NEW YORK — It's possible to buy almost anything in this city without setting foot in a store.
Every day from early spring until late fall, and even into winter, weather permitting, vendors on street corners or at weekend flea markets offer everything from underwear to lamp shades to telephone answering machines to jewelry to punk footwear. Plus fresh fruit, pretzels, frankfurters, sausages, knishes and franks.
Street vendors set up on corners from Wall Street to the West Side. Although some are stationed near tourist sights, most are in business or residential areas.
Some street vendors have regular stations. For example, on the Upper West Side, at Broadway and West 81st Street, three corners are always occupied by the same stands.
As if their wares weren't enough to capture the attention of passers-by, these vendors put up attractive umbrellas that look like gigantic slices of watermelon.
At one stand, as browsers study the beautiful display of crystals, the vendor may instruct them about the healing properties of quartz and other pieces.
At the stand across the street a motherly woman sells children's socks ($5 a pair) hand-painted with flowers, appealing animals or names.
Another stand is run by a chic woman who is the model for her handcrafted contemporary silver-and-wood jewelry and small leather goods.
Down the block, at Broadway and West 80th Street, is the regular who alternates between LaCoste shirts ($15 each), Fruit of the Loom briefs (three pairs for $7 or $8, depending on the time of day), umbrellas ($5) and other essentials.
And at Broadway and West 82nd Street a young couple sets up a large cassette rack stocked with the latest hits and some hard-to-find items by top artists at $3 to $5 per tape.
Street vendors are licensed by the city, prominently display their permits and charge reasonable prices.
Those who deal out of battered suitcases or cardboard cartons may be less reputable, and some even sell stolen merchandise. If you're offered a $100 cassette recorder for $20, question its authenticity and origin.
Unless you really like to gamble, insist on receiving the original packaging and warranty card for anything bought.
Best on Weekends
This city's street shopping scene is best on weekends, when the flea markets set up in schoolyards and parking lots throughout the city.
Some of the markets are 20 years old. Each has responsible management and regular vendors selling a wide variety of merchandise, from antique jewelry, tie-died dresses and collector records to leather sandals, vintage rugs and electronic gadgets, plus casual clothes and home accessories.
Vendors, especially those specializing in collectibles, usually sell products they make themselves, and conduct business out of their homes or studios.
Flea markets are in this city's most interesting neighborhoods and are accessible by public transportation. Here's a list:
The Annex Antiques and Flea Market on Avenue of the Americas from 24th to 26th streets, in Chelsea, is New York's largest and oldest market. Open on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., it has the biggest selection of antiques.
Dealers are both serious and reputable, and sell everything from silver candlestick holders (from $200) and brass sconces to Victorian meat grinders ($5) and turn-of-the-century, cast-iron door stops shaped like frogs, dogs and horses (from $30). Antique clocks ($35 to $950) and radios ($40 to $860) are abundant, as are vintage cameras and Art Deco lamps and table accessories.
Downtown in Greenwich Village the Saturday Village School Mart at Public School 41 (P.S. 41, in the vernacular), on Greenwich Avenue at Charles Street, is open Saturdays only, noon to 7 p.m.
The emphasis is on original merchandise, much of it handcrafted by the vendors. There are charming hats ($40 and up) handmade of brocade or velvet bedecked with feathers and other finery, as well as jumpsuits made of cuddly flannel ($25 and up) or Japanese cotton kimono jackets with matching trousers ($40 and up), plus interesting T-shirts, vintage costume jewelry, current cassette tapes and mirrored sunglasses with neon frames ($3).
Artsy SoHo Scenes
Farther downtown, in artsy SoHo and near Chinatown, the Canal Street West Flea Market (370 Canal St.) takes over a vacated parking lot on Saturdays and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Because of its location and 12-year track record, this is one of New York's most popular markets. About 50 vendors offer widely varied merchandise, including some antiques and collectibles (old coins and post cards are best bets), plus a lot of trendy and/or punk clothes, shoes and original T-shirts.
Interestingly designed, hand-painted and/or silkscreened T-shirts are also excellent at the Tower Market on Broadway between 4th and Great Jones streets, near the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater in the East Village. This market, open Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., has the most unusual merchandise, much of it made by the vendors.
In addition to the T-shirts with New York themes, fabulous earrings made from old watch faces (from $25) or ceramics (from $15) shaped like chocolate chip cookies, carrots, strawberries and farm animals are works of art.