Seasonal Cheer at the Berkeley Flea By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday December 21, 2004

Right about now things are starting to slow down a bit for some people (especially public employees who are taking advantage of optional holiday days off) and speed up for others (Santa Claus and the harried folks who help him out, especially mothers and fathers who have jobs they can’t escape even during the holidays). Last weekend was the countdown weekend for busy people who like to give gifts but don’t have much time to shop. And it was also the only pre-Christmas weekend for parties and such, given that the holidays are on Saturdays this year. There are those, of course, who pride themselves on using the solstice period as an opportunity to demonstrate that they can even be self-absorbed in the midst of the frenetic efforts to connect that motivate others at this time of year. While those about them are wrapping presents and singing carols, such people are taking long solitary walks on the beach.  

But for those of us who actually enjoy rubbing shoulders with our fellow humans, the cheeriest place to go on the weekend before Christmas has got to be the Berkeley Flea Market. It’s the place for those who decry excess commercialism to find interesting previously-owned presents. African-Americans are the proprietors of many of the best of these stands, taking advantage of the opportunity to enter the retail market with a good eye for quality and not much capital investment. Enterprising international vendors now occupy many slots, with merchandise from all over the world. Africans from Africa have set up shop next door to the African-Americans. Elderly Chinese traders in almost-antiques share booths with young go-getters bringing in plastic novelties from China.  

Which sellers come to the Berkeley Flea in any given year is a quick guide to the international situation. There are fewer items there now from Latin America, possibly the influence of NAFTA. Many of the stands which used to sell crafts made by Afghan refugees in Pakistan have been replaced by vendors of products made by refugees from Tibet.  

The Afghan family which sells beautiful carpets is still represented, but there have been changes. They used to stock some rugs which had pictures of Soviet helicopters and Kalashnikov rifles woven into the borders, left over from the Russian occupation, when they were made as souvenirs for the occupying army. Those have been gone for a few years now.  

For a couple of years the father of the family has not been at the market—he’s gone back to Afghanistan to see what has become of the family property there after the Americans came. This year the mother was gone too. Their daughter, who’s been hanging around in the family stall since she was a young teenager, has taken over sales. She told me that her mother is on a two-month trip home, but plans to come back to California, at least for a while. The daughter by now is a real American girl who speaks perfect English, and has, she says, no desire to move back to the ancestral home. But she knows her rugs.  

Women, especially middle-aged and older women, run many of the stalls, and they’re often ready to chat about business and family with another middle-aged woman. The lady who specializes in classy cookware and children’s clothes knows the ages of all my granddaughters and saves her best gently-worn party dresses for them. Another woman who has found many nifty items for me in the last few years has taken the bold step of shifting to selling only high-quality men’s clothes, like sweaters from the old Brooks Brothers, before it was acquired by Marks and Spencer and slid downhill. This year she told me that her family was in Alaska, and she’d be having a lonely Christmas. Vendors and shoppers often exchange more than just goods and money. 

What solitary beach-walkers share with flea-market shoppers is the desire to be outside during the short days of the solstice season. Sunshine, which we had last weekend, is a big plus for both kinds of people. And it’s really a necessity for flea-market vendors, whose yearly income rises and falls with the weather. When it’s been a good year, with several sunny pre-Christmas weekends, the regulars are in an especially expansive mood on the last Sunday afternoon before Christmas. Sellers start booth-hopping, exchanging gifts, greetings and goodbyes with their colleagues, many of whom go on vacation or buying trips in January and February. The bongo-drummers at the last Sunday market this year seemed to be twice the usual number and the volume four times as loud. The tamale vendor was sold out early, a disappointment to shoppers but a good sign for business.  

This has been a good year for the big stores selling luxury goods to the rich folks. Stores like Walmart which court working people haven’t had as much luck this year, because times are tough for many who aren’t rich. But let’s hope that the merchants at the Berkeley Flea Market, who offer patrons more than just merchandise, have had a successful year, perhaps taking some business away from Walmart. They deserve it.  

—Becky O’Malley