BACK OF THE YARDS — As the holiday season ramps up, shoppers are snagging deals wherever they can. But as online deals fill your inbox, don’t forget about the original one-stop shop, something Chicagoans relied on long before the age of superstores: flea markets.
In June 1969, when the first Swap-O-Rama Flea Market and Farmer’s Market opened in what we now know as Chicago Lawn, there weren’t a lot of places where you could buy—as the ads put it—“everything from baby clothes to garden hose.”
Fifty years later, only one Swap-O-Rama remains in Chicago: the self-described “granddaddy of all flea markets,” located at 41st and Ashland in Back of the Yards.
Unlike some of the more posh city markets and summer festivals, the booth and entrance fee is nominal and the rules are straightforward, making the vendors and customers as diverse as their wares.
On a Thursday in late July, Swap-O-Rama manager Pat Burns estimated that by closing time, the visitor count would hit 3,200.
“I’ve had Sundays where we’ve had more than 20,000,” he said. During the holiday shopping season, they’ll have more than 700 vendors.
The market is bustling with people. The lot is big and set up in rows. The sounds of loud music playing, prices being shouted to customers and squeaky cart wheels going up and down the makeshift aisles. Some vendors are set up with traditional tables, others have their vehicles pulled right up to their booth, transforming them into a mobile stock room. Vibrant colors are all around; the smell of cooking food blends with fresh spices for sale.
Vendors sell everything from produce, clothes, cleaning supplies and antiques to tacos, bicycles, gold chains and porn. You may pass mannequin legs clad in patterned leggings, or dog cages and new cooking supplies.
And while the outdoor space fills with vendors and sun-basking shoppers in the summer, the sprawling interior is packed in the cold months as well — Swap-O-Rama is open 52 weeks a year.
“Weather does not shut us down. I mean we’ve had days where it’s 20 below zero, there’s two feet of snow on the ground and we’re open,” said Burns, 64, who has managed the market for 15 years.
April through the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, vendors who purchase one outdoor spot for a mere $15 get a second one free. On Thursday, the third busiest day of the week after Sunday and Saturday respectively, a booth rental costs $20.
Vendors can sell anything that does not require a license by the City of Chicago. Some, like Tom Killingham, 72, of Bronzeville come weekly to get rid of stuff.
Before retiring, Killingham had a demolition business, which is where he picked up a lot of what he sells- a sink, pipes, pieces of metal. Others, like Lulu Villegas, 46, of Belmont Cragin, stock their booth with a particular customer base in mind.
Villegas took over her late brother’s business five years ago, putting her own twist to what he sold. Often accompanied by her 19-year-old daughter, Andrea Garcia, Villegas sells vintage jewelry, handbags, clothes, stones and Mexican and African artifacts.
“My mom does have a dream of having her own store. But she also doesn’t want to give this up,” Garcia said.
Omoro Rahim, 42, an artist from Matteson, comes to the Ashland Avenue Swap-O-Rama on Thursdays.
His highly detailed graphite pencil drawings mostly depict scenes distinctive to Chicago- the Art Institute lions donning a Chicago flag snapback hat, the ‘L’ train and Cloud Gate. Each piece can take anywhere from three months to a year to complete. His most elaborate piece, Everything in America, depicts notable American images like a bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. It took a full year.
“I left the tattoo business to go back [to] what I love, which is pencil drawings,” he said. Rahim hopes to one day sell his work in big box stores.
The vendors are their own community, running into each other at the same estate and garage sales, other Swap-O-Rama locations and other flea markets throughout the summer season.
Successful vendors are able to analyze purchasing trends and meet customers’ needs.
Tom Bossman, 53, drives in from LaPorte, Ind., each Thursday. He has been vending at flea markets for 28 years. One Thursday this summer, Bossman was sitting in the emptied back of his box truck, with a sun visor, dark sunglasses, a buttoned-up short-sleeved shirt decorated with characters from the 1970s cartoon, Fat Albert, and shaded by an umbrella.
Bossman scours Chicago, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Indianapolis, in search of salvaged goods he buys wholesale. He had pallets of shampoo, industrial-sized bottles of peroxide, laundry detergent, picture frames and piles of plastic tarp.
“It’s worth doing—if you do it right. I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t profitable. But you gotta know what you’re doing. A lot of these guys bring the same stuff out here every week and they do terrible. You gotta bring fresh stuff out. You gotta wear things [like this],” Bossman said.
The prices and variety in the market keep people coming with regularity. Since moving back to Chicago from Minnesota, James Harris, a 67-year-old Army veteran from Englewood, comes about once a week.
“I usually shop here more than I do at Walmart,” Harris said.
He said he had just purchased eight-pound weights, hats with logos of different branches of the military and jumper cables. His favorite recent purchase was a self-propelled lawnmower for $120—“a good deal.”
Retailers like Dominic Darabi, 71, owner of US #1 Vintage Clothing in Wicker Park, also enjoy shopping at the flea market. He has owned his store for 32 years and has been shopping at the Swap-O-Rama for 30.
Recently Darabi purchased two items, each at $10—but he said they are worth $2,000 each.
“The one on Ashland is great!” he said. “I love the market. I love the people.”
Like its big box store counterparts, the Swap-O-Rama is not exempt from the ups and downs of the economy. B.J. Marion has seen the changes throughout the years.
“There was a time when you could probably make $1,500 from the weekend. Now, you’d be lucky if you make $2,” he said. “People are holding on to their money. They’re only buying what they need, more so than what they want. Because they don’t know what the future holds.”
Vendors keep an eye on these trends, curating their wares based on the shopping habits of customers. The Ashland customers look to pay less across the board, compared to shoppers in suburban flea markets, some said.
“If I was in the suburbs… I could sell that tool right there or this sink, and I could sell it for a lot more money. Because they purchase different,” Killingham said.
Garcia said it best: “A lot of people, they have these assumptions, [that] because it’s a flea market, that everything should be cheap. But my perspective is, the market just has variety.”
There are over 1,100 flea markets in the U.S., made up of 2.25 million vendors who bring in $30 billion in sales annually from 150 million customers each year, according to the National Flea Market Association website. The group calls the markets “one of the last vestiges of small entrepreneurship in the U.S.”
But with easier access to the internet, vendors are challenged to keep shoppers’ attention.
“In the past, you would show up with things and people would just look at it, [and say], ‘ooh, I want it!’,” Marion said. “Now they’ll look it up and see what it’s worth.”
But there are also signs that the flea market model is on the upswing.
David Wolff, president of the National Flea Market Association, and owner of Wolff’s Flea Market in Rosemont, says the low barriers of entry allows flea markets to be a “great business incubator for a lot of business owners.”
Though some shoppers expect “it’s just going to be junk,” he said, they are surprised by the variety. Nowadays, more retail stores are modeling themselves after the flea market model by selling things like vintage clothing and other used items, he added.
“We’re sort of becoming hip right now… we’re definitely trending towards a younger crowd now.”
Swap-O-Rama is located at 4100 S. Ashland Ave. and open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.
This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Woodlawn. Learn more and get involved at www.citybureau.org.