The Berkeley Flea Market will be closed in February and March — the first time in its history that it has shuttered in the winter. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Update, Feb. 22: The flea market will be open Saturday Feb. 23 and Sunday Feb. 24, according to Charles Gary, a long-time board member of Community Services United (CSU), the Berkeley nonprofit that runs the market. Gary left a voicemail for Berkeleyside to alert us of the change of plan. We haven’t been able to reach him since then for more details.

Original story: The Berkeley Flea Market is shutting down for February and March — the first time in its 46-year history that it has closed. It also may end up being relocated from the Ashby BART station parking lot to Adeline Street.

The weekend outdoor market has been struggling financially in recent years and organizers said they will use the next few months to regroup and consider future plans.

“The flea market has been suffering for the past three years,” said Charles Gary, a long-time board member of Community Services United (CSU), the Berkeley nonprofit that runs the market which helps homeless and working-class people be in business for themselves. “We felt that this would be a good time to re-organize.”

The group’s expenses include $2,500 in monthly rent to BART, as well as the cost of insurance, security, portable toilets and personnel to assist vendors. The group brings in income by renting out stalls to vendors.

CSU has launched a GoFundMe campaign, hoping to raise $20,000 in donations to keep the market alive. As of Friday afternoon, $810 had been raised from ten donors.

“The Berkeley Flea Market is in grave danger,” a statement on the GoFundMe webpage reads. “Our cash flow is very low, and the rainy season has come. When it rains, we can lose a whole weekend’s earnings. We will only survive if our community supports us. This is an emergency. Please help us.”

The market already had to close for two weekends recently, as storms and smoke from November’s Northern California fires kept the usual line-up of about 100 vendors away.

“When we don’t operate, we don’t make any money, but we still have the costs,” said CSU board member Andrea Prichett, who said the market is planning to re-open in April. “It’s frightening for [vendors’] livelihood … it’s important for us to get back into action.”

African art and objects on display at the Berkeley Flea Market. Photo: Andrew Steltzer

The city doesn’t provide any direct funding to the flea market, although Jordan Klein, Berkeley’s manager of economic development, said the city is working with CSU at various levels, including through the city’s new partnership with Uptima Business Bootcamp, an Oakland-based “business accelerator.”

“They’re working directly with the flea market to develop an action plan to help them with their sustainability,” Klein said.

“We were fortunate enough to be their first client (in Berkeley),” Gary said, adding that CSU has already met with Uptima twice this week, and another meeting is scheduled for Sunday.

The Berkeley Flea Market’s history — which Gary said doesn’t include ever shutting down in February and March — stretches back to 1973, the year after BART began service. Trains didn’t initially run on weekends, prompting people to use the empty parking area to sell secondhand items. It has since grown into a Berkeley institution and an important source of income for local residents – many of whom are homeless and living on low-wage jobs — as well as a community gathering place.

City and local residents are planning the area’s future

The future of the 6.3-acre, 600-space Ashby BART parking area, which consists of two lots, has long been a contentious issue in South Berkeley. While BART owns the underground space of the Ashby station and the parking area, the city controls the site’s above-ground development rights.

In 1985, a court ruled against BART in a lawsuit aimed at moving the flea market off the site, saying the market had the right to stay as long as BART didn’t have a legitimate use for the parking area, according to Prichett.

“[The market is] the bridge [between] the community that’s been there for 40 years, and the community that’s coming there daily.” — Charles Gary

Now Berkeley is eyeing the BART parking lot for affordable housing. And, while the city has said it intends to find a space for the market, many neighbors have expressed concern in public meetings about gentrification, the need for affordable housing and the possible disappearance of the flea market.

Berkeley has been working on a long-range plan for the area through its Adeline Corridor Plan, a vision encompassing 100 acres stretching about a mile, from the intersection of Dwight Way and Shattuck Avenue to the Oakland border. The city launched the idea after receiving a $750,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 2014 .

Berkeley is working with BART and residents on the specifics. The project’s first draft plan and environmental impact report will be ready in April or May, Klein said. A change of contractor delayed progress on the plan last year, he said.

Some suggested uses of the parking area have included a nonprofit-run “town square” with permanent vendors both indoors and outside, live music and other arts and cultural amenities, fruit stands and at least part of the area set aside for the flea market. Gary said a farmer’s market may be added on Sundays.

“We’re the bridge (between) the community that’s been there for 40 years, and the community that’s coming there daily,” he said.

Gentrification is changing the area and the market’s customers

The area has seen plenty of change over the past century. Before World War II, South Berkeley was home to mostly African Americans and Japanese immigrants, many of whom were sent to internment camps for the war’s duration. Through dozens of eminent-domain seizures of homes and businesses, BART construction radically changed the neighborhood again during the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

Data supports neighborhood concerns about gentrification. The past three decades have seen a decline in African-American residents, who made up a little less than half the Adeline Corridor’s population in 1990. According to a 2016 report by the Adeline Corridor Community Forum, 2010 census numbers showed that number had dwindled to about 25%, while the number of white residents rose to represent about half the area’s population. The same data showed Latino residents comprising about 15% of the area.

“Gentrification has changed the neighborhood around the market and the customer base is much whiter and more affluent than at any time in modern history,” wrote CSU on its GoFundMe page.

“There’s been an overall decline in foot traffic in the market,” echoed Prichett. “We attribute that to gentrification. In the last three to five years, we’ve really seen it.”

Gary said the average home price west of Martin Luther King Jr. Way was $61,000 when the flea market began operating in 1973. “Now it would cost $1.4 or $1.5 million,” he said. “That’s a changing demographic. When all these things are put together, it’s been difficult for us.”

Attendance at the market is dwindling

The flea market is seeing fewer customers, a result of several factors including the rise in online shopping. Photo: Berkeley Flea Market

Gary also said a number of factors have contributed to dwindling attendance in recent years, including the growing popularity of online shopping.

“For years, every stall in the market would be full,” he said. “We were able to make money. That’s not the case anymore.”

Vendors at the market sell all sorts of wares, from Bob Marley pins and African masks to clothes, socks, jewelry and plants. Drummers form a drum circle every weekend. Food from all around the world is also on offer.

A commenter on Yelp wrote recently of how he appreciated the eclectic nature of the market. “You had vendors that sold all sorts of things,” wrote Tre S. from Pittsburg. “You had your bohemian stuff, your hipster stuff, your old records and nick nacks [sic], food stalls, scent and oil stands, jewelry, knock off products and even massage stations throughout this space. They also had some African musicians playing in spurts as I walked along and looked at things.”

Others noted that the market had gone downhill in recent years, however.

“This market was once overflowing with local and regional vendors,” wrote Dee Was Here Z, who is from Alameda. “It was full and thriving when bootleg movies were hot! One could spend hours learning, listening to the bongo/Congo drummers, eating ethnic foods, smelling the trees, and of course, supporting the locals striving to survive in the Bay. But evolving streaming technologies have permanently altered the landscape and it seems more like an opportunity to get a sunburn in the summer and grab a cool ginger drink to take on your stroll back to your car, meet Uber or hop on BART.”

One idea for the future includes possibly moving the flea market to Adeline Street where there would be built-in foot traffic. Supporters say it would help the flea market’s visibility.

“They’ve been strategizing how to make the market more visible,” said Gary.

Prichett said most vendors would probably prefer to stay in the current location.

“That’s my sense of the vendors, that they want to stay there,” she said. “The change might be good. But change is hard.”

Klein at the city said the flea market has obtained the paperwork to apply for the required special-event permit from the city to potentially move to Adeline Street, a process that he said could be “pretty complicated.”

One direction of traffic could be closed during the day on Saturdays and Sundays with the move, giving more visibility to the market. The idea is subject to approval from the city manager.

“We know that the flea market is a valuable community asset,” said Klein. “We’ve heard a very clear expression from the community about the value of the flea market.”

And there is a ray of light amid the gloom.

“The good news is that while we had hard financial times in recent years, we have finally stabilized the financial situation,” said Gary. “We worked hard to gain a small profit this year, but we have already had two weekends called off … there are eight more weekend rains predicted for this winter. We need help to get through the winter until some of our collaborations can yield results, campaigns launch, and grants can be submitted.”

“Everybody, if they don’t agree on everything, they agree on one thing,” Gary said. “They agree that the Berkeley Ashby Flea Market should have a site.”

Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...