Back in the days before the ubiquitous credit card, families who were short of cash did without the extra things, at least until the time they could get to a garage sale. Here in sunny Southern California it wasn’t too difficult, because the great American pastime of the day was holding a garage sale. Every weekend you would pack up the kids and drive the through streets in the neighborhood. On all sides you’d be surrounded by signs, big and small, each one advertising a sale. Sometimes they just had an arrow, sometimes an address, but each one promised treasures for the savvy shopper.

I was one of the savvy shoppers. Of course, if you asked them, all those others who joggled for parking space were savvy shoppers, too. The truth is, most of us didn’t really need any of the items we purchased. But the joy of the whole thing was searching through things the seller didn’t want anymore and finding something wonderful for just pennies. The competition and camaraderie between the bustling buyers was all part of the fun, and as cheap entertainment it couldn’t be beat.

The kids would hold up toys and books as well as tools and household items they couldn’t even identify.

“Can I get this one, Mom?  Plleeze! I don’t have anything like it!” Of course not, and there was probably a reason for that.  Once in a while, they got to head back to the car with something new and marvelous; most of the time the items ended up back on the lawn in a slightly different place from where they had been picked up. It was all part and parcel of the ritual.

We did a lot of handwashing.

For some reason the Flea Market term didn’t catch on as much here as in areas–particularly rural–to the east. What we had were Swap Meets. In the beginning, they were truly that. A man with no ready cash might bring a headlight from an old Hudson and swap it for an only-slightly-bent TV antenna. They’d exchange stories about this one’s first date in the old car, and that one’s hassles trying to tune the Horizontal Hold. Both parties would walk away feeling good about the trade, and no money changed hands. Over time, that would change.

It was inevitable that someone would realize that he could organize this activity and make a profit from it . Over what seems a short period of time, the hand-written cardboard signs telling us about a Swap Meet at St. Luke’s Church metamorphosed into slick, professional posters with words like HUGE! GIGANTIC! . . . and ADMISSION. Suddenly there were fees from sellers, fees from buyers, and drive-in movie lots filled with people willing to pay for what they’d always had for free. Oh, you can find anything you want, now, and a whole lot of junk you wouldn’t have on a bet, but the charm is gone. The only history you get with your 99-cent Miracle Tool is a tiny sticker on the bottom that says “Made in China.”

I’m writing a short story now about a swap meet, but the further I get into it the more I realize that I’m writing about something that hardly exists anymore, and it makes me sad. When I’m done with it, maybe I’ll trade it to you for one of yours.

No money involved.

I’ll see you again, after the commercial.