Berkeley Flea Market. Photo: Berkeley Flea Market

By Niclas Ericsson

The downturn in the economy may be a threat to many small merchants in Berkeley, but the 35-year-old Berkeley Flea Market is still alive and kicking.

With its ethnic and lively environment, and diverse array of used goods, the market offers a distinct alternative to the more commercial enterprises in the city.

“It’s definitely Berkeley,” said Jane Boiso, who lives nearby. “There is more of a neighborhood feel to it.”

On most weekends, the market, located in the parking lot of the Ashby BART station, is teeming with students, local residents and people from all around the Bay Area looking for a bargain.

“The economy is bringing the vendors out,” said Prestina Wilson, assistant manager of the market. “And a lot of customers say they don’t go to the malls anymore because it’s too expensive.”

On a good Saturday, 90% of the 244 spaces are rented out at $30 per space. Keeping the rent low is part of the market’s policy, according to Wilson. The Berkeley Flea Market, which is also referred to as the Ashby Flea Market, is run by five non-profit organizations: the Berkeley Free Clinic, People’s Park Project, Berkeley Copwatch, Street Spirit and East Bay Food Not Bombs. The profits go back to these organizations to help finance their activities, said Wilson.

Many of the vendors at Ashby are retired or on disability, like Edwina Hughes who sells curios and used items she finds in yard sales or when cleaning up garages for people. Making some extra money is just part of what keeps her coming to the market. The fellowship with other vendors is at least as important, she said. “We all look out for each other, it’s a blessing,” said Hughes.

Fellow vendors will help Hughes to pack or unpack her things and, if she stays home one weekend, people will come and ask her where she has been and tell her that they have missed her. “I’ve tried other markets, but they are more impersonal,” said Hughes.

Mary Square sells soap and bath products just a couple of stalls away from Edwina Hughes’ thrift shop. She is happy to demonstrate her homemade, strawberry scented jelly soap and talks with enthusiasm about how people come to her with their problems and skin conditions. “I mix things up to try to help them,” Square said.

She and her husband, Emmanuel, are both retired. Her small business gives her something to talk about when other family members come home in the evenings and tell her about how their day has been, she said. “It keeps her from cabin fever,” Emmanuel adds with a laugh.

They both agree that Ashby flea market is very much about a community feeling. “We know the other vendors, we visit each other,” Mary Square said.

Curios and homemade skin products are just a small part of what can be found at the Ashby market. Some stalls specialize in snacks and nuts, other in second-hand clothes or colorful printed fabrics from Asia. Perfumed oil, pirate copies of music CDs, plants and several different kinds of ethnic street food are also part of the mix, one that distinguishes Ashby from other markets. There is a row of stalls where most vendors are African immigrants. One sells clothes of a unique design and made out of striking African printed fabrics.

“It’s pretty amazing the quality of some of the African stuff,” said Mark Commins, a first-time visitor who used to be a retailer of African woodwork. He finds Ashby a little bit more up-scale than some other markets.

The drummers just outside the BART station, involved in an ongoing, improvised jamming session, contribute to the strong ethnic vibe of the  market.

“We’ve come across customers who come just to hear the drummers,” said Wilson.

Trying to explain what is characteristic about the Berkeley Flea Market, Wilson talked about a Berkeley atmosphere of diversity, grassroots and a sense of community.

“It’s like a family,” said Wilson said.

Niclas Ericsson is a columnist, novelist and freelance journalist reporting from the Bay Area for several Swedish media. He is currently interning at Berkeleyside.

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