Barely past 6 o'clock on a brisk Saturday morning, most of the 45 or so vendors who will take part in that day's Ventura College Foundation Swap Meet have already begun unpacking their wares from pickups, RVs and tightly packed sedans.
Shorty Contreras, 68, and his wife, Isabel, 63, arrange bananas, oranges, avocados, melons, yams and onions neatly in the couple's favorite space in the East Parking Lot, on Telegraph Road just west of Day Road.
It's understandable that the Contrerases handle their fruits and vegetables with care. To buy them, they awoke at 3 a.m. Friday morning and drove to the wholesale produce center near downtown Los Angeles.
Another vendor, L.R. Valenzuela, 69, jokes with his wife, Betty, 64, as they carry ceramics and display cases of antique jewelry from their large motor home.
Across the way, Sharon Klingler, 45, who manages the meet on Saturdays, helps her husband, Richard, 50, set up boxes filled with combs (25 cents each), notebooks (three for 50 cents), scratch pads (four for $1) and other items.
Next to the Klinglers, Larry Byl, 35, who manages the meets on Sundays, is setting up the snack bar. At the end of the same row, Basil Puller, 55, double-checks his baseball cards and old-time citrus box labels. And Ginger Baker, 60, removes Beatles memorabilia and Evel Knievel commemorative coins from her white T-Bird.
You won't find a great deal of big-ticket merchandise at the swap meet. Puller will sell you an Andy Pafko card for $300 ("It lists for $1,400," he points out), and Winifred and Wilbert Lester, who have been vendors at the meet since it opened in June, 1987, are offering an oak entertainment center for $60.
Most items, though, cost $15 or less, and about half of them are used.
Among the comic books displayed by Patti Cau and her son, Jon-Paul, 10, are copies of "Batman" ($5.50), "Tomb of Dracula" ($1) and "Blackhawk" ($1.50).
Patti Cau is asking $10 and more for copies of "Captain America" and "Superman," even though the less costly "Batman" reigns as the hot ticket among comic book collectors. "I'm like a lot of the other vendors here--I also collect the things I sell," Cau says.
The Lesters' merchandise includes drinking glasses (some as inexpensive as a quarter), a bright green candy dish ($3) and costume jewelry ranging from 50 cents to $10 each.
"I'm watching people closely today," says Winifred Lester as The Country Boys, a country-Western band headed by Ralph Underwood, strikes up "All My Exes Live in Texas."
"Somebody stole a $10 ring this morning," she says. Still, she concedes, "practically everybody is really nice. Many of the regular customers and vendors have gotten to know each other. And a few weeks ago, my husband ran into a friend he hadn't seen in 30 years."
The Valenzuelas, who also do business at monthly swap meets at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena City College and Veterans Memorial Stadium in Long Beach, sell a woman a vase for $30. "She spotted it as a Red Wing right away," says Valenzuela. "With pottery collectors, the brand's the thing. Turn the piece over and you'll find the brand."
Puller, who works during the week as an air traffic control mechanic at the Point Mugu Naval Air Station, buys, sells and trades baseball cards. In his private collection, he says, he has a Mickey Mantle that's worth $6,800. Puller tells a youngster he'll pay $6 for a Ben McDonald card.
"But he's a draft choice," the boy protests.
"I can get him for $1.25 in lots of 100," Puller says.
The boy finally agrees to bring some cards to trade the next day.
A neighborhood family--Joe Parr, his wife, Lu-May, and their 6-year-old daughter, Lilly-- stroll through the rows of vendors, as they do practically every weekend. Lu-May Parr is looking for plants. She has bought orchids at this meet for $15, which she says is a good price.
"She won't buy anything unless they'll bargain," her husband says. On the other hand, he says, he and Lilly buy things "for whatever the sellers feel they're worth."
Bob Reeves, maintenance supervisor at the college and the college foundation's liaison with the meet, says the foundation receives a fee of $10 a day from each vendor. In less than three years, he notes, this has provided about $50,000 in scholarships to students transferring to four-year universities.
"It's like a giant garage sale," Byl says at the snack bar. "A lot of meets have become commercialized, but it's relaxed and neighborly here. Admission and parking are free, too."
A carpenter and general contractor during the week, Byl says he's barely breaking even on the snacks. "I've only had the stand since January. Things will get better when the weather warms up, I'm sure."
Sharon Klingler agrees, noting that the number of vendors doubles in the summer months, and that the crowds of customers, now just fair, also should increase by then.