AMERICAN CANYON — No tourists, no haute cuisine, no glamour are attached to the 8.6-acre stretch of blacktop off South Kelly Road. But for 12 hours every Sunday, the Napa-Vallejo Flea Market comes to life with commerce at its most personal and elemental.
Here is the outdoor, nuts-and-bolts version of mall cruising — up to 600 booths crowded with cut-rate perfume and body wash in one direction, First Communion dresses to one side, oranges and radishes and green chilies on the opposite side, and soccer shoes and cash-for-gold stands off in a barrel-roofed building.
Even on a Father’s Day afternoon when some merchants admitted that many regular customers were away with their families, the flea market on South Kelly Road north of American Canyon was a pop-up hive of largely Latino bargain chasers searching for novelties, necessities, even sofas and beds. Along the aisles, more than 150 vendors plied their trade one passer-by at a time, a kind of one-on-one salesmanship far removed from the TV commercials and email alerts of 21st-century life.
“Brand new! Brand new, amigo!” Saboor Ranjber called out animatedly next to tables blanketed with construction and power tools. “Twenty bucks — Home Depot, it’s $49.99 plus tax!” the shaven-headed, bearded salesman quickly added as a man picked up a post digger at one end of the open-air booth.
Eight hours earlier, the 41-year-old Ranjber, his wife and two children had left their home in Tracy for the 70-mile trek to American Canyon. Their yellow box truck held much of their stock in trade, storage space at the flea market the rest.
For 12 years Ranjber has combed yard sales, auctions and eBay listings, scooping up what bargains he can find before flipping the merchandise in Napa County. The rotary saws, hand tools and generators wind up in a vendor space of sturdy wooden tables, his truck’s cargo bay serving as the back wall of his impromptu store.
While his family made small talk beside their truck over a salad lunch, Ranjber unceasingly worked the stream of flea market visitors, his rapid-fire promises of quality tools butting against a tougher post-recession market.
“Business is slow — used to make lots of money here,” he said, though he noted signs of revival in recent months. “I used to make $1,500 in a day, but now it’s seven or six. Problem is, when the construction business goes down, people have no money to buy this stuff.”
“Have a good relationship with customers, and don’t lie about the merchandise. I have customers who say when they come here, ‘We have to buy from you, otherwise I’ll be upset!’”
A short stroll down the asphalt, Trinidad Enriquez is part video-game seller, part confidant. Holding court in a tented booth, the 50-year-old Stocktonian — known to his regulars as “Shrek” for his lively speech and apple-dumpling build — showed off hundreds of secondhand Xbox, PlayStation and Wii game discs in boxes and crates, along with old game consoles sealed in plastic bags and hung from his awning like market chickens.
“As long as it doesn’t rain, we’re here. Even in winter when it’s 30 degrees out, I’m like ...” He broke off the sentence to jocularly stick his neck forward like a strutting rooster, a touch of bravado needing no words.
Enriquez’s booth occupies different spaces from week to week, but gamers follow him in their search not only for old games but also replacement controller pads, connector cords and other game console bits. But his most valuable stock in trade, he declared, was not his merchandise but his personality — something he called essential for any flea market seller.
“You gotta be a people person to do this — always talking, concerned about people,” he said. “If you can’t get into a conversation, get to know people, you won’t be successful. That’s how you make friends, how you keep people coming back. You got a good product and a bad attitude, people won’t buy there.
“The kind of person who goes to flea markets is already a people person; that’s why they’re here. That’s what I like, that I get to know them and they get to know me. I can come here or (set up) on the other side of the market, and they’ll come looking for me, and they’re going, ‘Hey, Shrek, we’ve been looking for you!’”
Without the filter of a sales staff, catalog or website, sellers at the flea market rise or fall on their patience and human touch, said Armando Garcia, who at 82 is one of the market’s oldest vendors.
“It takes perseverance for sure,” said Garcia, who sells collectibles and trinkets. “You have to be gracious for your customers, and you have to have a nice personality. And if you speak Spanish, all the better.”
The wildly diverse quilt of products offered at the hundreds of booths and tables might force a longer walk for the unfamiliar visitor. But such variety was precisely the attraction for one Vallejo native perusing the stands.
“We find a lot of things we like, but do we need them? It takes a lot of self-discipline,” said Anna Gatchel of Vacaville while she and her daughter Dakota searched for a booth offering hair clips — and hoping not to become too distracted by other vendors.
“Having two girls and a boy, there’s so many things here I could surprise them with, but I’d go broke!” she said, laughing. “I come here with a hundred dollars and that’s it; I’m not going back to the ATM.”
The Napa-Vallejo Flea Market traces its roots to an auction house that opened in 1949 in Vallejo, then moved north to American Canyon three years later. It began its transformation into Napa County’s weekend emporium under Harry Harding, who bought the complex in 1959 and gradually expanded it.
With time has come change to the market’s businesses; the center no longer hosts regular auctions, and live animal sales were phased out more than a decade ago amid California’s tightening animal welfare rules at open-air markets. “The few vendors we had didn’t make it worthwhile to deal with all the concerns,” said Thomas Harding, who with his brother Nelson took over the flea market after their father Harry’s death in 1998.
Perhaps the largest shift for outdoor weekend bazaars like American Canyon’s is a gradual move away from the used-goods sales that still form their identity to many outsiders. With eBay, Craigslist and numerous other ways to sell off unwanted goods without tables or booths, sales of food, clothing and daily necessities have steadily become more popular, according to Ken Langford, the Napa-Vallejo market manager.
“If you compare 20 years ago to today, back then it was about half new and half used, and today it’s 75 percent new merchandise,” said Langford, who has worked at the American Canyon market since 1994. “Things people use from day to day sell well here. It’s a flea market by name, but it’s really an outdoor marketplace.”
“You have lots of people who sell here whose parents or grandparents sold here, either as a side business or (supporting) a brick-and-mortar store.” he said. “It’s like an extended flea market family; you know who the families are, who their kids are, and you develop a rapport with them over time.”
Despite its lure for thousands of weekly shoppers, the flea market’s history has been marked by zoning clashes with Napa County, which came to a head in the spring of 2006. County officials pointed to problems including fights, inadequate septic systems and parking areas in unapproved lots, and issued a compliance notice demanding that the Hardings bring the market into compliance with fire safety, litter and food safety codes — or face possible prosecution.
Their livelihood on the line, the Harding brothers rallied merchants and shoppers to their support. A petition drive that June gathered 6,000 signatures from those urging the county not to shutter the open-air emporium, and other supporters of the market praised it to county supervisors not only as a fount of jobs and discounts, but as a valuable forum for law enforcement and other officials to reach out to a growing Latino community.
“Customers signed it, we signed it,” Ranjber said about the petition campaign. “I got 20 pages of names, front and back, and everybody else did the same.”
Peace came in February 2008, when the Board of Supervisors approved a new use permit for the market. The permit required the market owners to check that vendors have state seller permits and business licenses, provide one security guard for every 1,000 visitors and add more parking and landscaping.
With the flea market’s place in Napa County apparently secure, Ranjber and other vendors can mostly lose themselves in the weekly chase of the sale.
“Eight dollars! Made in the USA, no Chinese!” he barked out. A passer-by stopped to inspect the 2-foot saw Ranjber was hawking, as life and commerce went on.