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OC Market Place still has heart after 50 years

Shoppers peruse offerings at the Orange County Market Place at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.
(File photo)

Mike Robbins has witnessed hundreds of sunrises and sunsets during his 40 years as a cigar salesman at the OC Market Place.

He has watched 1,500 vendors selling plants, sweaters, belts — you name it — dwindle to a still-robust 300 or so. He has seen millions of customers poke around his Paradise Cigars stall.

He has barely missed a weekend.

“I see myself smoking a cigar out there and going to sleep in the chair one day when I’m 84 years old,” said Robbins, 64, with a gruff laugh. “I love it. I love being out there.”

If its luck continues, Robbins may get his wish: Orange County’s oldest swap meet, which is held Saturdays and Sundays on the OC Fair & Event Center grounds, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend.

Like anything middle-aged, the Market Place has seen wins and losses.

At its peak, the swap meet could expect 10,000 customers pushing past rows of vendors, eating at taco stands and taking in the sights and smells.

Nowadays, the crowds number about 3,000 to 4,500, said Market Place General Manager Adela Generally.

Times have changed. Malls across the country are petering, and brick-and-mortar retailers stores are shuttering. Customers are migrating online.

Still, Generally said, the Market Place offers an experience that a keyboard and mouse can’t replicate.

“It’s really that kind of one-stop shop for customers,” she said. “We have everything from blinged-out license plates to spas and waterfalls and clothing and dog accessories, a farmers’ market area with produce and jerky and nuts, scooters, bikes — we have all of it.”

All of it is still there, just maybe less of it. Instead of 10 sunglasses stands, Robbins said, there may be one or two. There are no longer sock stands on every row.

“Here I have a $100,000 [cigar] humidor, the guy behind me is selling $3,000 custom doors, the guy down the row has more shorts than probably 10 Walmarts,” Robbins said. “It’s still like the greatest swap meet.”

The Market Place, which was started in 1969 by businessman Bob Teller, survived the 2007-09 recession, an online-shopping surge, political tensions and an ownership change.

Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to sell the state-owned fairgrounds in 2011, to the chagrin of Tel Phil Enterprises, which owned the Market Place. Jeff Teller, Bob’s son and president of the company at the time, opposed the sale.

The Orange County Fair Board, which mostly supported the idea, nearly evicted Tel Phil, but — facing intense community pressure to keep the O.C. Fair and Event Center in public hands — later reversed its decision and renewed its contract with Tel Phil in 2014.

Two years later, Tel Phil sold the place to Spectra, a concessionaire that sells food services at the fairgrounds.

Swap meet to lose $1 million in 2019

Whether the swap meet will mark another five decades remains to be seen. The economic headwinds are strong.

Revenues have continued to decline, according to a report by the Market Place at a June fair board meeting. Tony Hendryx, vice president at Spectra, reported a projected loss of $1 million in 2019.

For the last few years, Spectra has tried to reinvigorate the Market Place by organizing more events, such as this month’s Touch-A-Truck and November’s OC Made.

“They’re trying everything they can think of,” said Kim Cline, owner of the Shoe Place. “It’s nice to see.”

Cline started selling at the OC Market Place in 1982 with a Volkswagen bus, seven boxes of shoes and bottomless charisma. His business took off with Ugg boots.

The business largely supported the Clines, though he sometimes worked as a sales representative during the week. Usually, he spent his weekdays caring for his two daughters.

“It was fantastic to get your primary income source in two days,” Cline said.

In the 1990s, Cline tried his hand at fashioning his own shoes: flip-flops, made from wetsuit material. Then flip-flops from China filtered into the marketplace, he said, and priced out his creations.

He later decided to stop selling Uggs — “If you do it for 30 years, you get tired of talking about the same thing” — and closed his warehouse.

In 2011, he began designing his own sandals. Now, he spends his weekdays producing shoes and the weekends selling them.

After 37 years, he has weathered the ups and downs.

“Every once in a while, we’ll have the perfect day: plenty of people, a fun experience, good money, everything’s good,” Cline said. “And it just kind of hooks you in, so you have to go through some not-so-good days as well. Just when you think, you start to doubt yourself, there comes another good day.”

This Saturday, the Market Place community will gather to celebrate coming a long way — and hoping to go a bit further.

“Well, it’s been there for 50 years,” Robbins said. “I hope it will be there for another 50.”

IF YOU GO:

Where: OC Fair & Event Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

How much: $2 admission, free for military and children ages 12 and younger.


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