The folks at BootsnAll travel network recently published a list of 8 Great Flea markets. They noted that the Alemany Flea Market in San Francisco is known for "vintage items like clothing, skull buttons, kitchen tools and other oddball ephemera." It sounds like a great place to hang out on a crisp fall weekend. In my travels, I've noticed that a lot of flea market vendors will have an assortment of such materials, even if it's not their main line of business. Ephemera seems to gather in corners and edges of tables at these affairs.
I'm sure casual flea market visitors don't pay much attention to the stuff, or if they do, it's because a piece has caught their eye for some reason or other. Maybe the item has their surname printed on it, maybe it's just the perfect color to a match their décor, or maybe they had the same darn thing in their bedroom as a kid. Eventually, the flea market man knows it'll sell—for some reason.
How do flea market vendors come by this vast array of choice ephemera, one might wonder? Well, my friends, there no such thing as an ephemera wholesale warehouse. Sure, they might buy a box lot on eBay or at the odd farm auction. That's an option, sure. However, if you know flea market vendors, the old salty dogs of retail, they're not likely to take a risk and layout cash for a box of ephemera that might take them years to sell.
Their secret: trash.
That's right: When old Aunt Betsy dies, her heirs retrieve the choicest morsels and haul the rest to the curb. I've been there, curbside, a few minutes ahead of the flea market chieftens (and a few minutes after--it's more fun getting their first). It's a dirty little secret. But that's about the only thing dirty about it. You see, Aunt Betsy's clean, lovingly kept, pack-rat treasures went directly from the back of her closet to the curb--from cherished keepsake to abandoned property in the blink of an eye. In most cases, the stuff at the curb is almost always clean, tidy, and neat. A lot cleaner than the stuff at the average garage sale. And you can't argue with the price. Like sausage being made, the flea market sellers would rather you not think about how the ephemera reached the sales table.
Photograph by Stewf.