It could easily be mistaken for the hottest ticket in town. More than 300 people are lined up in their cars along Stargaze Road to get into the Simi Drive-In Theater. But they're not here for the buttered popcorn or a chance to see Michael J. Fox in the double bill of "Teen Wolf" and "Back to the Future." Not at 4:45 on a Sunday morning.
They're here to buy, sell and trade merchandise--and maybe even find romance--at the Simi Valley Swapmeet, an every-weekend flea market known as much for its minglers as its merchants.
An average Sunday at the Simi Valley Swapmeet draws about 600 sellers and up to 9,000 buyers, according to Gari Chandler, director of swap meets for the Metropolitan Theater Corp., which owns the Simi Drive-In.
John Blazej, who has managed the swap meet for 10 years, says that while the meets are big business, big enough to keep a foundering drive-in alive, they've also turned into something of a social scene.
'It's an Outing'
"For some people, it's an outing," Blazej said, "like going to a mall and not intending to buy anything."
Said Karlene Brown, who has been helping her husband, Bob, sell his handmade jewelry at the swap meet for nine years: "It's the social event of our week."
Unlike most of the people lined up on Stargaze this Sunday morning, the Browns have paid to reserve a selling space and, according to Bob Brown, people with reservations are let in with little waiting. For the rest of the sellers, it's first come, first served, and many of them have been there since Saturday night.
To pass the time, some blasted heavy-metal rock tunes from the back of their vans and partied, while others kicked their sneakers up on their dashboards for a snooze.
A Big Party
John Olson, a nightclub bouncer, says the swap meet line is often the biggest and best party to be found on a Saturday night in the Valley area.
"On a scale of 1 to 10," he said, "some of the parties we've had here were 11s." He added that the festivities along the waiting line often become more important than the swap meet itself. "I can't tell you how many times we got our space at the swap meet and ended up just sleeping all day because we got too wild the night before," Olson said.
Being at the head of the line means getting there before 8 p.m. the day before the meet, according to Scott Spellman, who occupied a respectable third place in line. Bearded and dressed in combat fatigues, Spellman could pass for a Vietnam War protester. But this morning the only thing he protested was the reservation fee.
"It's ridiculous to pay the extra five bucks to reserve," he said. "So I get here the night before because I know I'll be too lazy to get up in the morning."
Spaces Sell Quickly
According to Blazej, however, a lot of folks who would be willing to pay for a good night's sleep still end up being forced to camp out because reservations often sell out faster than a Bruce Springsteen concert--almost always in less than two hours.
The music begins to fade, and by the time the sun comes up, the birds are the dominant sound. The beer drinkers start to nod off, and the sleepers come alive and break into their Thermos bottles for coffee.
At 5:45, the sellers are finally let into the drive-in, and at 6:30 the gates are opened to buyers. Said Blazej: "We advertise that we're open to buyers at 7. But by 6:30 the line is already 50 or 60 cars long, and if we wait until 7, we could cause some real traffic problems."
By the time customers arrive, Spellman is on roller skates, coasting back and forth between the two speaker posts that mark the boundaries of his space. If headless and legless Barbie dolls and plastic Big Boy banks are on your Christmas shopping list, he is the man to see. Today he has lucked into a choice location by the concession stand, which is open for business during swap meets.
Learning the 'Tricks'
"After awhile, you learn the tricks of which spots are best," Spellman said. "For instance, if you're selling women's clothing, somewhere near the ladies' restroom is a good place to be, because they've got to go in there sooner or later."
Good locations also depend on whether the people in the booths next door are friendly. According to LaDawn Stone, some neighbors can be downright touchy. Today, her demonstrator wind-up spider crawled into a nearby fruit stand a few times too many, getting her "a lot of dirty looks" from the stand's proprietor, she said.
But Stone keeps smiling, even when female customers seem more interested in her boyfriend, Brian Nelson, than in the merchandise.
"He just got winked at," Stone said.
"But we don't let things like that bother us," Nelson piped in. "We're too much in love."
Looking for 'Beefcake'
Apparently a lot of other people aren't bothered by such flirtatious come-ons, either. In fact, swap meet security guard Tim Slivkoff says, it is "beefcake," not bargains, that brings some women to the meet, "especially in the summer months when people tend not to wear as much clothing.
"The girls come out to pick up the guys in shorts," he said. "And the guys try to pick up the girls in bikinis."
Does anyone ever get lucky?
"Well, I've gone on dates with three different girls I've met here," Slivkoff, 22, said with a grin. "One girl asked me out of the blue if I wanted to eat with her. Then she whipped out the food and shared her lunch with me."
Ruthie Negro says she does not come to the swap meet looking for romance, but somehow it always seems to find her. Two years ago, the petite and pretty 20-year-old started helping her father, Robert McCluer, at his cosmetics and beach-towel booth. It didn't take long for Negro to notice a good-looking USC student who was selling shirts and shoes next door.
"I really liked him, but we never had time to go out during the week," Negro said, "so we just saw each other here on the weekends.
"Then he moved to another swap meet, and the romance was over. So I got another boyfriend who sold car seat covers, but he moved to another swap meet too. I've lost two that way."
Retired entertainers Billy and Thelma Erhardt, who once appeared on the "Steve Allen Show"--he dancing, she playing piano--have been selling jewelry at the Simi Valley Swapmeet for 12 years. Billy Erhardt recalls a nostalgic moment that made him fast friends with a man in an orange van who set up shop near their booth.
'So Many Memories'
"First he was playing spoons," he said. "Then he put on some old Jolson records, and it brought back so many memories."
"Some of the songs he played were ones we used to dance to," Thelma Erhardt added.
In the free-spirit department, 24-year-old Ari Ross epitomizes the new breed of California swap-meet sellers. He greets potential buyers with an ethereal "Welcome to my space." Ross looks like a cross between Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, and when he's not selling equipment, he's out trying to find acting jobs.
Blazej says the most memorable character in Simi Valley Swapmeet history is a man who has been selling antiques there since the flea market's inception 21 years ago.
"He's a Sicilian guy named Nappy," Blazej said. "He's great at getting other guys to sell him their stuff real cheap. Then he takes it back to his spot and sells it for three times what he paid."
But Nappy has his generous side too, Blazej said.
"I remember when a seller named Big Jim died, and Nappy went around to the others and collected money for his wife," Blazej said. "When I went to the funeral, there were 15 or 16 sellers from the swap meet there. Back then, it was more like a family here."