I Dream of FIRE

In pursuit of financial independence and personal fulfillment

I got my MBA at the flea market

When my grandpa retired, he wanted a hobby to occupy his time. So he would go to garage sales, business closings, warehouse sales, etc. and buy tools, boxes of screws and nails, Army surplus and all sorts of other random stuff.

On the weekend, he would go to the flea market and sell it. He didn’t need the money. He wasn’t wealthy per se, but he had a pension, Social Security, a decent enough nest egg and a frugal mindset that would carry him through his final years just fine. He wanted a hobby, and having a background in mining and construction he felt confident turning that knowledge into a little sales operation.

I started working with him on Saturdays when I was 11 years old. So began my education in the bargaining arts.

The purest form of capitalism

Greenlawn Grove Flea Market is a several-acre outdoor bazaar of dirt paths where more than 300 vendors sell an incredible variety of new and used goods. When I worked there in the 1990s, every weekend you could find stands selling spices, medical scrubs, shoes, fruits and vegetables, electronics, adult movies, counterfeit sunglasses, and used household items of all types. You rented a spot with a sturdy wooden table starting at about $15 a day from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Some people just came to sell extra junk from around the house, like you would at a garage sale, and others were like us — regulars who had the same kind of stuff from week to week.

Everything was negotiable, and you never know what you might run into.

I was paid 10 percent of whatever we made at the end of the day, whether I sold it or not. As you can imagine, an 11-year-old kid isn’t a cutthroat salesman. I’m sure I was far more trouble than I was worth, but my mom and my grandpa weren’t having me sell bags full of screws at a buck a pound because I was a hustler.

Every interaction was a dance. Someone trying to get a deal; me trying to get a sale. There were lessons to be learned, even if I wasn’t totally aware of it at the time. Everyone approaches a deal differently. Some are friendly, others shrewd. How you dealt with each changed the outcome.

Everyone approaches a deal differently. Some are friendly, others shrewd. How you dealt with each changed the outcome.

I worked a lot of weekends between ages 11 and 17. I learned a lot about negotiating, sales, people, and probably just life in general. It’s one of those things I wish I really could have fully appreciated at the time it was happening. Looking back on it now as a 37-year-old, it was such an opportunity. Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way.

The early bird gets the worm

The flea market opened the gates at 6 a.m. That meant the day’s vendors headed to their spots and started setting up. It also meant the “serious” buyers started scouting the day’s deals. A ton of money changed hands early. It was definitely worth your while as a seller to get set up quickly while wallets were full and hands were empty.

For the one-off sellers, the ones who could have held a garage sail but instead brought their stuff to the flea market, they wanted to get in and get out as quickly as they could. They were willing to part with stuff early for a good price if you had cash in hand. By 10:30 a.m., they were tired of sitting and ready to get the hell out of there. The smart money showed up at 6 a.m. because by 8:30 all the best deals were gone.

Not all that glitters is gold

For awhile, we sold soap. My grandpa knew a guy who was retired and somehow got hooked up with some people who were in the soap business. These were fancy soaps: volcanic minerals, glycerin, facial bars, something to do with the rainforest.

This guy was getting in on the ground floor of a business that was taking off. All he had to do was invest something like $10,000 and he would be among the first distributors in what was sure to be a lucrative business. His contact would send him the soap, get him in touch with people whom he would distribute to, and the money would roll in.

Everything looked great. He gave ten grand to his contact, boxes of fancy soaps arrived at his house … and that was it. No one called to distribute the soap. His contact’s number was no longer in service. He was out $10,000 and only had a bunch of boxes of soap to show for it. It was a fly-by-night operation.

He asked my grandpa if he could sell the soap alongside everything else at the flea market. My grandpa was a stand-up guy, and he was happy to help someone in need. So he set up a table and tried to sell those fancy soaps for something like $8-$12 a bar.

My grandpa long before I was around. Any man who can sit stone-faced while wearing a sweater like that isn’t about to take any of your crap.

I don’t have to tell you that a sixty-something man and a young teenage boy, both lacking a supermodel complexion and selling hardware and tools, are not the best spokesmen for fancy soap. We didn’t make back the $10,000.

I learned that you have to be careful who you choose to do business with. Not everyone is on the level.

The irony is the soap was actually pretty good. My mom bought the last few boxes of soap for a buck a bar, and we’ve actually been using them the past 25 years.

Don’t buy retail when you can buy wholesale

We sold a lot of screws. My grandpa would buy 50 pound boxes of new screws for $20-$25. He used to sell them for a penny apiece, but eventually he realized the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. The time and effort that went into counting individual screws was too great, so he switched to selling them for a dollar a pound.

A pound would typically be a 100 to 200 pieces, and if you’ve been to a hardware store recently you know that it costs about $2 for 12 to 20 pieces. Anyone with a tenth of a brain realized pretty quickly that a buck a pound was an absolute killing. Some people would just ask how much for the whole box, and my grandpa would weigh what was there and knock a few bucks off the price.

When we sold smaller amounts, we would scoop the screws into a paper lunch bag and weigh them on a tabletop household scale.

Frugality bonus: The scoops we used were made from laundry soap bottles cut up so the handle was still intact.

Basically, if you bought a pound of screws from us you were saving somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-$20 versus if you went to one of the big home improvement box stores.

Of course, that didn’t stop some people from looking the gift horse in the mouth. (If you think I’ve exhausted my clichés you’ve got another thing coming. Clichés are damn near currency at the flea market.)

There were the savvy buyers who saw a box of screws that claimed to be stainless steel and wanted some proof. For those, we kept a magnet around, because stainless steel isn’t magnetic, while other metals are. We never had a problem with someone wanting to make sure they were getting what was advertised.

However, I remember more than once some cheapskate would try to get everything he could and more. “How do I know your scale is accurate?” “Are you accounting for the weight of the paper bag?” “How about a pound and a quarter for a buck?”

Suffering fools comes with the territory in a flea market, but suffering cheap fools was not something my grandpa did. He was a hardy French-Canadian who spent some hard years in harsh conditions and wasn’t going to put up with anyone’s crap. More than once I saw him yell at some poor bastard to go away if he didn’t want to spend any money and just wanted to get everything for free. Everyone within a six-stall radius knew some miserly idiot was in their midst.

That’s also a lesson. There’s negotiating, and there’s just being cheap, and if you’re cheap you aren’t going to get a deal, you’re going to piss off the seller and they’re going to deal with someone else.

The art of the deal

There is a method to making a deal. Several, actually. Over time, you read people, you figure out different ways to make something happen, and you analyze your own mistakes.

I remember walking by a fruit and vegetable stand one afternoon and seeing the handwritten signs: Peaches 5/$1 and apples 7/$1. I was hungry, and I had one dollar in my pocket. So I did what any good flea market salesman would do. I knew the stocky red-headed guy selling the fruit wasn’t going to cut them in half, so I asked him if I could get three peaches for a 50 cents. He agreed. I asked if I could get four apples for 50 cents. He agreed.

I pulled out a dollar and asked for three peaches and four apples. He bagged them up, smiled at me and said, “Go tell your mom you just Jewed an Irish boy.”

It would be a few years before the not-so-PC reference would actually make sense to me, but I knew I had just gotten someone to give me the better half of two deals and that felt pretty good. The next week as I was walking by his stand, he tossed an apple my way. We sort of became friends after that, and I whenever I bought produce it was from him.

He may not have gotten the most out of that first interaction, but by being good natured he got someone who would come back in the future and some conversation when the day was slow.

Hustle baby, hustle

Side hustles are all the rage in the FIRE movement. Everyone is supposed to have a second or third source of income to accelerate their path to financial independence or give them another path to follow if times get tough. I saw a lot of bona fide hustlers at the flea market.

I mentioned them earlier when I talked about the kinds of things you could buy every weekend. One couple came with an RV and sold spices from under a big canopy. They were retired, but most weekends they were set up in the corner spot across from us selling jars of oregano, dill, onion powder, cinnamon, and any one of 50 other spices in new, sealed, retail-grade packaging for cheaper than you could buy them in the grocery store. It was pretty easy to walk away with a few hundred bucks a day doing that.

There was a guy and his teenage daughter who sold counterfeit sunglasses. They looked like the real deal, had the right logo, and sold for a quarter or less of what the genuine article cost. For $10-$30 a pair, they made a tidy sum week in and week out.

Then there was the dirty movie spot. This was before high-speed Internet, so there was a much bigger market then I imagine there is today. That guy had two dozen tall cardboard boxes filled with adult VHS tapes and a pretty steady line of old men digging through them.

I think the most memorable side hustler was the guy who sold car polish. He had a hood from some junkyard car set up on the table, and like a slick TV pitchman would cover it with candle wax, smear it with tar, scratch it with steel wool and keys, pour alcohol on it and sent it on fire, and all kinds of other ridiculous things.

Then he would pull out a bottle of magic polish, dab a little on a soft mitt and rub the hood in a circular motion. He would talk in excited tones about the miracle compound as if it could cure warts, cancer and the clap all with one dose, and before your very eyes all the damage disappeared from the hood.

This miracle bottle can be yours for just $14.99 – or you can supersize it and get two bottles for just $25. Hallelujah, can I get an amen.

This, friends, was the land of opportunity.

Buy low, sell high

There were times where I knew a good deal when I saw it. I once bought two Nintendo decks and a huge box full of cords and controllers for $10. That’s hard to pass up, and I still have some of that stuff.

I once bought a rough looking drum set for a good price, brought it home, cleaned it up, and sold it to someone at my high school for $125 more than I paid for it.

Of course, I was also on the wrong end of a good deal sometimes, too.

My grandpa would go for a walk a few times a day to stretch the legs and see what else was out there. He would usually make sure to point to anything new that week and tell me how much he wanted for it. (We didn’t write the price on most things, so it was a lot of remembering what each item or set of items was going for.)

One afternoon, he pointed at a pile of stuff on the ground and said “$25,” then walked off. A few minutes later, a guy came up and asked me about the pile. I told him $25. He handed me the money, scooped up the stuff and walked off.

When my grandpa came back 15 minutes later he saw that the pile was gone and sounded impressed. “You sold those things already? How much did you get?”

“I got $25, just like you said.”

“For all of them?!”

“Yeah.”

“Goddammit! They were $25 each! If you see the guy who bought them walk by again point him out to me.”

That guy knew what he had. He grabbed $100 worth of stuff and headed to the car. I started asking for clarification on pricing after that, and my grandpa started being more explicit in his instructions before he wandered away.

Minimum wage is for kids with ‘real’ jobs

The very first day I came to work with my grandpa, we spent the better part of seven hours outside in the sun. It wasn’t a particularly profitable day. The take-home was $111, which means I got $11.

My first day’s earnings would have looked even better if I splayed them out like a playa.

At 11 years old, there weren’t too many days outside of Christmas and my birthday where I made $11 in one sitting. I was pretty darn happy with that.

As the years went on and I started thinking about the hourly wage, I realized there were more lucrative ways to make a buck. But I was helping out my grandpa, and that was cool. I’ll tell you what, though, when October and November came around and you’re sitting outside in the Michigan cold sipping hot chocolate, sitting in folding lawn chairs and selling $40 over the course of six or seven hours, you begin to re-evaluate your decisions.

But the experience paid off. I never wanted to work in fast food in high school, and when my favorite music shop opened up a drum section, I told the owner I wanted to be the guy to run it. I had years of sales experience, I was reliable, and I worked for $8 an hour, which was a great deal for both me and him.

There are good people everywhere

We kept the money from sales in a waist apron, just a small canvas pouch with two or three open pockets intended for holding screws, nails or other small items. We kept bills in one pocket and change in another.

One day my mom had stopped by while my grandpa was on a walk. We heard a car crash from somewhere nearby, and she was worried and asked me to go find my grandpa to make sure he was fine. I started running off through the flea market trying to spot him. I found the crash on the road just outside the flea market gates, saw that it was just two cars and everyone was alright, and headed back to our table.

When I got there, I realized somewhere along the way the wad of bills had come out of my waist apron. I dropped nearly $200 in cash in a crowded market.

I ran off again, retracing my steps to see whether I could find a big pile of bills on the ground.

No luck.

I felt like an idiot. A whole day’s worth of sales, gone.

I went to the main office to let the manager know if anyone happened to show up with a fistful of cash they wanted to turn over, I was missing one. (You can guess what he figured the odds of that were.)

Just as I was about to leave, a man rushed in holding a pile of money. Indeed, he found the stash and came to turn it over to the main office. He could have simply picked up all that money and gone on his merry way. Instead, he did the right thing and went out of his way to try to find the rightful owner.

That’s a lesson I keep with me to this day. Whenever I find something of value that someone had lost — a wallet, a folder full of important papers, a cell phone — I take it as a personal mission to get it back to them as quickly as possible. Honesty above all else.

Never judge a book by its cover

My grandpa drove a beat down old black Dodge Ram to the flea market. He jury rigged a cap made for a smaller truck to fit on his eight-foot Ram by bending some iron so he could fasten the iron to the truck and the cap to the iron. It was ghetto, but it worked.

It was a manual transmission, and the clutch was so loose you practically had to take your foot completely off before it would shift gears. The brakes were so bad I almost drove right out into traffic the first time he let me get behind the wheel because I didn’t know you had to go all Fred Flintstone in order to make the thing stop.

We wore roughed up clothes, ate ham sandwiches (toasted white bread slathered with butter and a couple thin pieces of deli ham with a little mustard – not my top choice), and sold a bunch of greasy used tools week in and week out.

One day, my grandpa showed up with his regular car, a couple year old Ford Crown Victoria. People asked him whose car it was and where his beat up old truck was. Everyone assumed he was barely scraping by, and the weekly flea market sales were how he was making ends meet at his age.

Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. He owned his home, had plenty put away for retirement, and just enjoyed having a hobby and a purpose. It was nice that it happened to make a little money on the side, but that wasn’t the reason he was doing it.

Now I think about “The Millionaire Next Door” and how the flea market probably had its fair share of people like my grandpa. They weren’t all out there because they were too poor to shop anywhere else, a lot of them were just out there for the thrill of the deal, or because frugal people know you can find great used stuff that works just as well as new stuff. You could pigeonhole everyone into one socioeconomic category, but I bet a good number of them would prove you wrong.

A lasting impression

My grandpa died of cancer in late 2000. I just started my junior year of college and was busy as the managing editor at the school newspaper. My mom called one night to say I needed to come home that weekend and see him because she was afraid there wasn’t much time left.

He was frail and didn’t have a lot of energy. We talked a little bit, but he wasn’t much for conversation by then.

I saw a little straw hat in the house that used to be in the old Dodge Ram. My uncle had written on it in black Sharpie “Frenchy The Boss.” I put on the hat and walked into the living room, where he was resting in his recliner. A big smile crept across his face.

Every time I see this, I take a moment to reflect.

As I left his house that weekend, I told him I’d see him again next weekend. And I did.

It was his funeral.

I often wish I had more time with him, time when I was an adult and could really talk to him and appreciate his perspective and advice.

As it turns out, he left me with a lot of wisdom. Its just taken me time to grow into it.


Have you ever worked an unusual job? What did you learn from it that sticks with you today?

3 Comments

  1. Great read! Sounds like you learned some awesome lessons about finance, human nature, and life at that flea market with your grandfather. Best of luck in your pursuit of FIRE!

    • Thanks! It was definitely a great experience, especially looking back on it now. It also helps reinforce a frugal mindset when you spend so many years seeing people from all walks of life looking for good deals on used things week in and week out.

  2. This post is so full of life lessons and nostalgia. My grandpa was similar…he would head out on weekend mornings at the crack of dawn to hit yard sales and flea markets, so he could resell the items through various channels. TBH I can’t say that I followed in his footsteps, as I failed miserably at my one attempted yard sale in my 20’s. I partied too hard the night before, overslept and got none of my wares outside. When people starting showing up (due to the signs that I DID put out the day before) I ended up just letting them inside the house. Shockingly, I managed to sell just about everything, even dirty dishes straight out of the sink! But, it put me off the whole enterprise. Anyway…you are a compelling story teller, thanks for the post 🙂

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