A flea market by any other name—bazaar, swap meet, or yard sale—will always be the ultimate example of free, or free-wheeling, enterprise. Any and all can wander along the stalls and socialize, fondle the merchandise, eat and drink, listen to music, and even shop.
The Berkeley Flea Market, held every weekend at the Ashby BART station, is special. It’s true, you can’t buy a camel there as in the Kashgar bazaar in central Asia, or a complete vintage gas pump like they offer at the swap meet in Guthrie, Oklahoma, but you can find an awesome variety of interesting objects sold by a marvelously diverse collection of vendors. Furthermore, the Berkeley flea market is a unique operation with a history rooted in Berkeley’s progressive movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Unlike a corporation operating for profit, the Berkeley Flea Market is run by Community Services United (CSU), a consortium of non-profit Berkeley organizations which receive quarterly payments out of the income generated by the flea market. The seven current member organizations each send a representative to the board of directors, which meets monthly to oversee and set policy for the market. The funds given to these organizations make it possible for them to carry out their programs in the community.
The Berkeley Flea Market started back in 1975 when some 30 community service organizations formed CSU to pool their resources and provide support for each other. At the time they were operating with government money. Then, in 1978, with the passage of Proposition 13 and then Gov. Ronald Reagan’s drastic cuts in funding for social programs, CSU member organizations found themselves desperate for funds to carry on their work. The usual sorts of fund raising activities, benefit concerts and such, often ended up costing more than they brought in.
The flea market was a brilliant idea in many ways. A few of the early activists who are still around recall the vision and its fulfillment in those early days.
Louis Freedberg was there at the beginning. He became a reporter and is now on the editorial staff of the San Francisco Chronicle. “We thought this was a rather far-fetched scheme,” Freedberg said. He recalls how alien it was to try to come up with a profit-making business venture. “We weren’t capitalists. We were just the opposite, anti-capitalists at the time.” What they lacked in experience, they made up for in enthusiasm. “Most of the labor was volunteer,” Freedberg says. “It was a labor of love.” Freedberg’s job was collecting the garbage and taking it to the dump in what he fondly recalls as La Bomba Verde—the Green Bomb—a 1952 green Chevy truck.
Making it work was “challenging,” according to Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, who acted as manager for the first few years. The mechanics of the operation were complex, and organizers had to figure everything out from scratch. “We didn’t have any road map,” Carson recalls. It took some time before the market was able to turn a profit.
There were bumpy periods. At one point BART tried to kick them out. There was a long court battle which finally granted the flea market the legal right to on ongoing lease. There followed a struggle between the CSU administration and an ad hoc vendors’ association. That, too, went through the courts, which ultimately granted CSU control of the market and dispersal of the funds to its member organizations.
The principles that motivated the founding of the market still guide its operation. One of the ideas was to offer a space for individuals and organizations to have their garage sales in one location which would attract more customers. Groups and individuals who are selling what we now call “collectibles” are still given priority in assignment of their stalls. Priority is also given to artists and craftspeople selling their own creations.
The market plays an important role in the community as a place for vendors and neighbors to gather and to socialize. Board president Lenora Moore explains that “it’s part of the community, people look forward to it, a lot of older people walk through the market. I don’t say they always spend money, but it gives them something to do on the weekend.”
Art Polk, who has been selling records and other collectibles since the market first started, lives nearby, agrees. “It’s part of my community ... (it’s) a cultural center more than a flea market.”
As an economic resource, the market has expanded beyond the community. Marty Lynch, now executive director of LifeLong Medical Care, was a representative to CSU in the early days. He recalls that “we realized that part of the benefit was really to support the underground economy of South Berkeley. A lot of people were living on the edge and this provided another venue to make a few bucks.”
Today there are many vendors offering imported items. This gives an opportunity for immigrants and refugees from other countries to earn an income and at the same time offer hand-crafted imported goods to the shoppers at reasonable prices. There is jewelry from India, wood carvings from Africa and Indonesia, exotic clothing, and lots more.
The roughly 248 stalls are fully rented out to about 150 vendors (many rent more than one stall) every non-raining Saturday and Sunday. The stall fees, which have gone from $5 to $20 over the last 25 years, are still a bargain. The income from the stall fees pays all the expenses—the BART lease, toilet rental, dumping fees, insurance, security, staff salaries and miscellaneous expenses, as well as the regular contributions to the member organizations. Market manager Errol Davis is pleased with the diversity of the people and the goods that are sold. He boasts “it’s the best flea market in the Bay Area.” And most people would agree with him.