When I was in high school, San Jose had two flea markets. One of them, the Berryessa market, brought in four million visitors a year and was listed in the top ten California tourist attractions, behind Disneyland and Hearst Castle.
I worked at the smaller Capitol Flea Market, 1,000 vendors and 10,000 shoppers three times a week in the city that provided cheap labor for Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies. Secretaries, factory line workers, janitors, bus boys, drivers, haulers, lifters, painters … they all lived in San Jose and drove up Highway 101 to work at places like Hewlett Packard, Apple and Sun Microsystems, or to work as domestic help for the new tech millionaires.
For most people the flea market was a bustling marketplace filled with new immigrants looking for a bargain. But for me it was high school, college and grad school wrapped into one old, dirty, dusty drive-in movie theater.
Over time I would ascend the ranks and eventually run the whole operation, but for now I was 16, wearing an orange shirt and spending my day as a parking attendant. I was one of a dozen or so teenage workers who directed thousands and thousands of people, most of whom spoke only Spanish, into their parking places. They must have all wondered what this blonde-haired, blue-eyed gringo was doing there.
My flea market job was a continuation of the lesson I’d learned in grade school: you could make money selling stuff. Only here there wasn’t just bubble gum. It was a smorgasbord of commerce spread out on blankets and spilling out of boxes filled with everything from shampoo bottles to T-shirts to power tools.
The characters I met fascinated me as I learned the ropes of this underground economy. People like Mr. Calderon, who sold reconditioned tires. These are tires that were once worn down, but now had been retreaded and could be purchased for half of what a new tire cost. Mr. Calderon looked like an Hispanic Mr. Goodwrench and walked the flea market each morning wearing blue coveralls, hand-in-hand with his small son. This touched me as I imagined what it would have been like to have a dad who walked with me. Or at least that was my version of the story.
Mr. Calderon had a much different agenda. You see, as they walked, his cute little boy would drop tacks on the ground—tacks that would eventually wind up in someone’s tire. At the end of flea market day, some poor soul would appear at Mr. Calderon’s booth buying one of his recycled tires. He was literally creating customers as he walked!
Or Linda the single mom, who had emigrated from the Philippines. She sold car seat covers. You remember those—you could upgrade your car’s interior with a choice of tiger stripes, faux lamb’s wool, or the logo of your favorite football team. Linda, all alone and looking for some special attention, knew two things: young men like food and beautiful women. So she and her sexy daughter (whose name I can’t remember because I was too bashful to talk to the girl in the crop-top and Daisy Dukes) would cook lunch for all of us hungry teenagers. In exchange we looked the other way when she took extra space for her goods, and kept out a special eye to make sure that no one messed with them.
Terry was one of my first entrepreneurial mentors, the flea market’s version of a rock star. He was different from most of the other vendors. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and was born to a rich father who expected him to work, which he wasn’t much inclined to do. So he found an easy solution. He had the nicest trailer truck at the flea market, which his father had surely bought him. During the week he would attend an auction or two until he had filled that truck with whatever treasures he thought would sell. After an evening on the town, he would show up late at the flea market, often with a new woman with whom he’d spent the night. He’d buy five or six spaces and spread his items out. Not nicely displayed, but heaped in boxes. His strategy was simple and born from laziness, like his life—”stack ’em high and watch ’em buy.”
The king of the sellers was Produce John. He was a tall, lanky man from Greece who looked like he had just stepped off a tractor. Produce John had mastered the art of selling. Unlike Terry, John worked hard. He had multiple booths, appearing to compete with himself; in reality he was helping to create the marketplace he dominated. His was the closest thing to a farmer’s market in those days—table after table heaped with fresh fruits and vegetables. His strategy was one that every great retail operation masters: “location, location, location.”
Here I was in this ocean of opportunity, a secret city hidden within a city. While my co-workers were toiling away parking cars and counting the minutes before they could go home, I was in entrepreneurial heaven. Everywhere I looked people were buying stuff. They were buying and selling anything and everything. All I needed to do now was find some stuff to sell.
The flea market was a weekend job, so on school days I worked in the evenings at a different kind of market, Target. One day while stocking the shelves I found what I’d been looking for, something really cheap to sell at the flea market: a bunch of English/Spanish dictionaries marked down on clearance to ten cents each. I bought 50 of them for five dollars and began to imagine the mini fortune I would make.
The next week I showed up at the market, which really looked like old Mexico, walked up to people and showed them the books.
“Do you want to learn English?” I’d ask. “If you want to learn English, you have to have this book.” They couldn’t buy them fast enough. I sold out in a day, at five dollars each, and had the most money I’d ever seen in my life. I quit my job at Target and focused on one thing—finding more ways to make money at the flea market.
Now it was just a matter of finding more things to sell at higher prices. I borrowed $900 from a friend and bought an old Toyota pickup at auction, like I’d seen other vendors do. I fixed it up and sold it for twice what I paid for it.
Then I bought an ice cream truck. Yes, an ice cream truck, one I got for a steal from a guy who really needed money. I thought buying the truck was a genius move. This was something I could really make some money on. But when I got it home, I found out the refrigeration compressor was broken and it would cost more to fix than I could sell it for. Now I had an ice cream truck that wouldn’t freeze ice cream. Too stubborn to admit I’d been duped, I turned it into a positive and used the truck to haul goods to the market. I would drive the truck in and pay someone to sell stuff while I did my job parking cars.
I found a store going out of business that was selling soccer cleats for next to nothing. Boxes and boxes of them. I bought them all and loaded up my truck, where the ice cream would have gone.
Soccer wasn’t that big for Americans yet. But who loved it? The Mexican shoppers at the flea market, of course. I made a killing on the shoes, bringing just the right item to market. Sure, someone else could have done that, but they didn’t. They were focused on the people who came into their big fancy box stores but had no clue about the under market of new immigrants who wanted to shop the way they did in their old country and didn’t have the money to pay what stores needed for their overhead.
That truck became my best friend. I bought and sold and hauled everything from roses to entire estate sales; and while it was all about making money at the time, I was slowly reprogramming my mind from poverty to opportunity, from lack to abundance, and from living at the whim of my circumstance to creating something new.
This would be my next great lesson: that opportunity is everywhere. You just have to look for it.
This piece was excerpted from … And I Breathed, My Journey from a Life of Matter to a Life that Matters by Jason Garner, published 2014 by Jason Garner. $16.99 at jasongarner.com