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Saugus Swap Meet

Posted by Mike on 8/27/2006 to Local News
Since August 2001, we’ve rented a space on Sundays at the SaugusSwap Meet (AKA Santa Clarita Open Air Market). Contrary to what some people think, swap meets don’t just sell “junk” or used items; you can always find an eclectic blend of merchandise for all tastes. From antiques, collectibles and “garage sale” fodder, to close-out merchandise, custom services, new products and even brand name items, you’ll find both variety and value. Some of the vendors are people trying to clean out their attics, closets and garages or sell extra stuff from time to time, some do it on weekends to supplement their income, some vendors sell at different swap meets every day of the week, and some vendors (like us) offer it as an additional sales conduit to a full business. At the Saugus swap meet, starting in September, they’ll also have an independent appraiser on hand on the first of every month to value your antiques.
I have to admit that I am not a morning person, so awakening before dawn for the weekly swap meet does make me grouchy. And it’s now been five years that we’ve been doing the Saugus Swap Meet. So there’s been a lot of grouchiness. Other vendors frequently comment to us on the amount of effort that goes into setting up our space every week, and wonder why we go through all of that trouble. Truth is, it’s probably even more strenuous than they imagine. But as tiring as it is to drag myself out of bed every Sunday morning (even before the newspaper is delivered), I’ve come to realize how important an activity it is for my partner / fiance. And it goes well beyond the pocket change we make there.

That first Sunday several years ago was a very hot day, and a lot of hard work went into preparing the work gloves and other items we took to sell. We’d already been selling on a wholesale basis to distributors for about a year before that, but this was our first exposure to “retail”. Unfortunately, our grand expectations slowly began to dissipate through the long day, with every drop of perspiration that dripped from my forehead. To our disappointment, it was a relatively slow day for sales. Although the final tally was helped out by a late sale just before we’d finished packing up my SUV, it wasn’t enough to entice me to ever want to return. But my partner was not so quick to give up on it. And what I initially figured would probably be a one-time activity has grown into a much bigger production.

We’ve now got two spaces in a prime location on the main aisle near the food court and the live band. And every Sunday morning, we empty out a 22 foot box truck and build a little store with a wide selection of items which we sell at extremely competitive prices. We have many repeat, regular customers, and that helps us “survive” there even when overall business is down for most vendors. Of course, our primary business is still on a wholesale basis to distributors out of state, but the swap meet has given us excellent contacts that have helped us acquire new local business, too. But it’s the pure people relationships, I think, that mean more.

For the last couple of years, my partner’s sister has been around to help on Sundays, and that’s made it easier on me. I have generally gone to the swap meet in the morning to help set-up and then departed to the office or back home to do some work for awhile, before returning at the end of the day to help pack up. Sometimes, however, I stay for the whole day, like I did today. And it’s on days like today that I can truly see what my partner Jesse (also known as “the glove lady”) gets out of it.

We have dozens and dozens of regular customers that we know by name, as well as what they buy. My partner Jesse greets everyone with a friendly wave, smile, hello and a hug, and sometimes even a kiss on the cheek. We talk about their families, their work, local restaurants and what not. We exchange emails with them. We give them cards on Father’s Day and Christmas. We give them special discounts or bonus items, sometimes little gifts to pass onto their loved ones,.and gift bags of cookies that Jesse has baked. I know many of these customers, but the number that I know is far dwarfed by the number of friendships Jesse has built over the years.

All throughout the day today, every few minutes or so, a different customer or one of the security staff stopped in to say hello. Some I knew (like Bill, Jeannette, Dennis and Earl), but most were new faces to me. But Jesse knew them all, asking about their kids in college or high school, their new car, their househunting, their new girlfriend, their grandchild, their wife’s illness, etc. And it made me truly understand that it’s not just a swap meet; it’s a place where friends meet.

I suspect that when you go into a big box store to buy gloves and eyewear and other items, you’re not greeted at the door by a friendly face who gives you her full attention and knowledgeable advice about a $3 purchase… or maybe just chats with you for a few minutes to catch up on things. How many chain stores can you count where you know the names of the sales people, and they know your name? That’s a special thing, a magical sort of thing, and something I never would have expected from a swap meet space.

Don’t misunderstand; I have nothing against big box stores, and I shop at them regularly myself, but it’s generally a more sterile experience. And that’s ok, though it doesn’t build much in the way of loyalty. On the other hand, some of our regular customers work at the big box hardware stores, but find our product selection and prices even better than they can get from their employers. And maybe their store’s top manager doesn’t know their name, but we do.

We’re not a coffee shop on the corner, but in some ways, that’s how we’ve approached things at the swap meet. And maybe that’s why we’ve been successful there. If you need something that is not on the “menu”, we’ll see if we can get it for you. And to the regulars…”the usual?”, we’ll ask. And that makes our customers feel special because we care enough to know them and remember what they need. And it makes me feel special, too, to have a partner as great as I have.

Some things have changed over the years at the Saugus Swap Meet, as would be typical anywhere.The restrooms were totally replaced earlier this year, and there’ve been some nice renovations to other parts of the facility, too. Space rental fees have increased, while overall attendance has declined a bit. The owners continue to explore different angles to create a richer atmosphere and shopping experience for families, and reward monthly vendors in different ways. And we’ve seen vendors with whom we built friendships move away or move on.

Last week, there was an article in the local press about what the future holds for the swap meet. Will the owners sell the precious 35 acres of land to a real estate developer or continue to make improvements to the facility and increase advertising to grab back some lost marketshare? I don’t know what will happen. But I do know that it will take an important part of Jesse’s life away if it were to close. We can survive without the business, but it will be sad to lose sight of so many friends.


Mike Lee