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They Don't Buy It : Some Vendors Worried About Swap Meet Expansion

July 18, 1993|EMILY ADAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PARAMOUNT — Nearly every local swap meet is defined by a few consistent elements: a jammed parking lot, row upon row of cheap sunglasses and shirts, and, looming over it all, a blank, white drive-in movie screen.

For 30 years, the Paramount Swap Meet has fit that image to a T-shirt. But over the next year, this outdoor market will expand past its drive-in roots to become the third-largest swap meet in the state, behind ones in San Jose and at the Orange County Fairgrounds.

The now-unused movie screen will come down. Parking capacity and vendor spaces will almost double. An eight-foot mission-style brick wall will spruce up the perimeter, and beer will be sold.

And after decades of animosity, the city and swap meet owners are working happily together, looking forward to increasing revenues.

But the people who come to this asphalt lot every day to sell used tools, silk-screened shirts and new electronics are nervous.

Business is slow enough as it is, said Christina Hernandez, looking over her racks of children's play clothes rustling in a faint breeze. She does not think more parking will necessarily bring more customers, and adding alcohol to the hot market could be disastrous, she said.

"I used to go to the (Santa Fe Springs) swap meet too, but they started selling beer there on Friday nights. Now everyone goes there just to drink and hang around. They don't buy," she said. "That would happen here too."

Sitting in the scant shade of a striped umbrella, cradling an acoustic guitar, Jim Ramos agreed.

"Business is very bad everywhere. That man over there who sells bikes, he hasn't sold a single thing all day," Ramos said.

Ramos spent six hours and $20 in gas one Saturday scouring yard sales for tools and knickknacks to sell. He spent $11 to rent the swap meet space. And halfway through a recent weekday, Ramos had sold only $2.25 worth of goods.

On weekends, space rentals can cost $25 or more, depending on the size and location of the booth, and admission for customers jumps from 50 to 75 cents.

But as proof that this swap meet has plenty of room to expand, Glenn Bianchi, managing partner of Modern Development Co., which owns the swap meet, points out that he turns away vendors and customers alike on busy weekends. Recently, the market turned away 250 vendors and closed the visitor parking lot several times during the day because of overcrowding, he said.

Bianchi, who inherited the business from his father, also defended his decision to sell beer, saying that many open-air markets sell it.

"We have a traditional, family-type atmosphere here, and I think beer goes along with that--just like hot dogs," Bianchi said.

To expand the swap meet's vendor spaces from 600 to 1,100 and increase parking from 950 to 1,600 spaces, Bianchi's company intends to buy 12 acres of land next to the swap meet. The expansion is expected to cost $8 million, Bianchi said.

All swap meet traffic will be diverted off Paramount Boulevard to new entrances on side streets.

Inside, the swap meet will remain much the same: rows of temporary awnings and umbrellas, set up each morning, radiating from the central snack bar.

What really has changed, said Bianchi and Paramount Deputy City Manager Patrick West, is that the city and swap meet management are working together.

Bianchi's father, Joseph, started the swap meet in his drive-in theater in 1955. As the swap meet became a seven-days-a-week business in 1963 and traffic jammed Paramount Boulevard, the city wanted greater controls, West said.

But Joseph Bianchi, described by his son as "an old-world Italian businessman," wanted to run his swap meet as he chose. When the city imposed a vendor tax in 1986, Bianchi sued.

He won part of his challenge, but finally had to accept the tax. Vendors and the swap meet each now pay $1 for space rental and the city makes about $350,000 a year, plus sales tax.

When Joseph Bianchi died in January, 1992, his son became managing partner of Modern Development, Bianchi Vineyards in Fresno and assorted real estate. Glenn Bianchi approached Paramount with plans to expand the swap meet.

This time, the city welcomed the proposed changes, West said.

"Our biggest concern was parking and traffic circulation. He put together a plan that solved all of our problems," West said.

But vendors are happier, they said, with a smaller swap meet. If there are twice as many sellers, Christina Hernandez is afraid that her toddler togs will be overlooked. She probably will move to another swap meet, she said.

"Some people may think so, but this business is not recession-proof," said one vendor who declined to give her name but said she had been selling at the Paramount Swap Meet five days a week since the early 1960s. "If they had two times the customers, instead of the sellers, that would help."

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