Gold mine in Sparks

Searching through piles of sockets and soccer jerseys to find buried treasure at summer flea markets.

The El Rancho Swap Meet in Sparks doubles as a kind of farmers’ market.

The El Rancho Swap Meet in Sparks doubles as a kind of farmers’ market.

Photo By Adrienne Rice

Searching through piles of sockets and soccer jerseys to find buried treasure at summer flea marketsThe gold clock is propped up between used irons and toaster ovens. Its gaudy, plastic protruding spikes look out of place among the small appliances carefully placed on worn-out old blankets.

“How much for the clock?”

The vendor, a girl maybe 10 years old, looks at her older brother. They exchange inaudible words.

“Eight dollars,” she replies.

“Is it worth $8 to you?” I ask my fiance RN&R associate editor Adrienne Rice in a low tone of voice.

But before she can reply with an eager “Yes,” the vendor offers: “Take it for five.”

Deal. The girl walks under a tarp, where her parents are surveying the situation, gets change for the $20 and returns.

The day’s first score.

Long before Wal-Mart and other mega-box retailers took over the low-price market, flea markets were where communities gathered to exchange trinkets, food, clothing and tools. The first mention of the term “flea market” was in Paris in the 1860s. To the Parisians, they were called marche aux puces, but they have been around much longer than 150 years.

Outdoor marketplaces used to be the driving economic force in most countries (as they still are in some places). Traveling merchants would unload their goods, and commerce between the travelers and local sales folk would provide many families with food and shelter. Some economies are still very dependent on these markets, like South America, where they are known as el mercado al aire libre, or outdoor markets.

And, although flea markets don’t drive the economic indicators up in America, they have taken on a cultural connection with the American mindset. Almost every small town in America has a flea market of some sort, often on the idle lots of drive-in movie theaters, like the El Rancho Swap Meet in Sparks.

The sounds at the flea market remind me of the county fair:

“I see you looking,” a tall, lanky man calls out to me with a Mexican accent, sounding like he’s my best friend. “Make me an offer.”

It’s like that game at the fair where you have to knock down the weighted milk bottles with a ball. I’ve never won that game.

The clock that Gabe and Adrienne bought for $5 in Sparks.

Photo By Adrienne Rice

“Tell me what you need. I’ll get you the best price.”

For some reason, I am enticed to look over his rusted power tools and throwaway ratchet sockets.

“Maybe I do need a jigsaw that looks like it hasn’t worked since Reagan was in office,” I think to myself. Tempted as I am, I have seen better stuff that day. The dealer probably knows this, too, which makes him all the more persistent.

“Come on. I know you see something you like.”

But I don’t, and I move on.

Drawing about 3,000 people each Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the El Rancho Swap Meet is the largest traditional flea market in the area. Two hundred vendors load up their stuff every weekend and make their way to the drive-in to sell their goods. Much of the merchandise at the El Rancho is new—shirts, CDs and stereo equipment are in good supply.

But where a flea market holds its true appeal is the odd items that can be found on any given Sunday—like the garish gold clock. Not to mention the chance that someone doesn’t know what he or she is selling.

After the carny-like dealer, we come across a truck. Well, a mid-'80s Ford Bronco, to be exact. It appears to be in decent shape. $1,000. Even cars are cheap at a flea market.

“Hey, that’s that Michael Douglas guy,” a vendor says, looking over the movie I am about to purchase from him. “I like him.”

He holds the The Wonder Boys box in his hands, turning it over. The box looks fairly new, not like so many of his other movie boxes, which looked faded from being baked in the Nevada sun.

“It’s a good movie—but pretty weird,” I tell him.

He hands it back to me, twisting his burly moustache in the other hand.

“I’ll have to check that one out next time I get my hands on it.”

There are seven flea markets within an hour’s drive from Reno, according to the National Flea Market Association: two in Sparks, one in Reno, two in Carson City, another in Fernley and a daily one in Silver Springs. Most of them operate on Saturday and Sunday, although the El Rancho Swap Meet and the Frontier Village Flea Market in Fernley also are open on Fridays.

The flea markets vary from the typical, like the El Rancho Swap Meet in Sparks, to the more upscale, like the Tanners World Wide Flea Market held at the Reno Convention Center each month.

I don’t have a lot of money or a lot of direction this time, so I walk away from the hot afternoon with only a clock and a movie. I almost bought an Aguilas soccer jersey. If they had had a Newcastle United soccer jersey, I definitely would have. Maybe next time.

Next: Summer calendar