Among heaps of antiques, collectibles and vintage clothing, frugal shoppers are rediscovering a recession-friendly place where prices are low and haggling is welcome.
In growing numbers since the recession began 18 months ago, they are heading to one of about 135 flea markets and swap meets in California, including those at the Rose Bowl and in Long Beach and San Bernardino.
"When the dollar stores and Wal-Mart are doing good, so is the flea market, usually," said Mark Blakewood, executive director of the National Flea Market Assn. "It's the consumers trying to tighten their belt."
At the Long Beach flea market -- held the third Sunday of every month -- attendance is up 35% over the last year and vendors have been angling to rent booths, co-founder and promoter Donald Moger said.
"We're sold out every show now," he said. "Now it's a question of how many dealers we're turning away."
Industrywide, flea markets have seen a 10% to 15% increase in attendance during the recession, Blakewood said. For dealers, that's meant fresh business from first-time shoppers.
"There's something for everybody," said Jack Perez, who sells furniture, silver and gold items and odds and ends at several markets in the Southland. New customers "not only want to come give flea markets a try, but they're also coming to compare prices against the stores."
Worried about job security, Ami Trejo, a medical site supervisor from Sun Valley, went to the Long Beach flea market recently looking for deals.
In a few hours, she picked up four pairs of earrings, two necklaces, two aprons, a small rug and an FAO Schwarz rocking dinosaur -- for a total of $68.
"This was my first time at a flea market, and I must say I was pleased," said Trejo, a single mother. "I didn't spend half what I would have spent somewhere else."
Sheri Rapaport, a stay-at-home mom from Brentwood, was preparing to redecorate her daughter's bedroom when the economy began to falter.
So she and 16-year-old Robyn scrapped plans to shop for furnishings at retail stores such as Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters and headed to the Melrose Trading Post, an outdoor antiques and collectibles market held every Sunday in the Fairfax District.
"I would have definitely gone to other places, but once the recession hit, I said, 'Let's come here,' " Rapaport said while the pair browsed the market recently. "In one month we cleaned up. I probably decorated her entire room for $400, and it looks cool."
Robyn, who was toting a pair of Levi's shorts and a vintage dress ($60 total), said that these days, being thrifty is in.
"It's almost like you have more cred if you buy a dress from the flea market instead of Neiman's," the Brentwood School sophomore said.
Flea markets are also serving another purpose for cash-strapped consumers, industry experts said: They're a cheap form of entertainment.
Dennis Dodson, chief operating officer at R.G. Canning Enterprises Inc., which operates flea markets at the Rose Bowl and in San Bernardino and Ventura, said all three markets have seen a 15% bump in attendance since the recession began.
He attributed part of that increase to the mass appeal of flea markets as an outing for families and friends -- and even as a creative date.
"You can blow through a movie in two hours," Dodson said, "but you can go to a flea market and spend the whole day and browse and browse."
The Melrose Trading Post has seen at least a 15% increase in attendance and vendor inquiries in the last year, vendor manager Melissa Edwards said.
More surprising, she said, is the type of businesses that are calling to rent booth space, which costs as little as $50 per event. Instead of the usual antiques and vintage dealers that dominate many flea markets, owners of Melrose Avenue boutiques that are going out of business are contacting Edwards.
"I kind of found it fascinating -- these were businesses like a block away calling us to liquidate their inventory," she said.
But snagging a coveted booth space doesn't guarantee robust sales, dealers said.
"There's a lot of people walking by, not buying," said William Horne, who was selling game pieces, kitchenware and crafts at the Long Beach flea market on a recent Sunday. "I call them 'how muchies.' "
At a booth nearby, seller Steve Merriett of Agoura Hills grumbled that shoppers were cutting back even at flea markets.
"Everything is slower on the good stuff, but it's the same on the inexpensive stuff," Merriett said of his sales volume. "People who used to have $20 now have $8."
Still, many shoppers said they continued to shop at flea markets even as they cut back other expenses.
Stephanie Eberly, a cosmetologist from Long Beach, said she didn't go to the mall because "there's nothing there I care for," but she still regularly shops at the Long Beach flea market, where she was buying plants and a pottery figurine this month.
"I like to collect things, but I pass on the more expensive collectibles for the things that aren't so high-end," she said. "But I do still come."