A Sunday morning walk down 34th Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown can be dizzying for the unsuspecting pedestrian.
On any other day of the week, they would be greeted with the usual staples of any neighborhood: their favorite restaurant, the school they used to attend, maybe their dream homes. But between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Sundays, the Hardy Middle School parking lot transforms into an ecosystem that fuses the entrepreneurial spirit of local business owners with customers’ searches for novel antiques—forging connections over pre-loved, dated items.
The flea market was founded in 1974 by Michael Sussman after finishing Georgetown Law. He has kept it operational for over 50 years now, even while he practiced law.
Though vendors are charged rent, profit is not Sussman’s priority in the market’s operation. Rather, the outdoor market operates altruistically “to benefit the small businessmen who operate the vendor tents,” according to a 2017 appraisal by the D.C. government. Several vendors interviewed by the Voice spoke highly of the market’s organization.
Vendors mainly sell secondhand goods. Sprawled out on the concrete pavement are bins of costume jewelry, racks of streetwear, stacks of paintings and vintage prints, rows of antique china, piles of old-style camera equipment, and more.
The range of products has expanded in recent years as newer vendors have an easier time finding spots to set up than those who tried to in the past, according to vendor Chris Cloud. Cloud has been selling Depression-era glass, china, silver, and crystal with his husband Brian at the Georgetown market for four years. Brian has been selling the collectable dishware at various other markets since 2004, but he and Chris chose to sell exclusively at the Georgetown Flea Market because it is the longest running, most consistently operational flea market they’ve sold at.
“At one point it was just nothing but antiques, collectibles, the higher-end merchandise. At one point, that’s all you could bring. There were vendors here that, in other words, if you wanted to get a space, they would have to die for you to get the space,” Chris said.
Nowadays, the market offers a diverse array of products to its myriad of customers. Visitors include neighboring college students, residents from down the street and across the DMV, and tourists from all over the world. There are people searching for a bargain, leisurely browsing, or looking for a specific item they can’t find anywhere else.
To attract as much foot traffic as possible, getting a premium spot is key for sellers. Regular vendors, like the Clouds, are set up in the center of the parking lot—they arrive before 7 a.m. to keep their assigned spaces. Newer vendors set up in the remaining spots at the discretion of Butch Finch, the flea market’s manager.
“Some people, like, sleep here overnight, like they get here at 12 in the morning, at midnight, and then they’ll set up,” 26 year-old owner of Hiraya Vintage, Philip Tiamson, said. “It’s getting a little competitive now.”
After selling exclusively online, Tiamson has now been at the flea market with Hiraya Vintage for two years. He said he’ll be quitting his job soon to sell clothing full-time.
“It’s a job that you’re thinking about 24/7,” Tiamson said. “You’re always looking for stuff. I care a lot about, like, my presentation and experience to the customer, so I have all the same hangers, I have hang tags that I’ve individually put on each one so I can kind of see the item, make sure it’s to my standard.”
For Tiamson, the time and energy he puts into clothing curation is worth it when a customer goes home with a piece they love.
“You see all these vendors and they have such amazing things, like everything is color coordinated. You don’t find that in the thrift store. You’re getting the experience right in front of you, so you have more of a chance to find something you love. And I think that’s the best part,” Tiamson said.
On a recent Sunday, Tiamson’s tent was grouped in the corner of the parking lot by Wisconsin Avenue with about five other vendors also selling vintage, curated clothing. Despite their less central locations, the vendors can still rely on internet trends that have popularized secondhand clothing to bring in customers.
Cecilia Hill, who sells vinyls and CDs of all genres at the stand The Music Man, has similarly enjoyed people’s renewed interest in its items. Hill and Derrick Lundy, the shop’s primary co-owner, sell the leftover inventory from Lundy’s music store in Takoma Park, Maryland, from the 1990s at prices lower than what he sees them going for online. Hill said Lundy is hoping to eventually open another store.
“We have a lot of repeat customers, we have customers that refer people to us and also the community of vendors. It’s a real community amongst us as well,” she said.
The music they sell and play out of their stand has helped them build community.
“People come over here and just start dancing, you know, and that’s what we kind of want, to liven it up,” Hill said. “We play the music that people are kind of like familiar with and that takes them back. We’re also shocked that there’s so many young people who’s familiar with the old-school music, you know, so it’s really neat.”
The Clouds have seen a similarly newfound interest in their items from the younger generation, aside from their regular customers. Their spread of engraved ceramic dishware and tinted glasses carries a rich history with a modern physical appeal, which has drawn a younger audience in the last few years.
“One thing that I’m really proud of is [that] the younger set is coming, because we’re older,” Chris said. “Grandma and grandpa had this stuff back in the day. [The younger buyers have] seen some of them. They remember it, but they’re now starting to appreciate it. I guess it’s like, they’re saying everything old is coming back into place.”
While some vendors have looked toward a business future invigorated by their younger customers, for others, the flea market is the last stop of a long career. Lee Smith has owned LRS, a vintage watch shop and jewelry business named after his initials, for 40 years now after starting out as a nuclear physicist. He and his wife, Elke Smith, have been selling the store’s inventory at the flea market since they retired and closed his own LRS storefront in Georgetown 15 years ago.
“I love being out here, that’s why I come. I come for fun,” Lee Smith said about selling at the Georgetown Flea Market. “This is fun, as long as you ain’t got to eat.”
As he’s sold aging inventory over the years, he says his prices have gone down. One customer who approached him with a silver bracelet tried to negotiate the price down to $10 from $15 dollars—Lee said he used to ask $100 for it.
Finding the right items to display is a continual process. Lee has recently started putting out low-priced rings that he knows will attract younger buyers next to his higher-quality items. When he first started at the flea market, he also tried to sell clothes in addition to his watches and jewelry but never found success with it.
“When we came here about 15 years ago in this market, we had clothes. Nobody bought them. So I gave them basically to a Goodwill. And then like 15 years later, they’re selling clothes in the flea market. And more and more are coming, so I figured it would die out after a bit, but you never know. Young people are hard to predict,” he said.
A seasoned negotiator and seller of timeless products (Smith made three sales at his asking price during our conversation), he considers himself one of the market’s more lucrative vendors.
“We’ve always sold watches and gold and silver. And people say, ‘Oh I don’t wear gold,’ but they love gold. Everybody likes gold,” he said. “We do well in here, whereas some people come and they don’t sell nothing. It’s good to have us in here because we draw people in.”
Smith isn’t the only one that thinks he has a positive effect on the other sellers—each vendor’s presence at the market complements that of the others.
“I really don’t see it as, like, competition or anything. It’s just, if they’re bringing people, we’re bringing people, we can kind of commingle our customers,” Tiamson said of the flea market’s other vendors.
The vendors’ interdependence is illustrated by the Inti Coffee booth at the market’s entrance, which offers visitors a caffeine fix. Inti Coffee was founded two years ago by Judy Greco and Maurico Quito, who used their professional backgrounds as a web designer and a coffee chain operations manager, respectively, to start the company. They are driven by a desire to minimize the coffee industry’s pollution as well as by their personal love for the beverage.
The business sells sustainably-made coffee sourced from José Jimenez, co-owner and third generation farmer from Loja, Ecuador. They hope to scale up their business model and manufacturing practices in the future.
“I know coffee is a very polluting industry and we just like to kind of offset everything,” Greco said. “Our concept for the future, if we are able to scale up, is to just make our locations farm to cup. So maybe hopefully work with a separate farmer for each location.”
For now, they sell their product at rotating locations on Saturdays while they look for a physical storefront, though they have their most consistent clientele right in their own neighborhood at the Georgetown Flea Market.
“It’s [a] symbiotic relationship,” Greco said of the market’s vendors. “I would say, like, I’ve said before, having [Inti Coffee] here allows people who are shopping to have their coffee instead of having to leave and then come back. Sometimes they don’t come back.”
In addition to the benefit of the vendors’ close proximity for customers, they also are actively in service to each other. As it began to rain on Sunday, Sept. 17, vendors hurried to cover not only their own inventories, but those of their neighbors.
“We look out for each other,” Hill said. “If we don’t see somebody, both of us have each other’s numbers like ‘Where are you? Are you okay?’ so it’s that type of atmosphere and vibe.”
The camaraderie and community building appeals to customers as well. With the market’s evolving products and vendors, its social component appears to remain a constant appeal. Lee said he still comes out to the market because he enjoys seeing and talking to the people. Tiamson similarly values the personal relationships he’s built through the flea market, especially the other vendors.
“For the most part, all the guys around me right now, we’re all just great friends. And to be honest, it doesn’t really feel like it’s a business. I feel like we’re just hanging out with homies,” Tiamson said.