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COVER STORY : Entrepreneurial Tent City : The Saugus Swap Meet attracts thousands of bargain shoppers every Sunday, reinforcing the credo: 'One person's trash is somebody else's treasure.'

April 02, 1993|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In pre-dawn's chill, they queue up in motor homes, vans, campers and pickups--some having slept the night away parked outside--waiting to pitch their tents and wares.

And when the gates open at 6 a.m. each Sunday, the venerable Saugus Speedway, home to the roar of 100-m.p.h. stock cars just the night before, now seems only to whisper--with hundreds of vendors hastily setting up shop, their metal canopy poles clankety-clanking onto the paved oval track and infield, as well as part of the parking lot.

At 7 a.m., when the grounds open to $1-a-head shoppers, many of these 700 vendors--who pay $20 to $55 per space, depending on location--start giving shape to what will become, by midmorning, an entrepreneurial tent city. And inside the tiny security booth, 75-year-old Alice MacWhirter juggles the public-address system and the phones, cheerfully answering the first of more than 100 calls before day's end: "Yes, we are open--and it's a beautiful day!"

This is the Saugus Swap Meet, a Santa Clarita Valley institution since 1965, which attracts crowds of bargain shoppers or browsers ranging from 7,000 to more than 20,000 every Sunday, reinforcing the credo that "one person's trash is somebody else's treasure."

It's only an hour's drive north of downtown Los Angeles, but it's an interplanetary journey from Rodeo Drive, the glitzy malls or even your everyday shopping strip.

Here, on numbered spaces within lines neatly painted red, the merchants peddle--in the promoters' words--"everything under the sun" from beanbag chairs to body oils to bread boxes, from toy animals to tank tops to T-shirts (some commemorating the L.A. riots), from porcelain clowns to papaya to pepper spray for self-defense.

Here, too, some potted plants for sale are fake, but the people are decidedly real.

*

"Is that red wagon for sale?" a woman customer shouts.

"Yes, everything's for sale," vendor Arthur Baker, 72, of Mission Hills, yells back, "including her ."

He nods good-humoredly toward Babe, 74, his wife of 40 years and co-partner in one of the Saugus Swap Meet's countless mom-and-pop dealerships.

"This is an old-timer," Baker says, not having to explain that he's talking about the toy wagon.

"But it's got heavy-gauge steel, it's been done over, and it's got wall-to-wall carpeting," he adds, referring to a swatch of plush, off-white carpet that fits the wagon's bed perfectly. "I'll tell you, it didn't look that good when I got it."

Arthur and Babe Baker offer vintage toy wagons and other small odds-and-ends that he restores at home, as well as antique signs and other collectibles, which aren't the norm at Saugus.

By definition, swap meets differ from flea markets. Swap meets are generally perceived as more commercial--and top-heavy with contemporary, cut-rate merchandise, including clothing and electronics. Pasadena's once-a-month Rose Bowl Flea Market, for example, caters more to upscale shoppers lured by its strong emphasis on antique furniture and collectibles.

Baker, a lean and rangy retired mail carrier ("Got a lot of exercise that way," he says) who wears a rumpled cap inscribed "Adult Under Construction," has worked the Saugus Swap Meet with Babe since the mid-1980s.

Like many other vendors, they now try to ride out the whiplash economy, which they say "hurts an awful lot."

"Most people go down to the other end of the grounds," Arthur says, "because it's all new merchandise there. They're not looking for this kind of stuff."

"We have junk, but it's clean junk!" Babe quips.

To be sure, the Saugus Swap Meet--which, according to some veteran swap-meet watchers, ranks with one in Costa Mesa among Southern California's largest such weekly events--offers a kaleidoscope of sights, smells and sounds of shoppers bartering with vendors.

It's a woman customer who doesn't mind being photographed in a blue sweat shirt emblazoned "Shopping University," but says she's too busy to talk. It's a contractor's van inscribed "The Jesus Way: Finish Carpentry," bearing a bumper sticker that reads: "Have you tormented the devil today?" It's signs advertising comic books: "Death of Superman: $5" and "Funeral: $1.25." It's signs of these and other times: "No pants over $2--as low as .75". . . "Yes! 8-Track Tapes (New!) $1," . . . "Refinance Now! 7 3/8% Fixed!"

Here, the aroma of hot coffee and cheese-apple strudel wafts across the grounds. And so do the sounds of portable radios blaring Patti Page, Creedence Clearwater and Bryan Adams, of mothers ordering children to "Sit still!" and of one vendor telling visitors, "I didn't vote for Clinton. Now I have to work Sundays!"

As the Santa Clarita Valley starts to fill up with heat more typical of mid-August, the swarm of shoppers--many in halter tops and walking shorts--grows so quickly that it's easy for some youngsters to get lost. A little girl is inadvertently separated from her parents, who rush to the security booth, where Alice MacWhirter sits at a small open window during this, her 25th year at the swap meet.

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