On of the more obvious places to find unique holiday gifts (and get a deal) is the Rose Bowl Swap Meet, held the second Sunday of every month. The PCC Swap Meet (first Sunday of the month) is free, smaller, almost as fun and great for quirky holiday gifts, but as they say, the granddaddy of them all is the Rose Bowl, officially known as the Flea Market, but it will always be the Swap Meet to me.
For a couple of years I spent every second Sunday scouring the swap meet for home furnishings, tchotchkes, clothes, gifts and artifacts. But I never considered myself anything other than a rank amateur; I’m not a passionate collector of anything in particular, I have never sold from my own booth, and I have known only a few vendors by name. I do, however, have a system (I do the old stuff in the outer lots first, then the new if I have time); I do have a cart; and I always pay extra to go in at first light.
The organization of the RBSM has been the same since the 1980s: new stuff in the ring around the stadium (where you find the latest “as seen on TV” gadgets, new clothing, tools, plants, jewelry, etc.); the outer parking lot for antiques (we are using the term a bit loosely – mostly used, mostly genuinely old, lots of collectibles and plenty of vintage clothing) and the outer-outer parking lot (added, it seems to me, in the ‘90s to accommodate Japanese buyers of vintage jeans) over the bridge for yet more used clothes/shoes/hats.
There’s a new food court serving Bloody Marys and fried Twinkies, as well as some great-looking if pricey ethnic food, kind of like a county fair-meets-music festival; you no longer have to subsist on frozen lemonade, churros and beef jerky samples. And the guy on the pennyfarthing bike still greets shoppers at the entrance. I suspect it’s a different guy than the one who said howdy back in the early dawn of 1981, when I first stepped into the magical, crazed world of the swap meet, or else he has very good balance for a man of 95.
The vibe in November 2009 was a mellow one, with many vendors complaining that business was slow. (Traditionally, the November and December meets are crowded with holiday shoppers and merchandise.) The crowd ranged, as usual, from serious collectors and industry types to young hipsters, browsers and flirts. (Celebrity sightings are common.) There seemed to be slightly fewer booths overall, and, like at brick and mortar shops, few were overflowing with goods. The former surfeit of embroidered pillowcases-rusty tools-Depression glass-African carvings-stuffed geese-apothecary cabinets spilling out of one booth has given way to more curated and organized junk/treasure.
The new section featured locally made soy candles, some great-looking jewelry and the best stocking stuffers eve: marshmallow guns made of PVC pipe. In the old section, bargains were to be had on Hudson Bay blankets, homemade cinnamon rolls and little black dresses from the 1950s. Even if you don’t go to buy, go to people-watch, hang with friends, enjoy the sun — the Rose Bowl Swap Meet is a crossroads of not just stuff, but people.
My top tips for Everything RBSM:
TIMING IS EVERYTHING. If you are at all serious about antique/collectible shopping, pay for the earliest entrance fee. ($15 or $20 vs. $8 general admission after 9 a.m.) You can cruise the two-sided lanes of vendors by walking unobstructed down the middle of the aisles, and often salespeople will make a deal to someone with an obvious commitment (like shopping by headlamp). Not all vendors open at dawn, so you might miss a few things.
Conversely, at the end of the day, bargains are said to be had. I have never made it past 2 p.m., so I can only hope that the stuffed vole that I said was overpriced at 9:30 in the morning didn’t go to somebody at 4 p.m. for five bucks.
Crowds and heat are the worst between 10 and 2, but if you had a big Saturday night this may be your only option. If you find yourself there then, make sure you see both sides of the aisles or you’ll miss that Ming vase with just the tiniest chip, or the Mona Lisa plush blanket you just know your mother-in-law wants for Christmas.
CARPE DIEM. If you want it and can afford it, buy it. Right then. Someone coming behind you also has an eye on that one-of-a-kind antique photo album, and when you circle back, you’ll mourn it as much as my husband still regrets not buying that genuine mummy’s hand at the May 1992 swap meet (get over it, honey!).
DON’T BRING EXTRA MONEY “JUST IN CASE.” Put yourself on a budget and stick to it – and, for good or evil, know that most vendors now take credit cards. Some still take checks. Also, watch your wallet in this very crowded place. And note that the greedy ATMs charge $3 or $4 a pop.
BARGAIN. Remember, most collectible vendors are pros and have done their research; the new merchandise and a family or one-off booth is usually more flexible. The majority of things are well priced to begin with, but many folks are willing to deal. If their prices are firm, they are gracious about saying so. Being nice and making eye contact will help your case. Don’t offer half price unless you know you are right – try asking for 20% off. Walking away works. The morning and evening discounts work. Cash instead of credit works. Volume works, for collectibles or new stuff. Being a connoisseur, or even being interested, works. Take their phone number and call back before you leave. Work it, but don’t be a jerk!
EQUIPMENT. The carts sold at the swap meet – large wire mesh carts with rubber wheels – are helpful; if you buy plants, or a floor lamp, or antique linen sheets, you’ll wish you bought or brought one. A backpack or large tote bag (or both) may come in handy.
Dress like a tourist or hiker, but get in the spirit of the swap meet and do it all funky. Bring a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and water, even in the winter, and wear layers: If you’re shopping for clothes, it helps to be able to strip down to a tank top and leggings.
Charge your cell phone. If you bring younger kids (which we don’t recommend – remember, they are staring at people’s butts all day), you need a wagon or stroller. Bring your largest car, and see if a friend with a truck will be around in the afternoon to tote home that antique treadle-powered stone knife grinder you just had to have.
WAYFINDING. Park for free on the grass, or if you come early, along the southwest side of the Arroyo. To remember where you bought that orange naugahyde Barcalounger, use the stadium aisle markers to navigate the new merchandise circle; the outer circles actually have obscure vendor and aisle numbers if you ask your merchant. The bathrooms, even after a UCLA game, are nice and clean, and they’re more plentiful on the new side than the outer rings. Plan accordingly.
FINALLY. Many vendors will deliver on their way home for a small fee. Get cards from intriguing merchants who sometimes have a store or warehouse. Get your hand stamped, take a break in Old Town, and go back for that Monkees 45 of “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Take a camera, ask questions, hang out and have fun.
P.S. If negotiating the Rose Bowl on your own sounds daunting, consider the tours led by professional shopper Christine Silvestri. Advance packages are $28 (for the 8:15 a.m. tour) and $23 (for the 10 a.m. tour), including admission; call Urban Shopping adventures at 213.683.9715 or go to visitpasadena.com for details. If the tours aren’t full, you might be able to join in last-minute for $18 to $20.