In 1985, I moved from Gallup, NM, back to Tucson. I had a new wife, a new job, and little money to call my own. We needed a plan, and the universe answered our calls for help.
My mom and dad acquired quite a few boxes of books and knick-knacks from an old client of theirs who had died. We were already staying in the clients’ house during our honeymoon, and when the family took everything they wanted out of the house, they left us to pick through the rest.
My dad suggested we take all the stuff out to the swap meet and sell it for some cash. I’d been to the Tanque Verde Swap Meet before, but I never sold anything there, and it sounded like a new adventure.
So I took a Saturday morning off work and prepared to make my fortune.
We woke early because my dad said to get there before sunup and my monkey brain always has to arrive anywhere an hour before everyone else. My car was packed with stuff, but it was the good items; we still had another six or so boxes in my dad’s garage.
It was still dark when I pulled into the lot. A few regulars with travel trailers parked to the side and sat outside having coffee before a long, hot, dusty day. The line for the daily sellers starting growing after a few people pulled in line in front of me and behind.
We turned off the car and waited.
It was an hour before they would open the gates, and we could choose our spots for the day, so my wife and I sat in the car with the windows rolled down, drinking our coffees and enjoying the cool Sonoran breezes.
Over the next hour, the line would get longer, and the parking lot started to fill up with the long-term sellers. They had all come in on Friday, set up their tents and trailers, and wouldn’t leave until Sunday night.
I loved the atmosphere and felt giddy because quite a few regular sellers had peeked in my windows to see what I had. I would soon find out that the swap meet was its own little economy that relied on amateurs like myself bringing in new items for them to buy low and sell high.
I would also find out that people were making good money buying and selling used items, and from that day on, my entrepreneurial spirit became obsessed with making my fortune in the junk.
My dad told me where the good places to sell were so we didn’t have to drive around when they opened the gates. We went through the empty rows, looking for a spot that looked like it would have some decent foot traffic.
I liked the outskirts where most of the new sellers like myself would set up. When I would walk the swap meet before I became a seller, I always lingered outside the center where the full-time people had their permanent buildings, and the professional sellers who traveled the country would set up their expensive tents and tables.
In those early days, we never had tables; we just put a tarp on the ground and laid everything out.
Now, the first few minutes after you start taking boxes out of the car were critical. You made most of your money the first half-hour you are there. But you had to keep an eye out. The professionals and the regulars won’t take off with your stuff, but some of the others will.
All these people surround you, and you barter back and forth, all of them yelling over each other to get the best deals. I knew the score, most of these guys would take whatever they bought and turn around and sell it, so I couldn’t let it all go for too cheap.
You have to know what you wanted for each item and remained firm because if you didn’t sell it to them, someone else would come along during the day and buy it, so it was no loss if they walked away.
If you managed to keep anything you brought with you after that first half-hour, you would spend the next few minutes setting everything up neatly so people walking by could see everything.
I was a reasonably good salesman, but my dad was the best there ever was. He could talk to anyone, and I used to kid him that he could sell ice to an Eskimo. The secret to selling at the swap meet was to be friendly. I rarely left the meet with anything to take home because I would sell out. I saw plenty of other people that wouldn’t sell anything because they were rude and dismissive to everyone.
My wife and I were naturals at this swap meet thing, and we loved sitting out there in the heat and dust selling crap to whoever would buy it.
The swap meet provided everything you needed; soda, beer, coffee, food, supplies. If you sweated through your shirt and needed another, someone down the row would have one for you.
I loved walking the isles when it got slow. My wife would watch the stuff while I grabbed a bag of Duros and sauce or some pistachios and haggled with the other sellers over something I wanted.
We mostly stayed through lunch until the end of the first session. We never had enough stuff to justify staying all night and paying another $8 for space. We would load the car, park it in the lot, and take one last look around the swap meet while slowly walking the aisles eating kettle corn and churros.
We ended up having enough stuff that we spent the next few months Saturdays’ at the swap meet, selling our goods and having a blast. The extra spending money was nice, but the festival atmosphere made the swap meet the place to go.
Over the years, when we had a few things to sell, we would go again, but later on, the Tanque Verde Swap Meet changed. Instead of being a place for regular people to clean out their garages and sell all their stuff, it turned into a hub that offered the worst plastic products, clothing, electronics, and tools from China.
I don’t know what it’s like now with the pandemic, but I can’t imagine it will ever close down. The last time I was there was around 2011, and it was still going strong.
I imagine even 100 years from now, when all the buildings are skyscrapers made of glass and the cars fly; you will still be able to go to the swap meet and find a fantastic pair of Mexican leather cowboy boots for the best price.
But maybe the boots will be vegan and printed on a 3d printer. Who knows?