however you want,” she tells me. “It’s an opportunity for people like me—for small business—to happen.”
The couple operates as a team, setting up their two tables in the dark at around 5 a.m. on most Sundays. In their early days of selling, getting up and going in the morning was tough, but now they have a routine. They pack hand warmers, beanies, blankets, and a kerosene lantern in their van. People start rummaging through their items in the early hours, as Maddie and her soon-to-be husband get ready, unpack and try to stay warm.
The flea market has become a lifeline for Loveless, allowing her to live more comfortably on a student budget. Don’t let the baby face and bubbly personality fool you: Loveless is a shark. As a seasoned flea dealer, she patrols the market in the early hours of the morning, on the lookout for deals and hot buys, and things she can flip for a profit at her stall.
“Oh yeah, you can find treasures here. Folks don’t know what they have,” says Loveless. “If you know what you’re looking for you can get amazing deals. Buy low, sell high.”
The couple is also keenly aware of the fact that their entire business, and the livelihood of many county residents, can vanish at a moment’s notice. The threat of Sutter’s expansion is a dark cloud that has hovered over flea market vendors for over a decade.
“The entire community needs this place,” she says. “You can come here and help individual people out—people who are struggling.”
Further down the row of sellers is Santa Cruz’s own Larry J., who for decades peacefully and semi-anonymously bought and sold empty storage lockers, then flipped the contents for reliable income. At 73, Larry J. looks youthful—like someone who hasn’t had a “real job” since the late 1980s. His wavy brown hair is now speckled with grey, but he tells me that he’s been selling at the Santa Cruz Flea Market every Sunday since 1998.
Some storage lockers are full of treasure. A recent auction attendee snagged a unit in Indio for $500 that turned out to contain a safe with tightly wrapped bundles of cash totaling a cool $7.5 million. But most units, Larry tells me, are full of junk.
He doesn’t mind junk though. Heck, he’s been the king of junk here for 30 years. But after A&E’s show Storage Wars started airing each week, he says an army of would-be junk-lords have begun to show up on his turf. It used to be a relatively secret industry for those in the know, and a reliable source of income. Now, it’s become a circus, he tells me, and old-school auction buyers like himself have taken a big hit. Larry guesses that there are around eight “storage locker folks” who sell at the flea market on an average Sunday, and that number is way down from what it used to be.
“Storage Wars changed things overnight,” Larry tells me. “It drove the locker prices really high and brought out a ton of people to the auctions. This hurt a lot of good people. The excitement sort of fizzled out, but the prices are still way higher than before.”
Each week, Larry empties his mid-sized semi-truck in the wee hours of the morning, arranging neatly-spaced aisles of overflowing boxes across two entire spaces. He’s had the same spot, the same layout and the same sales strategy for more than two decades. His life has revolved around the flea market for as long as he can remember. “Some people do it for a living, and some people do it for fun. I do it for both, I guess,” he says.
Larry’s favorite thing about Sundays at the market is the energy and vibrant social scene; the sometimes-odd collection of people who show up to buy and sell each week. He’s seen it all: countless crazes like beanie babies, Pokemon, Hummel plates, and more recently, fidget spinners. “It’s hot-hot-hot, and then one day you can’t give that shit away!” he says with a laugh.
Larry equates the flea market to a living, breathing organism—one that adapts to changes in the economy, politics and the weather. When the economy is good, he’s hesitant to haggle much. But when people are hurting, suffering, and in need, he’ll bargain.
Larry tells me that the upcoming Friday closures “are going to hurt a lot of good people.” And if the entire flea market closes down, he says that the community will lose “a great and important resource where people can buy things cheap—things that they normally couldn’t afford. A lot of local people don’t make a lot of money. A lot of families would lose in the end. Everything is so damned expensive in Santa Cruz already. The flea market helps subsidize people.”
A MAN OF GOODWILL
Wearing red Hoosiers colors and a navy blue baseball cap over his just-starting-to-grey hair, Ed Durkee has the “casual executive” look nailed. As acting CEO of Goodwill Central Coast, the 52-year-old’s penetrating blue eyes don’t miss much. They visibly light up as he tells me about his six years at the helm of the organization. The Indiana transplant says that he has always wanted to do social justice and inclusion work, and that his goal, as well as his organization’s, is “to work with as many people in the community as we can—to help them reach their goals and move toward economic independence.”
Durkee has overseen Goodwill’s management and operation of the Santa Cruz Flea Market from the moment he arrived in the Bay Area. Each week, an army of Goodwill employees assist vendors and provide a safe and healthy environment for community members to buy and sell. Some of the organization’s staff does security and crowd control, while others help vendors set up and pack up, handle disputes, manage traffic, take payments and entrance fees, and make sure county rules—like no dangerous items or plastic bags—are followed. Goodwill’s relationship with Sutter is “solid,” in Durkee’s words, and the marketplace’s operation is also financially healthy for all parties involved.
“Ed Durkee and the entire Goodwill Central Coast team do such a great job, and we’re glad to continue our partnership,” says Sutter’s Lutz.
Taking a sip of Verve coffee, Durkee says, “We’re paying Sutter a lot, but we are making money, too.” The money Goodwill earns helps the nonprofit further its mission of helping people on the Central Coast get jobs.
Durkee, like many of the market’s regular vendors and long-time buyers, knows the flea market has been running on borrowed time, since many expected Sutter to have broken ground long ago on the maternity wing.
“It’s one of the most valuable pieces of property in the county,” says Durkee. “The fact that we’re able to do this—to have this magical market here—is amazing. This community gem is something to appreciate and treasure as long as we have it. If it does close, it would be a loss of a beloved institution.”
For Maria and I, our first foray into selling at the flea market is a learning process, full of drama, choppy waters and a few happy moments. The market begins brutally early in the day, when coastal fog adds a few millimeters of moisture to your entire body—and everything you own. Gloves, a jacket, a nice thermos of hot coffee or tea, and a small blanket are must-haves for any flea market seller. Nobody gave us the memo, and Maria’s toes sadly developed a minor case of frostbite.
By the end of the day, we’d come up with a wide variety of ingenious strategies to lure and corral impressionable buyers into our retail extravaganza. The most successful was a box of “free stuff” that we placed in front of our space. We also attempted to physically corral people to our space using Maria’s gigantic and ancient Mary Poppins-esque bicycle. Foot traffic increased immediately with this rusty relic out front, and we were doing great until we caught the attention of authorities, who promptly requested that we stop blocking the walkway.
It was a long day—from 6 a.m. to around 2 p.m, and we spent the hours trying to wrap our heads around the baffling question of why some of our items sold and others didn’t. I was sure that my vintage Sublime clock would be snapped up toot sweet. And who wouldn’t want to inherit my eclectic, Asian-inspired lamp? But the items sat and gathered dust even as I dropped their prices. The process was downright vexing at times. Other things sold unexpectedly: a conservative and distinguished older gentleman gave me a whopping $2 for my hole-riddled, half-way burnt “No Smoking” sign.
One man’s trash, as the old adage goes, is another man’s treasure.