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Swap Meets: The Next Best Thing to Bagging a Bison

November 22, 1990|JIM WASHBURN

If, as the science boys say, mankind was physically and cranially designed as a hunting and foraging critter, that may go a ways toward explaining our enduring urge to shop. Whatever the cause, it's one powerful urge, with bagging a bargain raising the same kind of exultant ringing in our blood that bringing home the bison must have done for our thick-browed forebears.

But, as hunting goes, heading to the mall with the credit cards is tantamount to going to a chicken ranch with a 12-gauge: You'll come home with the goods, but there's not much adventure to it.

Go from one end of MainPlace to the far corner of South Coast Plaza, and never will you be faced with wondering if there's a place in your living room decor for a science-class plaster model ear (with the hammers, drums and such numbered and painted different colors); nor similarly weigh whether an armadillo purse is a necessary piece of personal equipage; nor experience the pure sin of finding a handmade 1968 Spanish Jose Ramirez classical guitar for $10, and then talking the seller down to $7.

Welcome to the last real shopping wilderness, the swap meet. And if you think malls can be addictive, you ain't seen nothing yet. Unless I'm out of town, the weekend a.m.s will surely find me in a parking lot burrowing through other people's junk. If I am out of town, it just means I'll find a swap meet elsewhere and scarf up foreign junk.

You can learn much about a culture doing that. Far more than seeing the Vatican, the memory that defines Italy for me was of arriving late to a swap in a small northern Italian village where the only item left for sale was a single sorry basket of mushrooms. And two ancient guys were haggling bitterly over its price, with the seller finally blustering, "For what you offer me, you can leave this place!"

What America's junk says about our culture chiefly is that we have an awful lot of it. Junk, that is. The scope and variety of things Americans are trying to get rid of is unmatched in the world.

Having been to swap meets from Honolulu to Helsinki, I can attest that Orange County has some of the best. On any given weekend one can find cowboy chaps, hospital baby incubators, cast-iron cookware, 78-r.p.m. records, used wedding dresses, Turkish banjos, racing bikes, jet pilot pressure suits, vintage humidors and four-poster beds, fezzes, stuffed gators, Nazi daggers, wall-sized garish Japanese monster-movie posters, lawn flamingos. . . . You name it. It's intoxicating. I've come home with some things that I still have no idea what they are.

Swap meets have their own sure pitfalls, probably the biggest being that once you're hooked you'll buy anything if it's cheap enough, whether you want it or not. For instance, I can't stop buying electric pianos. Once a steal anywhere under $200, electric pianos have since been rendered all but worthless by modern multifaceted synthesizers. But one tends to function by habit at 7 a.m., and several mornings I've come out of a buying trance and found myself struggling to carry one of the hellish things, which are probably the heaviest known object that you can buy for $20. I don't, I should add, even play piano.

One rarely just stumbles upon a tremendous deal. It might take a year of consistent swapping (by the way, the only things I ever see actually swapped at these meets are insults) to find a deal on something remarkable.

And you'll be competing with collectors and professional antique dealers of all stripes. Whether it's old golf clubs or rusted farm implements, there's a rabid collector's market for it. Larry McMurtry's novel of junk/antique adventurers, "Cadillac Jack," isn't far from reality in describing crazed persons who will even collect thousands of filthy bird nests.

You've got to be early and you've got to be fast. Last year I picked up a 1920s National tri-plate metal resonator guitar for $225, a tremendous deal, but one tarnished by knowing that the person I bought it from had just purchased it for $5.

It also makes the search for unique junk harder in that, like a slow disease, professional dealers are taking over the swaps. At most meets you're lucky to find even 30% garage-type sellers. Most spaces are instead filled with sellers either hawking new store wares or marking up the used items they just bought from the garage dealers. While the professionals are just good people trying to make a living, it does tend to squeeze a lot of the fun out of the meets.

By far, the best county swaps are the junior college meets held every Saturday and Sunday at Golden West College (15744 Golden West Ave., Huntington Beach), Cypress College (9200 Valley View St., Cypress) and Orange Coast College (2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa). These have the best ratio of real people to professional dealers, and just about anything can turn up. Admission is free to buyers, where most other meets charge 50 cents or $1 to get in.

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