Part 1 of 2

Though Phila Flea Markets (now a.k.a. Philly Flea) has had an enormous amount of success in the past few years running smaller, very specialized, selective, antiques-and-vintage-only markets (by far, most of its new flea markets during these expansion years have been antiques-and-vintage-only), the irony is that its largest, most diverse, least selective flea market remains its most famous and well known. Fairmount Flea Market is wildly popular with vendors and shoppers alike and is, in my opinion, the most complete flea market/day-trip experience in the Philadelphia area.

Overview

The Fairmount Flea Market is held twice a year: once in the spring and once in the fall. Insiders simply refer to it as “The Prison,” since it wraps around the old Eastern State Penitentiary at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia. (The prison has been closed since 1970 and is now an historical landmark and tourist attraction.) Al Capone served several months there in 1930 and that’s fitting because the Fairmount Flea Market is often considered the Big Kahuna of Philly’s inner-city scene. Most vendors deal in used, collectible merchandise but the flea market is so large you can find practically anything there.

The Fairmount Flea Market covers all four sides of the perimeter of the prison’s grounds. As city flea markets go, space size at Fairmount is fairly large. Approximately 14 to 16 feet wide depending on the street. Tables are set up on the sidewalks and vendors along three of the streets, Brown, Corinthian, and Fairmount Avenue, always had use of both the curb and wall sides of the pavements. On 22nd Street, where the sidewalks are much wider, spaces along the wall and curb used to be separate; however, prior to the 2015 season, Phila Flea Markets, announced that they have eliminated the curb spaces on this street. Half the vendor spaces means half the vendor vehicles therefore lessening the strain on parking and traffic. Vendors along 22nd Street now have use of both the wall and curb sides of the pavement. I was set up in the spring of 2015, the first time this new plan was implemented, and though some vendors used both sides of the pavement, several did not need all that space. Phila Flea Markets asked those who did not need their curb sections if they wanted to rent them to unreserved or late-coming vendors. I was one of those who did not need my curb area; therefore, the same space (along the wall only) that would have cost me full price ($80 this year), on May 2, 2015, only costed me $40. Another change for the good is that since these unneeded curb spaces were filled later in the morning, there was much less chaos (if any) on that normally O.K. Coral-like street.

This plan seems still be in flux and I will report on any new changes and developments the next time I sell or visit there. Though the rule for each vendor having both sides of the pavement still applies, I’m sure, there are vendors ahead of time deciding they only need half their space (what used to be a full space). Therefore, if enough of these spaces on 22nd Street are still accommodating two vendors who are arriving at roughly the same time to set up, then the chaos, traffic problems, and other issues on this street could easily return. But again that remains to be seen.

Parking Wars

In theory, the parking rule for vendors at this flea market is very simple: vendors get to park their vehicles in the street directly in front of their spaces. On 22nd Street, when the wall and curb were separate spaces, vendors along the curb got the parking space while those along the wall needed to move their vehicles after unloading. The street is wide enough so that those with spaces along the wall would be able to double park their vehicles while unloading and still leave a lane open in the street for traffic. In practice, however, things never worked out so smoothly on any of the streets.    

The day before each flea market date, Phila Flea Markets places flyers on the windshields of cars parked along the prison side of all the streets asking car owners to move their vehicles before flea market set-up time begins. According to my rough estimation, only approximately 60 to 70% of residents comply, leaving several vendors without a place to park their vehicle. Fortunately, in addition to 22nd Street, two of the other streets, Fairmount and Corinthian, are also wide enough to allow vendors to double park while unloading. After unloading, all double-parked vehicles are supposed to be moved to legal parking spaces or pay to park in a parking lot across the street from the prison.

The problem, however, is that there is a paucity of parking spaces in the neighborhood—which is why so many neighbors do not move their cars in the first place—and the parking lot is fairly small. Years back, at about 10:00 on flea market mornings, police would make their rounds and force vendors to move their double-parked vehicles which of course caused more problems not just with vendors but with neighbors as well. (The double-parked vendors, when forced to move, where taking even more parking spaces from neighbors throughout the area.) My guess is that some tacit agreement has been reached between neighbors, Phila Flea Markets, and police so vendors along Corinthian, Fairmount Avenue, and 22nd Street have been allowed to double park and leave their vehicles there for the duration of the flea market. This arrangement works out much better for all involved but only for three quarters of the flea market. Brown Street, between Corinthian and 22nd, the narrowest street in the Fairmount Flea Market equation, is still a problem child.

Having only one lane of traffic to begin with, vendors without a parking space must block that lane in order to unload. In addition, there is a school (Bache-Martin) which since 2007 has been running flea markets on the same days as Fairmount and part of their market is on the other side of Brown Street. As a result, during the already chaotic set-up time, the chaos on this fairly narrow, secondary street can be much worse than the others. Vendors thinking of selling at the Fairmount Flea Market for the first time should avoid Brown Street at all costs. Leave that one to the seasoned veterans.

The Early Bird Gets the Show

The best advice I can give to any vendor new to the Fairmount Flea Market is threefold: a) reserve and pay in advance, b) get there early, and c) get there early. And, by early, I do not mean seven or eight o’clock. Often the thinking is: “Well, the flea market starts at nine o’clock, so I’ll get there at 7:30 and have plenty of time to set up.” Yeah, right! With all the activity going on in the immediate area on Fairmount Flea Market day, and with most vendors of both flea markets arriving after 7 am, and with all the neighbors who refuse to move their cars, a bottleneck is created that lasts for as long as it takes for all the vendors to get set. Any vendor who gets to the Fairmount Flea Market as 7:30 am is late; end of story, check please.

Whenever I sell at Fairmount, I get there at 5:30 to six am and it is already somewhat chaotic but nowhere near how it will be an hour later. After seven o’clock, the real “fun” starts. Stress levels are high and as I said parking, even in the double-park lanes, becomes scarce. Some vendors by that time often need to block the traffic lane and drivers of passing cars become impatient. Those set up against the wall on 22nd Street need to navigate through the tables of vendors already set up along the curb. Often the latecomers have to ask the the curb dwellers to move merchandise and even tables so they can get by. Almost always, these requests are granted but begrudgingly so. Most of the put-upon vendors are probably thinking to themselves: “Why the hell didn’t you get here earlier knowing you’re along the wall?” Or, “Because you wish to sleep late, I have to be inconvenienced?” (As I explain earlier, this might not be a problem under the new plan and it certainly wasn’t in May [2015] since the curb dwellers got there much later than those along the wall. On that day, the first of the new plan, things were very smooth and pleasant on 22nd Street. However, as I also said, whether it stays like that still remains to be seen.)

Bickering among vendors or between late-coming vendors and drivers of passing cars is not uncommon and sometimes it turns into full-blown arguments. I have never seen these tiffs escalate to the physical level though I’ve heard rumors of actual brawls. Normally, though, these altercations always remain somewhere between just aggressive enough to be “entertaining” to onlookers but not aggressive enough to become violent. Therefore, my final words on the subject of what time vendors should get to the Fairmount Flea Market are these: take my advice, get there early, get set up, and then sit back and enjoy the “entertainment” that ensues. Get there late and you will be the entertainment.

Note: Flea market reviews are solely the opinions of their authors based on personal experiences either selling or shopping at various flea markets in the Philadelphia area. Flea Market Philadelphia does not guarantee that your experiences will be the same as or similar to the author’s.

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