The soggy wad of bills in my pocket had grown from $80 to over $300 in just a few minutes. Eight strangers were huddled under umbrellas in and around our rented UHaul yelling at me to tell them prices and then negotiate a deal.
“How about $15?”
With every sale I lifted the flimsy plastic poncho, pulled the mountain of cash from my shorts pocket, and added to it or peeled off tens, fives and singles for change. There were always three people who wanted my attention and two others telling me I better watch the rest because they’ll all rob me blind if I turn around.
Welcome back to the flea market.
Home sweet home
Not much has changed since I worked at the flea market some 20 years ago. The plywood tables look like the same ones that were there in the late ’90s. The same cheap but cunning wheelers and dealers flock to the tables. The management has changed, but the philosophy seems to be the same.
As I pulled the UHaul up the dirt road to the back of the property, I felt right at home. After all, this is where I earned my MBA.
The idea was simple: While we were visiting my parents for a week, I’d help my dad go through his massive collection of tools for a big sale on Saturday. More than 20 years ago I spent most weekends with my grandpa selling tools and hardware in the same place. I knew the merchandise would go fast.
I was not disappointed.
Why the sudden urge to go back?
My parents are moving from Michigan to Florida, which means it’s time to trim the fat.
My dad has what can best be described as an obscene amount of tools. He worked in steel mills and auto factories his whole career, amassing thousands of pieces of equipment to fix all kinds of factory machinery.
His dad was also an auto worker, and some of the tools we were going through were things my dad inherited after his dad died. (He isn’t the grandpa who went to the flea market. That’s my mom’s dad.)
My parents’ basement was filled with tools even before Dad retired, but when he did call it quits two years ago all the stuff from the plant came home, too. Now that they’re moving, having six sets of similar wrench and socket sets seems … gratuitous.
Deciding what to sell and what to keep actually turned out much easier than I anticipated. Everyone knew we weren’t going to get anywhere near what it had cost to acquire all that stuff, so my mom and I worried my dad might not part with most of it.
But to his credit, Dad was not only able to part with a huge amount of it. He was able to accept that something he paid $30 for was going to get a price tag of $8 and probably sell for $5.
It helped that they’re paying a moving company to do the big hauling, and moving companies charge by the pound. Tools are heavy, which means everything he kept was going to cost a bunch of money to move. That changes the “I might need that someday” equation in a hurry. We probably spent at least eight hours over several days getting everything ready.
On Friday evening, I asked what we would take if someone came up first thing and offered to buy the whole lot of it. It was a way to set expectations. We figured we’d ask $1,000 and take $800. Ideally we wanted to get rid of everything by noon.
The big day
The truck was loaded the day before. We were going to be there right at 7 a.m. to catch people while they had all their money. (That’s a pro tip. Always be ready to sell when buyers are flush with cash.)
The plan was to have my dad stick around to unload the truck, then he would leave so he wouldn’t get worked up at how low some of the prices got. That fell apart immediately.
We ended up in the corner spot where my grandpa had set up shop for so many years. It was $45 instead of $28, but it also had three tables instead of one.
I pulled the truck into the spot, opened up the back door and started to put stuff on the table. We were instantly mobbed.
There were 10 guys digging through tools as we set them onto the table. It was almost cartoonish, like setting a Thanksgiving ham in the middle of a pack of dogs. They jostled one another, reaching past to grab this tool or that case.
Several of them warned me to watch the others closely because they’ll walk off with things. I couldn’t unload the truck, cover security, figure out a price, negotiate a deal, take cash and make change all at the same time. So I shifted my focus from the truck to making those first few sales and setting the tone.
That made several guys impatient, so they came around the tables to the go through boxes as my dad moved them from the back of the truck to the front.
That’s when the rain started
The day before, we visited my grandpa’s grave. We started talking about the weather forecast, which showed a 20 percent to 50 percent chance of rain. I said it would be nice if my grandpa could help us out with that.
I didn’t want it to rain. Rain usually kills the sales at an outdoor market.
I was wrong. The rain was just what we needed.
Many of the other dealers didn’t set up early because it was overcast and there had been a few sprinkles. We didn’t have the luxury of waiting, so we were the only spot selling tools at that time. Even the other tool dealers came over to buy stuff from us!
When the rain really started coming down, we covered the tables with tarps and I put on the cheap poncho we were planning to sell. The crowd all came to the back of the truck and we kept selling right through the storm.
I was going for volume of sales over price. Remember, we didn’t want to bring any of it home, so just about any reasonable offer was accepted. There were a few times I held firm on a price, but people were definitely getting killer deals.
It was two hours before I could even get enough time between sales to grab a cup of coffee from the Thermos in the truck. I handed my mom the wad of bills so she could take stock of how we were doing. Almost $800 in a little over two hours. Epic.
Getting rid of the rest of it
Even though we did a ton of business early, there was still a lot of stuff left to sell.
When someone showed an interest in something, I made every effort to make sure they didn’t leave without it. There were several people interested in making a deal with us for whatever was left when we were ready to leave.
The way I figured, every buck I could squeeze out of the stock before that point was worth more than any modest difference in a final sales price for the remainder.
Around 10:30 a.m., we figured we had about another 45 minutes to an hour before we would try to offload everything to another dealer.
We didn’t have to wait that long.
The owner of the flea market showed up. He offered us $50 for everything that was left. We could just leave it all on the tables, because he would have a friend stick around to sell it. Just get in our truck and drive away.
There was more than $50 to be made for sure, but it would be much slower going now. Did we really want to stick around for two or three hours to make an extra $100? Nope.
We took the $50, returned the rental truck, and got home at noon. Everything was gone, and after covering all our costs my parents pocketed $1,045.
Twenty years later, the kid’s still got it.