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Making money at flea markets

Did you ever stroll one of those enormous tent-city flea markets and wonder what kind of living those thousands of vendors make selling dental floss for a quarter or hubcaps for a buck?

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The answer may surprise you. In fact, according to Coleen Sykora, a flea market veteran and author of "Dream Jobs to Go: How to Get Started as a Flea Market Vendor," some flea market entrepreneurs clear more than $1,000 in a weekend.

"Two vendors I interviewed in my book shared numbers. One cited making $400 per day. The other mentioned several thousand per weekend," she says. "I'd say those figures are realistic."

Makes you look at those miles of stalls in a whole new light, right? Be your own boss, dabble only in merchandise that appeals to you, travel with the seasons, meet interesting people AND make a decent living? What's not to like?

Well, there are tricks to it, as we will see. But one thing is for sure: there's nothing small-time about flea markets anymore.

'A hands-on eBay'
New York urban critic Roberta Brandes Gratz, a board member of the Project for Public Spaces and author of "Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown," does more than write about America's open markets -- she shops there, too.

"In the last couple years, there have been these Christmas flea markets in New York in Union Square and Columbus Circle in Central Park. Last year, I bought three scarves from artisans from Pennsylvania and Harlem that were $30 apiece, as opposed to $150 at Macy's," she says.

These days it seems flea markets of all sizes and shapes are cropping up everywhere. They may be as small as a little league rummage sale or as outrageous as the town of Canton, Texas, which, since the 1850s, has turned the entire town into an open-air market on the first Monday of every month, and today many other days as well. They're commonplace on college campuses, county fairs, car shows -- almost any public space where commerce is not prohibited.

"Flea markets are a hands-on eBay," says Gratz. "They're important to our economy, even though they probably don't show up anywhere. They're a very useful form of recycling and a necessary source of affordably priced stuff."

The term "flea market" originated in the open-air "le marche aux puces of Paris," which were named after either the merchants who had to "flee" the gentrification of the Emperor Napoleon III, or simply sold old furniture infested with the bloodsucking pests, depending on which version you prefer.

Open-air markets have been part of the American experience from the beginning. Today's mega-markets have simply expanded on the city vendors and crossroad stands that helped build this country.

"I think it is an immigrant phenomenon," says Gratz. "The only difference is, they're selling out of a booth or table instead of a pushcart."

Next: "We're having the time of our lives. ..."
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