When I was 14, my weekends were taken away, and I was put to work. No, I wasn’t tossed into a juvenile chain gang…. I was born into a family business and my time had come.
I worked at my Dad’s Flea Market all through high school, and the place was interesting to say the least. From a product perspective, there were collectibles, antiques and things from people’s garages. You had bikers, cholos, eclectics, artists, thrift shoppers, collectors, antiquers, and a host of others filling the place every Saturday and Sunday. Regular folks (and this was decades before eBay) would drive in each weekend to set up and sell their wares, others simply wandered around enjoying the atmosphere.
The Flea Market was a very colorful place, which is putting it lightly. If I were to pitch it as a movie, I’d say it would be a cross between “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Northern Exposure” and “The Apprentice”. Irreverence was part of the brand.
The Flea Market is actually where I learned about branding. I noticed that the people who enjoyed the most success always had something really distinctive about them: a black cowboy hat, teardrop tattoo, a familiar holler, a signature “style”. The “Fleas” as we called them, knew how to stand out.
Even Norman, our resident drunk, had a brand. He’d walk around at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning donning a beer holder helmet. (In case you weren’t raised in such a highly functioning environment as I was, this was a helmet that held 2 beer cans and a long straw that guided the suds nicely to Norman’s mouth). By 11 a.m., Norman changed hats and was now ingesting beer through some other contraption while arguing prices with someone wanting to talk him down $2 on a lawn mower. By 3pm he was a total wreck which was consistent each week.
Then there were the “name” people. It was really easy to be a name person, you just followed this pattern:
_____________ (your name) the ______________ (what you’re known for)
- Danny the Bandit (used cars)
- Pam the Wig Girl (sold wigs)
- Deke the Biker ( rumors abounded about him)
- Katie the Bread Lady (sold baguettes)
But to be a true “name person”, you had to be highly credible. You couldn’t just invent a name and poof!, you’re a name person. No my friends, you had to toil and be the baddest ass one in your field. Pam the Wig Girl? That lady could tease up a wig like it was nobody’s business and run circles around any other stylist. Katie the Bread Lady started a phenomenon when she brought baguettes and croissants to town. Suddenly our steady diet of glazed donuts, slurpies, and burgers was enlightened by amazing French bread.
The key to Flea Market branding was about standing out, being memorable, and being the real deal. Hmmmm…. don’t I say that to this day? Now you know where I got it!
The Flea Market is long gone… a freeway now runs through where it stood. Many of the oldtimers have passed, including my Dad. But the ingenuity lives on. To this day, my family and I sit around sharing stories of the unforgettable cast of characters that made up the Flea Market.
And when a client asks me how I developed such a knack for branding… somehow or another we end up talking about flea markets, 70’s wigs, and beer helmets.
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