It is 5 a.m. on the second Sunday in October, at the Rose Bowl. The moon is still visible against the dark sky and a silhouette of towering palm trees. As cars roll into the parking lot, the tops of tents can be seen in the distance. People wearing headlights and carrying flashlights are visible through the chain link fence. They are all scrambling, as if in a hurry. It is flea market day.
Buyers from around the world come here one Sunday a month to peruse the thousands of stalls, in search of “a find.” Laurent and Clara Michel drove straight from LAX after a flight from Paris. Only in town for a week before heading to San Francisco, they didn’t want to miss the experience, paying the early bird fee of $20 to get in before 7 a.m.
“We heard the Rose Bowl is a must, so here we are,” says Laurent, in a thick French accent, as he watches Clara peruse a rack of ‘60s fashion. “This is lovely, don’t you think?” she says, holding up a floral chiffon dress.
Marking its 50th anniversary, the Rose Bowl Flea Market welcomes over 20,000 shoppers, including 1,500 tourists, wheeling wagons and baskets through its gates each month. The 2,500 vendors, some setting up as early as 3:30 a.m., sell vintage clothing, antiques, jewelry, collectibles, furniture, arts and crafts, and brand new merchandise—most anything imaginable.
While many flea markets have floundered across the country, the Rose Bowl stands as the grand empress amidst other popular local markets, including PCC (Pasadena City College) Flea Market, Melrose Trading Post, Silver Lake Flea, Santa Monica Airport Outdoor Antique & Collectible Market, Artists & Fleas LA and Long Beach Antique Market.
Simona Sabo, a fashion designer and stylist for film and TV, has sold her Picky Jane collection in the antique section for six years and recently opened a brick and mortar of the same name in South Pasadena. Her inventory, featuring romantic turn of the century styles, perfectly conveys an “it girl” millennial aesthetic—as Simona describes, “something old you can wear in a new way.” She says many of her customers travel from Italy, France and Japan, and very often make purchases for their own stores abroad. “I see them face-timing and discussing what to buy.”
A LOOK BACK
The Rose Bowl flea market originated with R.G. Canning and partner Bill Tunnell, who, back in the ‘60s, produced successful car shows across the country. Noting a rising interest in antiques, they decided to expand their concept as a showcase for other items. Good locations were difficult to find and early events were not successful—until the duo stumbled across the Rose Bowl. As luck would have it, they also discovered the City of Pasadena, which owns the Rose Bowl, was looking to generate additional income.
“There were about 200 vendors when the flea market first started in 1968,” shares Dennis R. Dodson, COO of R.G. Canning Enterprises. “Now 2,500 represents a sold-out event, and we consistently meet that number.” He adds that with the addition of more vintage clothes, the age demographic shifted from 34-plus to 18 to 54.
Tastes ebb and flow—and so do vendors. Brothers Jeff and Steve Oliphant, now 63 and 59 respectively, started selling antique gramophones and phonographs in 1974, when they were teens living in Sherman Oaks. They had a constant presence at the Bowl through the mid-1990s. Considered to be among the most active collectors in the country, they took a break and then returned to being regulars at the market.
Jeff says a number of their customers are in the entertainment industry, including several Grammy, Oscar and Emmy winners, who purchase from their collection of Edison and Victor antiques. The items date from the 1870s to 1910, with prices typically ranging from $300 to $3,500.
“The promoters of the Rose Bowl Flea Market have done an excellent job keeping it relevant and, by far, it is the best ongoing event in the nation,” says Jeff. “The collector base, the diehards, remains strong and enthusiastic. The crowd also includes a large tourist/ international demographic, from both Europe and Asia.”
British-born Richard Halvorson sits in front of his stall in the “orange” vintage section of the flea market, touting his wares. He is decked out in pre-1941 U.S. Army coveralls, a waist mail pouch, western neck kerchief and red Converse high-tops. His collection is considered “top-shelf” among Hollywood stylists and clients like Jude Law, Usher and Catherine Keener.
Richard says he sources for his brand, Pickpocket Vintage, from “secret special places,” including London, France and Ireland, with an inventory that ranges from 1920 to 1980. His mainstay items are ‘50s to ‘80s Levi’s, priced from $45 to $650, according to seam, rivet and label detailing; and one-of-a-kind vintage band shirts that go from $20 to $500, depending on the “quality of graphics and availability of the shirt.” He counts his ’72 Doors, late ‘70s Blondie and ‘70s New York Dolls tees among his most rare collectibles, all priced at $500, as well as a David Bowie “Sound and Vision” for $160. Of special pride is a Joni Mitchell early ‘80s tee and “the only one available at the moment.”
Growing up in Newcastle, England, Richard started going to antique fairs with his father at age 4, and by the time he was 11, shopped thrift stores. Moving to LA in 2011 to act, he continued to collect, and within a few years, friends suggested he start selling.
He sells at two flea markets every weekend, rotating between locations, but says the Rose Bowl is “the place to be.” He opened Pickpocket Vintage at La Commune General in Atwater Village this past summer and just last month opened a store in the hipster seaside community of Margate, outside of London. “My hobby became my life. I absolutely love what I do.”
Heather Silva, of We Move Vintage, wears an emerald green, ‘70s dress that sets off her green eyes. Inspired by observing her parents’ fashion business, she’s been collecting for 20 years and has sold at the Rose Bowl for nine years. “I love it because it’s world-renowned, with so many people coming from other places.” She also sells at upscale vintage shows and online at her Etsy store.
Heather describes her inventory as “boho pieces from the ‘70s, mixed with ‘90s minimalism.” Standouts on this particular day include an avant-garde style Norma Kamali jacket with velvet collar for $175. “The ‘80s was her era.”
Across the footbridge, among the antiques in the “white” section, Robert Snaith’s stall is a mosaic of bold colors, ethnic patterns and rich textures. He has been selling textiles, ceremonial clothing, and a sundry of antique odds and ends hailing from China, Thailand, England and France for the past 15 years. He counts Diane Keaton, Lisa Bonet and Katey Sagal among his clients and sells under the business name, Strictly No Elephants.
“As long as there is a flea market, I’ll go anywhere. I was in China last week. I’m off to India next week,” shares the London native. He also sells his handpicked treasures at the Santa Monica Airport Outdoor Antique & Collectible Market, Long Beach Antique Market and Sunbury Antiques Market in Kempton Park, which he says is the best in London.
Unfolding a colorful length of fabric, Robert points to the edge, revealing a seam—and a story. “This was once a thousand-pleat skirt worn by the Hill tribe people of China and Thailand,” he explains. “The fabric pieces can be sewn together to make table runners, tablecloths and pillows,” he tells a customer. He pulls out a “marriage” quilt and says, “It took a year to embroider by a mother and daughter in the Yao hill tribe for a wedding,” then points to a symbol that means “double happiness” in Chinese. “It’s what you want on a wedding quilt,” he quips.
And the “absolute hot ticket right now”—a homespun blanket from Gujarat, India, which an unnamed high-end store on La Cienega sells for $1,600. At the Rose Bowl, Robert sells it for $400.
Around the corner is a large stall filled with a staggering collection of ornate turquoise, displayed in glass cases. This is some of the highest end loot of the market, with prices up to $9,000. The vendors, two middle-aged sisters, share the story of their late mother’s collection. “She had a real affinity for native American culture. She traveled the world with artists and other collectors. She would wear a bunch of bracelets on her arms, drape necklaces over long gowns and had six ear piercings.”
Mid-century modern furniture is having its hey day at the Bowl. One of the many stops for enthusiasts is Sofia’s Antiques, a family-run business of 15 years. Sofia and Daniel Vargas, along with their three daughters, source pieces throughout California, Oregon and Pennsylvania. They reupholster, refill cushions and refinish the wood. Daughter Jennifer says they “enjoy the hunt of it … ugly ducklings become beautiful swans.” The family takes the show on the road to Long Beach and Alameda, but the Rose Bowl is where they do the most business. As with nearly every vendor, there is a favorite story: Once a Victoria’s Secret supermodel, receiving delivery of a ‘50s couch, answered the door stark naked.
For 10 years, husband and wife partners Dani and Eric Davis, of Euro-Linens, have traveled to Pasadena monthly from their Santa Cruz home decor showroom, Patine, to sell their repurposed imports from Hungary, France and Germany. The antique wares, procured from farms and gypsy enclaves, include nightshirts, kitchen towels, linen grain sacks, large wood dough troughs and decorative preserve jars. “They know we’re coming and save things for us,” says Dani. Pillows and runners fashioned from the grain sacks are piled high—all handmade by Eric. He points to the colored stripes on the pillows and explains that each color represents a different farm. Pillows are sold for $50 to $100, versus more than double that at upscale boutiques.
Bonnie Pomish has made the hour-plus trek to the Rose Bowl from her Oak Park home for more than a quarter century. With a house full of “treasures” she’s found over the years, she still loves going for the thrill. Her favorite find? A French bench with petit point embroidery. “I found it under a pile of clothes. When I asked the price and the seller said $75, I had to keep my poker face on … it was such a deal!”
Nicky Loomis, 35, grew up in Pasadena and says shopping excursions to the Rose Bowl represent different junctures in her life. “When I was a teen, I’d go with friends and look for clothes. It was the place that designers from Urban Outfitters came to find inspiration. Now as I’ve gotten older, I’m searching for home goods.”
But as Nicky sees it, there doesn’t have to be an end goal. “The best thing about the Rose Bowl is that you can go and have absolutely nothing in mind, wander around, get some food and enjoy the day.” Or she adds, “You can do all that and end up finding something truly magical.”
CRACKING THE BOWL
Make a List and Refer to It
Once you find an item, circle back to your list in determining whether to buy. If it meets your quality criteria, even if it is more than you budgeted for, then it is a good deal.
Buy Tickets Online/Arrive Early
Arrive by 6 a.m. for amazing finds and to beat the crowds. Tickets start at $20 for early birds and reduce to $9 after 9 a.m.
Regardless of time of year, you can experience a multitude of temperatures throughout the day. I layer up and usually wear shorts or jeans and a tank, topped with a light jacket. Wear leggings if you’re trying on clothes. For the best deals: leave designer items at home.
Bring a large bag or rolling cart, a fully charged cell phone (to research items), cash and a checkbook. Some vendors use Venmo, so download the app. Having cash on hand gives you the upper hand when negotiating. Don’t forget water and a snack.
Have a Strategy
The Rose Bowl Flea Market is split into sections to navigate the shopping experience. Shop big items like furniture first (you can circle back for pick-up later) and then move on to small. Furniture is mostly in the “white” antiques section.
Look for Potential
Keep an eye out for furniture that is unique in shape; don’t get caught up in fabric or color. You can reupholster and paint, but you can’t change the shape. You want to buy the “ugliest” or “fixer-upper” in the group because that’s where you’ll get the best value. A little elbow grease can turn almost anything into a classic piece.
Hometown pride and national attention descends on an often-overlooked community.
California pre-fab is pretty darn fab.