Inside The Crazy World Of Flea Markets And Boot Sales

Welcome to the inner-circle of booters, where bargains are not always what they seem and nectarines should never be bought in bulk...
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One of the unalloyed pleasures in life is to wake up in the fug of a Sunday morning and then, after refreshing oneself with seven or eight cups of strong tea, heading off to the Sunday flea market.

For me this is an activity that has to be savored with someone else. For part of the joy of this experience lays in the verbal comparisons and general banter that one can make about the various merits and de merits of all the tat that you are about to trawl through. My partner in crime for this regular do it yourself Antiques Road show is my erstwhile poker teacher and tip-top totter, Mr. Dogwitch.

Our preferred venue is a arrangement of stalls located on the top tier of a multi story car park in Brighton. Right from the outset, as we drive along the coast road straining to get a first distant glimpse of the location trying to gauge the turnout for the day, we are full of expectation. What treasures will be on offer? A good booter is like visiting a vast open air museum where you can actually reach into the glass cabinets and touch the exhibits. If you like the feel of them and the price is right, you can be walking home with them safely ensconced in the bottom of a reused plastic carrier from the Co –Op. There is nothing quite like a sunny morning at the market. Like flowers; booters flourish in good weather. Rain or the threat of it will ensure that most potential stall holders will simply stay at home under their duvets, their caches of junk securely stacked up in their lock ups.

The smell of overcooked onions and sausages drowned in watery tomato sauce wafting across the concrete plaza soon beckons. We park up and then set about our concerted attack plan. Usually this involves an anticlockwise sweep around the market. Although we operate solo like soldiers on street patrol, we like to keep in general proximity to ensure that if we do come across something of particular note – something good or really heinous – then we can share the joke. As Dogwitch likes to wear violently fluorescent clothing, I can keep my eye on him easily across the throng of buyers to ensure that our double act can always quickly come together.

The first thing to marvel at is the sheer range of banal trash that some people actually want money for. Cardboard boxes stacked with dentures, biros with no ink, gatherings of chipped and broken dominos, buckets of toy soldiers with no arms. Blankets laid out on the ground strewn with thousands of useless bits and pieces and reminiscent of a small plane crash site. Essentially booters attract two types of merchants. Firstly civilians. People like you and me who have dug out that wall papering table they bought at B&Q three years ago and decided to sell of the flotsam and jetsom accrued the previous year. Essentially we are talking unwanted Christmas, birthday, anniversary (tick as appropriate) presents, stuff bought on holidays and general foppery that has been hanging around the house with no visible means of support for months.

Cardboard boxes stacked with dentures, biros with no ink, gatherings of chipped and broken dominos, buckets of toy soldiers with no arms.

The second bunch that makes this mix complete are the more visibly hardened house clearance folk. Dickensian types in tatty Barbours and faded jeans with a crease who have swooped down on some unfortunate's house (postmortem) and hoovered everything up like a great big basking shark. These hardened types with hearts of stone and expanded wallets, like the dugs of a great she elephant, are the ones who want ten to fifteen quid for that inlaid cigarette box with the broken lid. That chipped plate? It’s German – a tenner. That rusting door knob with character forming dents? It’s brass – twenty.

Unfortunately for this later group of recyclers of human detritus for me anything over a pound is a pound too much.

Dogwitch is a seasoned pro at these gatherings. He relishes some Steptoe asking him for a fiver for some rusted garlic crusher simply so that he can react with appropriate distain and chuck the item back down onto the sea of rubbish from whence it came. Dog’s main activity is the quest for vinyl records. When he comes across a cardboard box chock full of discs he becomes completely focused. Then, like a crab sifting through tons of sand to find a microscopic prawn, he flicks through the worn covers and makes a first cut. A dozen or so LP’s. Then that stack is filtered down to the last six. Finally, he will pick out the one or two he regards as the pearls. What Dogwitch regards as of worth is always a continual mystery. One week it was Deep Purple live at the Royal Albert Hall with some orchestra churning away behind them, another week Roy Buchanan. Then Miles Davis. No rhyme or reason to any of it. Sometimes he just buys something because he likes the cover.

When we combine and work as a team, amusement can be had by mulling over the gew-gaw on offer and debating the lunatic price desired by the vendor out loud. On one occasion Dog came across a stall holder selling a bundle of fluffy white towels all bearing the monogram of the hotel chain from whence they came.

“Those towels. How much?”

“A fiver.”

“Right. Actually I’m from the Hilton hotel group we’ve been after you for some time…”

The booter momentarily, at least, felt the discomfort of discovery perhaps realizing that we knew what he knew. T’was only a joke.

Moving on we wade through boxes of old photographs. Each and every foxed image once a treasured image of a loved one. Now all long dead. Over there on a rail are all their old clothes. And shoes. Not to mention the contents of their pockets. Pick some dentures out any you could almost rebuild some of these people and take them home.

Then there are the real experts. The dealers. Men of a certain age mysteriously gathered around a glass topped display case and sporting magnifying glasses to inspect some high value piece of flummery like a watch or a coin or maybe a even a stamp or a camera. They are in no hurry. This is the only stall they have come for and are quite happy to mull over the merits of some dusty bashed in old Rolex or a Leica with the winding knob missing all morning. A similar faction hangs around the old tools. Men who look like Jack Hargreaves all marveling at the festival of wood and metal. Every blade and every brass screw a symbol of a greater by gone age before Homebase and plastic handles.

DVD’s and books are another favorite of Dogwitch. He especially likes a negotiation when the words ‘collectors item’ or ‘limited edition’ has been introduced into the mix. This usually means that the object in question item has got an ancient shop sticker on it with the appropriate words on it, just so we know. It also means that the vender is charging more for it than it was when bought in the shop in the first place.

The other aspect of the trawl is what it reveals about your own inner self. Dogwitch for example is a modern looking chap with admirable contemporary tastes but let him loose at a market and suddenly he’s loading up his shoulder bag with hideous ornamental plates depicting all manner of British birdlife on them that wouldn’t be out of place on the walls of the Rovers Return.

Markets are full of paintings that mostly look like they were done by people like the Krays when they were banged up and doing art as some form of therapy.

My own weakness seems to be for small wooden boxes. I am unable to explain it. But I rarely leave the market without having picked up a cigar box or three or something mahogany from India to stash stuff in. Even though I’ve got thirty of them already at home.

The booter is always a place to discover and buy things that started out somewhere on the planet a ‘good ideas’ but are now laid low. Clearly revealed to be just big mistakes. Freaks of nature that should never have seen the light of day. Recently Dog and I marveled at a stall which was knocking out such disparate objects as ornamental cats and proper chairs which were all uniformly covered in a brightly coloured (orange and purple) velveteen layer. The overall result was something that was simply very wrong. Maybe even illegal. People were walking away with the stuff in armfuls. The other sort of guff that falls into this realm is any original artwork. Markets are full of paintings that mostly look like they were done by people like the Krays when they were banged up and doing art as some form of therapy. Country views, pictures of dogs and cats, flowers war scenes, you name it, all done by people who were either color blind or who did not have the use of an opposable thumb.

Finally we dock in at the fruit and veg stall. A jolly fruiterer happily knocking out cases of over ripe and bruised mangoes, pineapples, green gauges you name it all for a quid. This stuff always seems like a good deal at the time. It’s only when you get the mank home that you realise that out of thirty or forty nectarines in the tray only four of them are actually edible.

But hey it’s been a good one.

Dogwitch has picked up an original Space Oddity, a denim jacket just like the cons wear in 'Cool Hand Luke’ and a very nice gold edged plate with a Corncrake on it. I’ve got a cigarette lighter in the shape of a cue ball a bit of coloured glass for the bathroom and a broken artists paint box with half the oils and brushes missing.

Everyone of them a bargain. And of course the great thing is that if we don’t like them we can flog them next week at the booter.

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