Visit The Bay Area’s Flea Markets For Cheap and Unique Finds
On weekends, the parking lot of the Ashby BART station comes to life. Three rows of booths jam the space as vendors hawk eclectic merchandise to a diverse Berkeley crowd. Enthusiastic drummers line the edges of the lot. Half–finished conversations and colorful music fill the air. People stroll up and down makeshift aisles, browsing and enjoying the ambiance. The flea market is in full swing.
The Ashby Flea Market is open from 7 AM to 7 PM on Saturdays and Sundays. It is the biggest one in Berkeley, but if you’re looking for a larger–scale market, check out the Alameda Point Antique Fair, which is open on the first Sunday of every month, and boasts over 800 stands. The Berkeley market is smaller, but nevertheless intriguing enough to spend hours getting lost amongst the variety of goods.
Near the edge of the first row, for instance, an elderly man sits on a stool next to a collection of jewelry and carved bowls laid out on a blanket. I stooped to pick up an ornate statue of a tree fashioned from bits of copper.
“Three dollars. You buy more tchochkes, I make it cheaper,” said a merchant.
“I buy more what?” I asked, confused.
“Tchochke means trinkets in Yiddish. Yiddish is a Jewish dialect of German.”
I nodded in understanding. Robert, the man I just spoke to, arrived in Berkeley 25 years ago on a hippie bus called the Green Tortoise. He explains that his friends are trying to help him out, but “they don’t want to help with money, so this is their way of helping,” gesturing at the heap of so–called “tchochkes” before us. I move on without buying anything. Robert shakes my hand and says “Assalamu alaikum.” It takes me a moment to remember the appropriate response to the Arabic greeting: “Wa alaikum assalaam.” Robert nodded and smiled.
Throughout the day I considered haggling, but most of the merchandise was already ridiculously cheap. While glancing at a box of paperbacks, I spotted a novel by one of my favorite authors. I bought it for one dollar.
The flea market is a global village. A booth festooned with Bob Marley t–shirts and Jamaican flags blasts reggae across the aisle from a Caribbean food stand. Next door, a tent offers acupuncture and Chinese massage therapy. Music is an essential part of the scene. Vinyl record collections are evident at a few different stalls. One tent is dedicated to classic ‘80s music; posters of Teddy Pendergrass and Stevie Wonder decorate the walls, and speakers pour out an avalanche of slow jams. The proprietor, who is visiting from Atlanta, buys the records wholesale.
Black history is featured prominently in many booths. One offers framed prints of photographs of black civil rights leaders and celebrities: Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali, and Barack Obama. Another holds a veritable civil rights museum; the owner of this tent, who introduces herself simply as “Babe,” has been a fixture at the flea market for over 20 years. “This is what I have: black history... a lot of what they don’t teach you in school, especially public school,” she said.
Many stands offer homemade jewelry. A young Tibetan man who has been at the flea market for 12 years eagerly narrates for customers the meaning behind his bracelets, earrings and pendants: “Lotus is a symbol of purity, because the lotus grows out of dirty water into a beautiful flower.” I bought a bracelet decorated with carved elephants: a symbol of good luck.
Next time you have a free weekend, head down to the flea market. You never know what you’ll find, and even if you don’t buy anything, you’ll certainly encounter some eccentric personalities to enliven your afternoon.