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FLEA MARKETS

The annual summer conference of the Union for Radical Political Economics always hosts a special lecture, the David Gordon Memorial Lecture. Last year, the Gordon Lecture was delivered by the undersigned S&S Editor, on the topic "The Future Within the Present: Seven Theses for a Robust 21st-Century Socialism."1 A central theme of the talk concerned what I call the withering away of markets — the gradual attenuation of their alienating and polarizing qualities, and absorption of their positive signaling and coordination functions into democratic planning, as maturing socialist conditions increasingly make that possible. In the question period following the talk, someone wanted to know what all this would mean for the continued existence of flea markets. I was not prepared for the question; apart from suggesting that this was something to be determined not in theory but by a popular democratic process, I had little to say in response. I would like to try to correct that failure here. My purpose is not to undermine that self-same democratic process the second time around; only to illustrate the importance of penetrating behind market forms to the inner social realities expressed and enabled by them.

Hard data are all but non-existent. I googled "flea markets" and got 1.7 million hits, mostly advertising copy about what goods are available, and where. Googling "flea markets" & "data"/"analysis"/"statistics"/"research," etc., produced no hits. Some information was obtained from the National Flea Market Association, and from several interviews. For both structural and prudential reasons, flea market operators do not collect numbers in a systematic way. The following is based on the best estimates I have been able to obtain, which should be regarded as provisional and subject to correction.

There are perhaps 2500 flea markets regularly operating in the United States today — based on an average of 900 selling spaces in an average flea market, and an estimated 2.25 million vendors selling on any given day. They generate $30 billion in annual sales (for comparison purposes, Walmart's sales in 2005 were $285 billion), an annual payroll of $1.5 billion, and 80,000 jobs. The last two figures imply an annual average personal income of $18,750. It is not clear whether this figure is in line with the incomes of the much larger number of vendors. The incomes of site owners and managers, and of vendors who hire their own sales personnel, are undoubtedly much higher.

There is no consensus on the definition of "flea market." I suggest the following categorization of the retail sector, using a pair of cross-cutting distinctions: market organization is either formal or casual; the goods are either new or pre-owned. In the first distinction, "casual" refers not only to the "underground" or "second" economy, but also to seasonal, weekend and part-time engagement of sales space under fairly short-term contracts; "formal" refers to the existence of a fixed, indoor selling space and long-term leases or ownership. The distinction is not binary, but implies different shades or degrees of informality. There is no suggestion that flea markets are entirely part of a shadowy underground; they do generate $1.8 billion in taxes each year.

Combining "new goods" with "formal organization" gives us the usual image of retail trade, with (perhaps) Bloomingdale's representing the high end and Walmart the low end of the quality/price spectrum. "New goods" and "casual organization" suggest craft fairs, art shows (high end), and street vendors of various sorts (low end). Turning to "pre-owned goods," "formal organization" includes antique shops and auction houses (high), and the entire spectrum of thrift shops, consignment shops, and Dollar Stores (low). (Actually, consignment shops and sample sales range from low to high, or at least middle.) Finally, we arrive at pre-owned goods sold in (relatively) informal or casual markets, and this is prime flea-market terrain: mostly outdoor, weekend and/or seasonal markets in clothing, jewelry, furniture, household goods, music recordings, tools, books, and other merchandise that was produced, sold and used in the past, and whose use-value is to some degree based on antiquity as well as on intrinsic properties.2 The flea-market category thus bleeds into thrift shops in one direction, and into arts-and-crafts fairs, antique shops and yard or stoop sales in others; the dividing lines are blurry.

My questioner at the socialism talk seemed to be identifying with the demand side of flea markets — as a person walking up and down the rows of stalls and enjoying the merchandise. Flea-market "junk" is indeed appealing; it brings us into contact with our own past, and deepens our sense of aesthetic continuity. Old coins, 1970s bell-bottom pants, Wendell Wilkie campaign buttons, sturdy old toaster ovens, Tramp Art picture frames, juke boxes, 1950s costume jewelry, guitars with Elvis Presley emblazoned on the front, art-deco chinaware, bauhaus reproductions — this stuff is fun. Life is nothing, if not fun! Socialism must have this sense of joy and connectedness at its heart, and it is good that socialists are thinking about this tradition and enjoying the flea-market experience, from the standpoint of the customer.

We must, however, also take a walk on the supply side. The vendors, it would seem, fall into three main categories. First, there are the full-timers, who rely entirely on the income from flea-market sales for their livelihoods, and sell mainly low-grade goods: clothing and housewares of recent vintage, often seconds, or quality rejects, acquired from current manufacturers, if not illegally at least informally. These vendors put in long hours, and the time spent acquiring merchandise, perhaps during the week, must be added to the time spent in the stalls on weekends when computing income per hour. It is not hard to see this category of vendors as a component of Marx's reserve army of unemployed — an instance of the casualization of labor whose other forms have been increasing in importance: involuntary part-time work, "service" employment and working below acquired skill levels, in addition to "official" unemployment. The growth of flea markets in recent years may be, to some extent, an element in the deepening crisis of accumulation afflicting our imperiled economy; the increasing capital flight and outsourcing associated with imperialist "globalization" destroys the skilled jobs base, sending large numbers of workers into insecure, unskilled, casual or part-time labor — or flea markets. That puts the antique candlestick holders and Turkish carpets in a somewhat different light.

The second category of vendors are the part-time hobbyists, and this category tends to dominate the popular image of flea markets. These people have "regular" jobs, and incomes. They enjoy selling in weekend flea markets partly for the extra income, but mainly as participants in the community of collectors and sellers of a particular category of merchandise, and for the culture of camaraderie and fellowship at the flea-market sites themselves. For these folks, flea markets are a way of life, and — despite tales of fabulous enrichment3 — they usually acknowledge that money, especially money per hour, is not the object. Thus, an NFMA survey of vendors included the question: "What are the top three issues that you see challenging the success of your market and the flea market industry overall?" The second most common response: Walmart, Ebay/Internet, and Dollar Stores; vendors are clearly feeling the pressure from these sources. (The only response more common than these three was "price of gas." The role of the automobile and gasoline prices in deepening exploitation in the U. S. economy is another story, for another time.)

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1. The full text of the Lecture will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Review of Radical Political Economics.

2. Concerning the origin of the term, "flea market," there are two theories. 1) In New York, around the time of the American Revolution; a market in lower Manhattan was named "Fly," from the Dutch "Vly" or "Vlie," which means "valley" (the "valley market"), and is pronounced "flea." 2) The term originated in Paris, as "Le Marche aux Puces" ("The Market of the Fleas") at a later date, and makes its appearance in the United States in the 1920s. The references to "puces" refers (semi-humorously?) to a popular perception that fleas infested either the goods or the merchants! (One is not sure which.)

3. Flea-market mythology is ripe with contradiction: tales of easy wealth (magnified by selective perception), against persistent references to those who persevere out of sheer love for the process; customers who range from formidable ("our people have incredibly long memories; you can't bring the same items twice") to stupid ("they will buy anything"). It is, of course, the reality itself that is contradictory.


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