’Twas the morning before Christmas, and all through the gravel lot, not a customer was paying full retail — not even for new tube socks.
“A buck a pair, white or black!” a vendor shouted.
Let the retail industry worry about its timing of sales-goosing price cuts. At swap meets and flea markets — such as the one held every weekend on a Howard University parking lot — it’s always Super Saturday.
Christmas Eve was no different: As procrastinators swarmed shopping malls and big-box stores, several hundred bargain hunters roamed the Funky and Fabulous Fleamarket in Northwest Washington in search of one last gift — or a deeply discounted re-gift.
“One of the benefits of the economy being bad is that people are looking for bargains,” said Omowale Sia, who runs the market. He had been at the parking lot, on the western edge of Howard’s campus, before dawn, when the first of nearly three dozen vendors pulled up to unload a seemingly endless supply of items — most of which had been bought at auctions of storage units whose owners had stopped paying their bills.
There were old toys, old sneakers, old power tools, heavily worn cowboy boots, and old cellphones and laptops and wireless routers.
New blue jeans were $5, and a new item called a Breakfast Machine (“it’s a coffee maker, toaster and egg fryer,” vendor Reggie Williams said) was $20.
There was also a 55-inch Philips TV set (old) near a shiny set of 20-inch chrome tire rims (new). A front-loading GE washing machine (used) sat in the middle of the market.
The chain-link fences on the sides of the lot were covered with used jackets and dresses. Somebody was selling an oversize Redskins jersey with Mark Brunnell’s name on the back — or trying, anyway. New winter gloves ($3 or two pairs for $5) were an easier sell.
“Business is nice,” said Khaliq Musawwir. “There’s a rush of last-minute shoppers — oogobs of people in here.”
Musawwir was standing behind a folding table covered with used jewelry and surrounded by customers. “Don’t pick it up,” she instructed. “Keep it on the table.”
Oney Maya was sifting through the baubles, making a small stack. “For my niece, for Christmas,” he said.
He was looking for a gold earring to match the one he had set aside. He gave up and moved on to wristwatches.
“I buy yesterday in the mall,” he said. “Today, I buy here, then I go home. It’s cold.”
Wind was whipping across the lot; at one point, it sent a small, inflatable Santa rolling between tables.
Maya settled on five watches and a handful of rings, earrings, bracelets and necklaces. He paid $25, cash.
“In a store, I don’t know how much it would cost,” he said. He said he was going to give the jewelry to his 9-year-old niece, Madeline, in the afternoon.
According to a National Retail Federation survey this month, about 11 percent of shoppers planned to buy their final holiday gifts on Christmas Eve. (An additional 5 percent planned to finish shopping on or after Christmas Day.)
Of course, flea markets exist in a parallel business universe. There are no federations tracking sales data or conducting consumer surveys. But Sia knows what he knows after operating flea markets here for six years, and on Saturday, he said: “It’s more people than I expected.”
Manuel Ventura bought new steel-toe rubber boots and a pair of used flip-flops for himself. He also had a pair of lightly used Nike women’s cross-trainers in a bag. “For my sister,” he said. The gift was $5.
Classic Christmas songs reworked by local go-go musicians blared over a mobile sound system.
Franklyn Malone nodded as he looked over a line of tables covered with dozens of black Barbie dolls still in their original boxes: Jamaican Barbie, Ghanaian Barbie, Holiday Angel Barbie. The Holiday Visions Barbie from 2003 still had an FAO Schwarz price tag: $44.95.
“I got granddaughters; it’s gonna be a fight if I come up short for Christmas,” Malone said.
But first, he had to fight for a better bargain. “I didn’t come here to spend this kind of money,” he said. “Gotta try to work a deal.”
“They’re 15 [dollars] each, 25 for two,” vendor John Johnson said.
Malone offered a $20 bill for two dolls.
Johnson stood firm.
Malone paid his $25.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
On his way out, he passed a table covered with kitchen appliances and toys, including a giant box of Thomas & Friends trains and tracks.
An old, seasonal gift tag was taped to the top of the box.
“To: Kevin Jr.,” it said. “From: Grandmaw and Grandpaw.”