The Classic Flea Market: An American Institution

Every now and again you run across something that seems to speak directly to what it means to be an American. The classic flea market is a great example. For all intents and purposes, the classic flea market is an American institution that speaks to our love of free enterprise and entrepreneurship.

No doubt the American flea market has evolved since its earliest days in 18th-century New York City. And other countries have their own versions of it. But here, the classic flea market is a very distinct type of commerce that isn’t found in a typical retail environment.

Flea Markets Were Swap Meets

The earliest American flea markets were swap meets more than anything else. What is the swap meet? It is a gathering of merchants who come together to sell previously owned merchandise. Some of their merchandise is acquired directly from sellers just looking to clean house. Other merchandise is acquired from estate sales. Regardless, the common thread is that merchants rarely sell brand-new products.

The swap meet concept dominated American flea markets well into the 20th century. Even today, truly classic flea markets are still based in the swap meet concept, though there may be a mixture of new and used merchandise among the sellers.

Retail Flea Markets

While classic flea markets are still swap meets, there is a new kind of flea market that mixes the best of the swap meet concept with the best of retail. Some people call these ‘retail’ flea markets in order to draw an appropriate distinction. The retail flea market is really a hybrid market.

Imagine a booth operated by an eyewear retailer. That retailer buys wholesale sunglasses in bulk, then sells them for a lot less than you would pay at a department store or a strip mall shop. Next door might be another booth operated by someone who buys up household goods from local estate sales and brings them to the market for resale.

Olympic Eyewear, a Salt Lake City company that distributes wholesale sunglasses, explains that this model works for the simple fact that flea market space is relatively cheap. Both the eyewear retailer and secondhand seller can afford the rent and still make a profit.

Permanent vs. Temporary

Comparing retail and classic flea markets reveals another interesting difference in terms of structure. Your average retail flea market is set up in a permanent location. It might be housed in an old warehouse or a big box retail store that was abandoned by its previous owner. On the other hand, classic flea markets tend to pop up in temporary locations – like fairgrounds, for example.

The main reason for this difference is that used merchandise resellers are not necessarily running full-time businesses. They do what they do part time. As such, they might gather every weekend during the summer but take the rest of the year off. In some cases, they might travel around the country, setting up shop at what they consider the best flea markets they can find.

True American Entrepreneurship

No matter how you slice it, the flea market represents true American entrepreneurship. It represents men and women who have a dream of running their own businesses without being attached to corporate retail. And for those who can make it work, there is nothing quite like the freedom of being a flea market seller.

Next time you shop at a flea market, remember that you are dealing with small business owners. Some are selling used merchandise while others offer new products. Both are making a living by participating in what is arguably an American institution.