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Night Bytes : High-Tech Flea Market Gives New Meaning to 'Shop Till You Drop'

June 19, 1996|KATIE FAIRBANK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

DALLAS — It's a flea market by flashlight--a moonlight look at modems, microprocessors and memory chips.

During the wee hours of the first Saturday of each month, several thousand wireheads gather on about six acres of parking lots beneath the glowing lights of the Dallas skyline.

They're all there in the dark, hunting for the same thing--a bargain among the smorgasbord of refurbished hard drives, new monitors, motherboards, Pentium chips and CD-ROMs.

"I'm a computer geek, and out here there are good bargains, better buys," said Linda Walker of Red Oak, who sells snacks and sweet rolls at the flea market while moonlighting from her job as a systems analyst for the Army-Air Force Exchange Service.

About 400 vendors show up religiously each month, prepared to hawk their wares from midnight until the sun rises.

Glenn Grissam, who helps run a Houston computer wholesale business, says he works nonstop for about 36 hours the first weekend of the month. On Friday, after finishing the regular workday, Grissam and his co-workers pack up their inventory to truck to their leased spot on the Dallas asphalt. They then peddle their pieces until after daybreak.

"This is like a city to itself once a month," said Al Miller, nicknamed "the Mayor" since he leases out the designated spots to vendors.

"Most of the players own companies, and this is just a good way to move excess merchandise," said Miller, who owns two computer stores.

It's an odd niche, but one that has been stable in the ever-changing high-tech world.

First Saturday, as it's known, began in the 1940s, held directly beneath a highway ramp by a group of ham radio operators who met early in the morning to swap and sell equipment. Before long the radio operators noticed that the choice spots went early in the day, so everyone started showing up earlier and earlier.

As the years passed, the unruly meet moved over to the parking lots and computer components started replacing radio equipment.

Herb Reed, 88, remembers the Saturdays of old. "I've been accused of being the oldest person here," he said.

The retired research chemist said he first started attending when he took rest stops to talk to the ham radio operators during road trips.

But then he too caught First Saturday fever and got his own ham radio license. As the flea market evolved to high tech, so did Reed.

"I'm an absolute nut on computers. I fool with them; I fiddle with them. The industry may have outpaced them, but they're not poor equipment," Reed said of the stuff he buys and then lugs back to his home in Oklahoma City.

On this particular Saturday, he's examining two laptop computers that he says are in good working order. At $25 each, he's hooked and happy.

"You can't come up here without buying something," said Joe Casto, who drove from Alexandria, La., to attend his third First Saturday.

This type of shopping under the stars creates a different type of atmosphere, for a different kind of customer.

"At night you have a lot of real bargain hunters, computer nerds, wireheads. Just walk around and look. It's a hoot," Miller said. "In the morning, about daybreak, the general consumer starts showing up."

Searching for a good deal in the back of a Ryder truck with little light takes determination and isn't always easy for a novice, but customers say the vendors are always ready to help.

"The dealers are honest. If they say it works, it works. If they say 'I don't know,' it doesn't work," said Hersh Kumar of Dallas.

Authorities say there are few incidents despite the late hours and offbeat clients.

"You'll have people that look like they live outside the bus station and then people will come in a limo from a party," vendor Sam Leach said.

The thousands of shoppers milling about and digging through vendors' offerings aren't interested in just bytes. There are also tables laden with knives, phones and Barbie dolls, similar to goods at any other flea market.

Still, some of the best deals are for computers and are made with retired sailor Milt Schreck, who has leased a lot and loaded it with ancient systems from the computer Dark Ages.

"I buy junk nobody wants and throw half of it away. And I offer a five-by-five guarantee," Schreck said, laughing. "Five feet or five seconds, whichever comes first."

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