Swap ’til You Drop: A look inside a South Side flea market

Shoes for sale at Swap-O-Rama; Leah Reisman

Shoes for sale at Swap-O-Rama; Leah Reisman

Buyers beware: at the Ashland Avenue Swap-O-Rama, you can buy everything and the kitchen sink. Set just north of the once-booming Chicago stockyards, the flea market is a sea of vendors, shoppers, and products on a sunny Thursday; by noon, there’s a long line of bargain hunters waiting to pay the $1 admission fee. Inside, offerings range from costume jewelry to used power tools and all sorts of knickknacks, all for bargain prices. Less focused on antiques than some North Side markets, the Ashland Avenue market caters to a more everyday crowd: families stock up on fruits and vegetables while expectant mothers peruse hair dyes and baby clothes. Here it is possible to find a little bit of everything. Located in and outside of a large building with red, white, and blue candy stripes, the flea market has an air of history; while the building is worn, the business is brisk. A Polish-American shopkeeper offers antique sewing machines and aprons, fiddling with an aged teal Singer machine while chatting with customers. A vendor who has been selling authentic Italian food products at the market for fifteen years claims business is great; according to him, the Ashland flea market is the place to be because the management treats the vendors well and shoppers are looking for deals. Antoinette Johnson, who has sold shoes, movies, and miscellanea for four years at the market, proclaims that the trick to successfully selling wares is getting to know your customers and what they’ll pay. “If you’ve got something nice, you’ve got to stick to your price,” she says. “But if you bring something back three, four days in a row, you’d better let it go.” According to Johnson, the Ashland Avenue market is different from other swap meets in Chicago. “You can come here and sell anything. At the other, bigger markets, such as the one in Alsip, you need commercial stuff to be successful. [At the Ashland market] people buy, they want to buy.” There is an air of camaraderie to the market community. Buyers and sellers joke and shout, flirting and offering dates as well as doing business.

However, not everything is cheerful. Even the flea market’s fluid economy has taken a hit due to America’s financial crisis. According to Johnson, business is tough nowadays, and it’s harder to make a good profit. An appliance salesman who is a 40-year veteran of the flea market trade echoes her concern, claiming that sales are terrible and that the market itself has become more hectic and harder to maneuver. Internet reviews agree, with visitors on Yelp giving the market only two stars, calling it is dirty, disorganized, and disappointing. One commentator denounced the  politics of the management, which allegedly mistreats the vendors and allows thieves to run rampant. Several reviewers commented on the existence of stolen goods at the flea market.

Despite such skeptics, many vendors and shoppers sing the praises of the flea market. One shopper with a rolling cart says that she comes to the market to “get peace.” She says, “I get all of my stuff here. I could go to Marshalls, but I can’t stand faceless department stores. Instead, I come here and get it for a little cheaper. I can get my party dresses, my cleaning supplies, everything I need!” With the relocation of the Maxwell Street Market in University Village a decade and a half ago, many vendors relocated to the Ashland market, which according to some shoppers improved the quality of the goods at the swap meet.

Aside from its commercial opportunities, the flea market is valuable for the culture that has grown around it. A vendor who refers to himself as Dresser Johnny proclaims that the swap meet business is like “MeTV,” but in real life. According to Johnny, “You can make a living in good times and bad times in the business. You just jump in a van on junking day and find all sorts of great stuff. In the past, I’ve sold Gibson SGs, Rolex watches, marble statues…” Johnny, who has been in the business since 1995, claims that you’ve got to be a character to be successful in the flea market trade. “You’ve got to be nice to the kids. My father is from the Appalachians, he’s not some big lawyer dad, and I followed in his footsteps–like father, like son.” According to Johnny, the swap meet business is the best job in the world. “I’ve been constantly employed since 1995. All around me, people are losing jobs, but I’m sitting pretty right here.”
Ashland Swap-O-Rama, 4100 S. Ashland Ave. Open Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 7am-4pm. $1 entrance fee.

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