Holiday Shopping at the Berkeley Flea Market

By Lydia Gans, Special to the Planet
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 09:04:00 AM
Sher Hickerson tries on Tibetan jewelry at vendor Tseten Khangsar's booth.
Lydia Gans
Sher Hickerson tries on Tibetan jewelry at vendor Tseten Khangsar's booth.
The Berkeley Flea Market as seen from Adeline Street.
Lydia Gans
The Berkeley Flea Market as seen from Adeline Street.

The Berkeley Flea Market, happening every Saturday and Sunday at the Ashby BART station parking lot, has it all—exotic clothing, jewelry, local and imported arts and crafts, books, CDs, electronic equipment, foods, plants, home-crafted soaps and scents, and much, much more. There are vendors selling household goods and a section for the traditional kind of flea market goods—the pots and pans and things no longer in use. You can go there to look for a gift for a lover, a friend, a child or a parent—find it all and have so much fun at the same time.  

You can take a break and sit at one of the outdoor tables and have a snack—or a meal. Enjoy African, Mexican, Caribbean food or a plain old hot dog, a cup of coffee or a smoothie. And if you’re stressed out, there is usually a booth offering massage. 

More than a place to shop, the Berkeley Flea market is a “scene,” a place to hang out, stroll up and down the aisles and check in with friends. A longtime resident in the neighborhood says, “I think it’s part of the community; people look forward to it. I think 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.” A vendor who has been selling records and other collectibles since the market first started lives nearby and says “it’s part of my community.” He likens it to a “cultural center more than a flea market.”  

But there is more to it. Unlike a corporation operating for profit, the Berkeley Flea Market is run by Community Services United (CSU), a consortium of nonprofit Berkeley organizations that receive quarterly payments out of the income generated by the flea market. These 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. 

It all started back in 1975 when some 30 community service organizations got together and formed CSU to pool some of their resources and provide support for each other. At the time they were operating with government War on Poverty money. Then, in 1978, with the passage of Proposition 13 and then-governor Ronald Reagan’s drastic cuts in money for social programs, CSU member organizations found themselves desperate for funds to carry on their work. The usual sorts of fundraising 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.  

Making it work was “challenging,” according to Alameda County supervisor Keith Carson, an early member who acted as manager for the first few years. The mechanics of the operation were complex. Carson described what it was like: “We didn’t have any road map. We had to deal with the BART administration, to deal with the surrounding neighbors and the impact in the community ... (with) police and their concern around crime. (We) had to figure out how to keep the facility clean ...” And they had to attract vendors. People’s memories differ but all agree that it took some time before the market was able to turn a profit.  

Marty Lynch, now executive director of LifeLong Medical Care, was a representative to CSU in the early days. When we spoke several years ago he said, “Very early on we realized that part of the benefit was really to support the underground economy of south Berkeley. A community that then was even poorer than it is now. A lot of people were living on the edge and this provided another venue to make a few bucks.” That’s true now more than ever. 

There were some bumpy periods. At one point in the 1980 BART tried to kick them out. Apparently it was not so much a matter of objecting to the flea market but BART officials were afraid that it established a precedent whereby other groups might want to take over BART facilities for possibly less desirable purposes. There was a long drawn-out legal battle which finally granted the flea market the legal right to an ongoing lease.  

Today the market is a smooth-running and decidedly successful operation. The roughly 250 stalls are fully rented out to about 170 vendors, (many rent two and some rent three stalls) every Saturday and Sunday except when it rains. The vendors themselves are a very diverse group, many are immigrants or refugees from other countries, others have a long history in the neighborhood. The stall fees, which have gone from $5 to $26 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 all the miscellaneous expenses in addition to the regular contributions to the member organizations.  

Errol Davis, who has worked for the market since 1993 and been manager for the past eight years, keeps things running smoothly. He organizes the assignment of spaces to the vendors, supervises the other staff people and spends part of his time walking through the market making sure everything is going as it should and the vendors are satisfied. He has always liked the flea market, he says, and he’s pleased with the diversity of the people and the goods that are sold and that it’s one of the few markets that does not charge admission.  

Easy to get to by BART, this is Berkeley’s alternative to San Francisco’s fancy boutiques and department stores.