When I left the practice of law five years ago, I never imagined I’d be a flea market vendor. But there I was one Sunday last June, on my way to work my first market. I arose at dawn, aiming to get there before 6 o’clock in order to get a spot. As I made my way down Reno Road, I breathed in deeply, enjoying the solitude and softly lit sky – the periwinkle blue of dawn tinted with a hint of rose. I said a silent prayer of gratitude that there was no one else on the road, as my pickup truck was packed high with furniture, including an art deco style armoire that completely blocked my rear view.
Moments after I arrived at the Georgetown Flea Market, my partner Sharon pulled up behind me in her minivan. The parking lot was still half empty, with a few vendors busy unloading trucks and vans and setting up furniture, tables, china, candlesticks, matchbooks, posters and other treasures. The market manager, Butch, a gruff older gentleman wearing a cowboy hat and ostrich skin boots, directed me to pull into a parking spot, “You can park here to unload, but you need to hurry. The person who has this spot will be here soon.”
The vendor community brims with an ease and informality reminiscent of the feel of a developing country – or perhaps of a rural society. Personal boundaries are down, tools and advice are shared freely, interactions are conducted with an “all for one, one for all” mentality. One vendor swept the sidewalk in front of her tent with a broom made of straw, including the binding, brush and handle, possibly from her native country. When she finished the vendor across from her asked to use it, and she handed it over without a word.
A friendly woman with a brown curly ponytail who was already set up next to our truck grabbed some of our pieces and helped us carry them across the parking lot to the sidewalk. “Hurry up, ladies, Pam’s going to get here soon and I don’t want her to yell at you for being in her spot. She’s kind of tough.” She walked slightly ahead of us, hauling one of our chairs, and called over her shoulder, “I like what you’ve done to this chair. You’ve got some really nice stuff.”
The young man with the stall across from us who was selling his own curated collection of odds and ends said, “Dang, what’re you doing here? You guys should be on HGTV.” “I love hearing that,” I told him, “that’s so nice of you to say.”
But I felt a twinge of doubt…were we in the wrong place? Sharon and I started RaReR a year and a half ago, a business where we salvage and upcycle old furniture in an artsy way. Using old furnishings as our “canvases,” we transform the furniture, trying to give it an unexpected “pop,” through the use of bright colors and repurposed materials, such as our signature belt chairs. We decided to try a market not only to sell some pieces, but to get feedback on our designs and prices from the outside world. So far our customers had been largely our friends.
Already one thing was clear: Market work was hard physical labor. A far cry from my cushy, air-conditioned offices of the past, where the heaviest load I ever lifted was a box of documents. Separate and apart from the ungodly start hour, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how taxing it would be on the joints, limbs, and back. Our husbands had helped with a lot of the heavy lifting the night before when we loaded up our vehicles, but that morning we were on our own. The first hour at the market was a marathon of lifting, hauling, arranging and rearranging our furniture, the tent, our dollies.
From the get-go, we were curiosities, we newbies with our homemade dollies, consisting of big sheets of plywood nailed to short rectangular platforms with small wheels on the bottom that didn’t always pivot a full 360 degrees. The stalls at this market are arranged loosely in an “L” shape. Those lucky enough to be situated on the leg that abuts Wisconsin Avenue are able to drive into the parking lot and leave their cars there all day, next to their stall. Temporary vendors typically get stuck on the other leg of the “L” – on the sidewalk that runs roughly perpendicular to Wisconsin, toward the back of the market. As we schlepped our stuff through the parking lot and down the sidewalk to our assigned space, our dollies rattled over the asphalt, creating a deafening racket, and on our countless trips back and forth everyone looked up to see who the new kids were.
By 7 we were set up, tent and all – and winded. Nine o’clock felt like noon and noon felt like 5. My lower back throbbed from when I tweaked it jumping down from the truck with our Shades of Grey dresser early that morning. As the day wore on the pain forced me to stand up and sit down oh-so-gingerly. And yet, the buzz and energy of the market captivated me. We took turns manning our stall while the other browsed. Many of the vendors looked like they had lived hard lives, judging by their slumped or crooked postures, wrinkles and sunspots. Some were doing it as a side job, like the young woman across from us who was a schoolteacher by trade. She was selling the remaining inventory from her mother’s furnishings store in New Hampshire since her mother retired, then planned to travel for the rest of the summer. The couple in the back alley, like us, offered furniture they had redone themselves. The wife started the business as a hobby, and the husband joined her when he retired. He came by our tent and admired the design of our dresser, which we had painted in different shades of grey, and our kitchen table that had yellow and green legs distressed with an ikat pattern. He asked, “What do you use as a finish? I use polycryolite because the polyurethane yellows over time.” I gulped, “Uh, we use polyurethane.” He nodded. After he left, I jotted down “polycryolite” in my notebook.
The variety of wares offered in the market represented a mixture of color and texture that could tantalize even the most reluctant buyer: vintage purple goblets, rows of old typewriters, artwork, both original and reproduced, fringed lamps, and a pair of vinyl orange sofas reminiscent of the Mad Men set. Although the market didn’t officially open until 8 o’clock, by 7 the seasoned regulars, many of them dealers, were already circulating through the tents with practiced ease and quick eyes. “How much is that lamp?” one guy asked, pointing, even as he continued looking elsewhere and walked on. The vendor next to us, a young Asian-American man whose wife had just had their first baby, sold Hawaiian shirts of all sizes. I wondered who was buying Hawaiian shirts these days. A lot of people, apparently – his stall had a steady stream of customers throughout the day. I wondered how the market’s other furniture vendors, including Butch, were faring as the day went on. I could tell our prices were viewed as high from the way some people who entered our tent, obviously interested in a piece, fingered the tag, then casually backed out. I’d done that a million times myself when I shopped.
Around 3 o’clock, a couple of nearby vendors began packing up. We lagged, trying to delay the inevitable loading up of everything that did not sell, which was most of our stuff. Before coming to the market, Sharon and I talked about our “rock bottom” prices – but at the late hour, we renewed the discussion – would we take $25, $50, even $75 less for the dresser? Discouraged and tired, we began wheeling things back to our vehicles. The Hawaiian shirt guy said, ““I used to sell at Eastern Market. Your stuff would do well there. You would’ve sold almost everything.” Back and forth we trudged through the parking lot accompanied by the loud clattering of our dollies, until the last items were packed and tied.
Butch came by and said, “It was a crappy market day all around. I sold one thing.” We had planned to come back the next Sunday, for which Butch had promised us one of the three rotating permanent spots along Wisconsin Avenue – but I wasn’t at all eager to repeat the experience.
We didn’t go back the following Sunday. But weeks later, I’m ready for another try. I think back to five years ago, almost to the day, when my regular place of work was a clean, sanitized office, where I often shut my door to get work done and sat in front of a computer 90% of the time. In a letter I wrote to friends about why I was leaving the law, I talked about a piece of my soul dying in that sterile environment where one’s left brain dominated over the right and time was my most precious commodity, measured and billed in quarter hour increments. I wanted to be out and about in the world, free of such constraints, gabbing and laughing and eating without an eye on the clock, in spaces exposing the messier sides of human nature, where the unexpected was the norm.
And now I am. In a place where tents replace cubicles, tank tops and flip-flops prevail over suits and high heels, and workouts are done in the work place rather than in a gym after work. Old-school friendliness and kindness flow freely between our wall-less “workspaces.” We’ve witnessed it not just at the market, but in the wider community of artists and small businesses we’ve gotten to know. It’s a small slice of DC that few get to experience.
This was our first market. Given what we do, I know other markets are in our future – perhaps Eastern Market and Crafty Bastards, if we are so lucky. I better get to work strengthening my core.