BERKELEY — Holiday shopping may be sluggish at big-box stores and sprawling shopping centers, but not at the Berkeley Flea Market, where business is up 10 to 15 percent, market officials said.
With people looking for ways to save money during these hard economic times, many are turning to the flea market for bargains instead of spending hundreds at the mall.
Alameda County's unemployment rate is 7.1 percent, and many jobless people have been hunting bargains this holiday season.
Over the 35 years the Berkeley Flea Market has been open at the Ashby BART station, it has turned from a place to sell funky junk into a spot to buy handcrafted items from around the world, green and clean body products, and even high-end flat screen televisions and cell phones.
"The economy has influenced shoppers to re-examine the market to find bargains, and as a result, the market (is) a holiday destination spot," said market spokeswoman Lori Shepherd, adding that shoppers can buy high-quality handcrafted jewelry, imported wool and organic skin care products for relatively inexpensive prices.
With layoffs hitting every sector of corporate America, vendors and flea market officials say some people are using their jobless status to follow their passions and start creative small businesses.
Kat Fraser, laid off a few months ago from her computer tech support job, debuted at the flea market a few weeks ago, selling handmade jewelry, chains, pins and knitted items from her booth, which she calls The Bucket.
"I'm interested to see what people want to buy and the handmade items they like instead of going to Target," Fraser said.
The products have changed over the years, and so have the people selling them.
"Years ago, you'd rarely see Southeast Asian vendors or Eastern European vendors at the market," Shepherd said. "However, with growing immigration, many of these new and diverse people to the area are now bringing along their cultural handcrafted traditions in the form of highly desired goods," she said.
Flea market manager Errol Davis, who has been involved with the market in some capacity for the past 15 years, said vendors are often trying to make ends meet.
"These days, people import items from their home countries and earn money to feed their kids or put their kids through school or just pay their rent," Davis said, adding that vendors are selling goods from Tibet and Indonesia, among other places.
"I've noticed in the past month that people are coming in and having to sell off stuff that they've had in storage to make money."
But with the spike in foot traffic, there has been a "certain element that comes through the market and hangs out and tries to take advantage of the vendors," Davis said. Flea market officials have hired a full-time security guard to monitor the market and report problems to police, Davis said.
Efiya Asabi, owner of Iyoba Body Essentials, has sold her products at the market for the past nine years, and this year offered stocking stuffers and other bargains.
"When I saw the economy was taking a nose-dive, I began to offer my soap at two for $5. I think (there is) some psychology behind it. People feel good about buying less to get more," she said.
She has other ways to lure customers back.
"I offer $1 off some products if customers bring back their (product) containers," Asabi said. "I think these little incentives help. People are trying to find bargains, so when they come to the market, that's what they are looking for."
Asabi, a health educator during the week, said she gets 50 to 70 customers over the course of a weekend. And this holiday season, many of those customers said they came to get a more thoughtful gift — something handcrafted.
"They also wanted to avoid the hustle and bustle of stores — even the parking lot," she said.
Davis said clothes and produce have been big sellers lately. People have also snapped up accessories and silver jewelry in recent weeks, he said.
Britt Newton, owner of Protherose Bath and Body, has been selling at the market for the past five years.
"Eventually, I may sell online, but I'm more interested in getting products to people who may not have handmade soaps, shea butter, body butter, lotions and oils available to them," said Newton, a former law school student who decided she would rather lead a creative life than a corporate one.
"I think people realize that the flea market has a lot to offer that the mall doesn't," Newton said. "There's open air, live music and a real good assortment of things."