Evolution of the treasure hunt

THE scene at this Santa Monica flea market says it all: Shiny black Lincoln Town Cars and Mercedes-Benz SUVs have packed the preferred parking spaces. Vendors look as if they belong in Nordstrom, not under a tent in an airport parking lot. As shoppers wander the aisles, lattes in hand, actor John Malkovich stops by one booth and eyes a French Moderne-style desk from the 1940s.

Too late.

It sold hours ago for $1,200.

In the age of EBay and Craigslist, old-fashioned flea markets have evolved to survive. Yes, they still cater to shoppers who love the thrill of the hunt. But, industry watchers say, flea markets -- especially those in California -- have transformed themselves from mishmash stalls crammed with household discards to carefully vetted collections of antiques, authentic midcentury designs and high-end contemporary furnishings. Mixed among the tables of cheap knickknacks are an increasing number of vendors whose vignettes look more like a showroom than a slapped-together space.

Shoppers still love a bargain, but more often than not, the quest is really about finding treasures with history, distinction and soul. According to the National Flea Market Assn., eternally sunny California is at the leading edge of what remains a $30-billion industry. Pricey real estate is redefining the flea market -- and the flea market shopper -- not only here, but across the country.

"If you look at the neighborhoods where these are located, you can see why they seek out quality vendors," says association President Chuck Pretto, who runs Kobey's Swap Meet in San Diego. He expanded that event's collectibles section to compete with more selective flea markets.

"California tends to be more upscale," he says. "The quality is better. The booth-space rents are higher than throughout the rest of the country. They attract the more affluent, discriminating customer."

Nationwide, 65% of members in Pretto's association reported higher gross sales last year compared with 2004. More are finding success by catering to shoppers who can afford to hire a decorator but prefer to tramp through dusty markets themselves, sometimes paying close to retail for their purchases. It's all in the name of fun and in the pursuit of pieces that reflect their style -- or as Mike Redd, chief operating officer of the Rose Bowl Flea Market, says, "the curious, the rare, the unusual -- a decorative item you can't find in a store."

The term "flea market" is derived from the French name for a Paris street market. The first English reference is believed to be in George S. Dougherty's 1922 book, "In Europe," which says Le Marche aux Puces had so much second-hand merchadise that it attracted fleas. These days, however, you may find Art Deco salt and pepper shakers that sell for a few dollars, or Frank Gehry-designed cardboard chairs priced for several thousand.

Even flea markets with a waiting list of vendors may offer prime locations and discounted rent to anyone whose high-end merchandise helps to raise the market's appeal. With 2,200 spaces to fill, the Rose Bowl can't be too choosy, but it still discourages the rummage-sale approach by charging an average of $100 a spot, with corner spaces in the antiques section jumping to $250.

For better or worse, about half of the vendors these days are actually retailers who use their stalls like a second storefront or as a complement to online sales, according to the association.

Among them is Alain Bine, who sets up shop at the Santa Monica Airport Outdoor Antique & Collectible Market. For $50 a day, he exposes his Los Angeles store, Maison Decor Interior Design & Antiques du Monde, to "the exact quality of customers I'm trying to attract: sophisticated, beautiful."

Bine has a bold plan for the next time the monthly market assembles: Instead of packing his stall with 30 pieces of French antiques, he will spotlight just one item, perhaps a red Art Deco sofa for $8,000.

"It will be a curiosity," he says, pondering his gallery approach. "The trend is either you go low with reproductions or you go high with antiques. You market for the look or you market for the period. The middle ground won't survive anymore."

For some, the shopping experience is as much an allure as the merchandise itself. Managers of the Rose Bowl Flea Market brag that it's one of the best places to spot celebrities, but Eleanor Hedge, who interviews her sellers before she rents them a spot in Santa Monica, sniffs at that idea.

"John Malkovich, Barbra Streisand -- I leave them alone when they're here," Hedge says, tugging the leash attached to her white poodle while dodging dollies and baby strollers that shoppers have loaded with furniture. "My regular customers have more money than celebrities. They are little girls in jeans with their tummies showing, and when my sellers deliver to them, the sellers say, 'You won't believe how big the house is.' "

For bargain hounds, the more important question is: Are the days of the great buy over?

Not necessarily, but sellers say finding a gem is harder and costlier. Thanks to EBay, "Antiques Roadshow" and online auction catalogs, vendors are less likely to make mistakes when pricing pieces and shoppers are more skilled at swooping up deals. The increased competition can drive up prices. Mickey Goldin, who has sold new and old chandeliers at the Santa Monica market for 10 years, says he has seen merchandise bought and sold by five dealers on the lot before a customer finally takes it home.

Another factor: People are living longer and holding onto their possessions, limiting supply.

Higher prices notwithstanding, attendance at flea markets is up after a dip in the late 1990s, association president Pretto says. After the novelty of Internet sales subsided, crowds returned to see and touch merchandise in person -- and to take it home without a shipping charge. But mostly, he says, "they want to spend a day outdoors."

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