Costa Mesa is sleeping. It's 5:30 Saturday morning, a crisp 50 degrees, and sunrise is still a good hour away. But while the City of the Arts digs into its collective blankets just a little bit longer, a motorcade clogs up traffic on Fairview Road: old pickups and new Rams and U-Hauls and loncheras and vans and cars packed with so much stuff they look as if they're going to burst.
The vehicles eventually make a left on Adams Street to line up in front of a parking lot in Orange Coast College (OCC), where they wait until 6 a.m. At that time, the gates open, engines crank up, and the line inches toward a security guard, who checks credentials to make sure each driver has permission to be here. Once approved, they drive to a predesignated area, and more than 600 vendors begin setting up for the Orange Coast College Swap Meet.
Over the next two hours, metal clinks and human grunts fill the air as booths pop up, one after the other, and everyone lays out their wares in 450-feet-by-900-feet spaces. Jose Cruz, a longtime produce vendor, pulls up to the north side of the parking lot, where he and his family—son, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, nieces, even a compa named Manuel—unload six stalls worth of goods; they finish the task in minutes, a sleight of hand that's no big deal when you've been selling here for 26 years.
"The swap meet is a very beautiful place, but it's also hard work," says Cruz. "When we get home, we have to clean everything. We've been up since 4 in the morning, and we don't finish breaking down until 8 p.m."
Any fatigue quickly fades away as the first customers hit Cruz's stall at 8 a.m. People swarm the family, picking up fruit, holding it right up to their noses, and haggling over prices as they fill up bags with fresh produce. Other people glance at Cruz's stall as they head for $5 hoodies or $10 bikes. Some just dream of finding a Basquiat hiding between the pages of the 1984 Bolsa Grande High School yearbook. The weekend is starting right.
Once widespread across Orange County, weekly swap meets are now a rarity, victims to e-commerce and changing tastes in shopping experiences. But the OCC version holds strong. Vendors are backed by administrators who have supported them in the face of calls to shut them down. Customers—many of them immigrants or elderly or working-class or a combination of the three—enjoy coming because it's a gathering place that welcomes people like them.
It's that atmosphere that calls to Charlie, a retired Marine who has regularly come for the past 20 years. "I like the people I've met out here," he says. "It's something to look forward to, and I enjoy everyone's company. It provides a place where people can come to find stuff without going to the store. A lot of people nowadays can't afford those high prices."
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The OCC swap meet started in the early 1980s, during a golden era for flea markets in Orange County. Drive-in movie theaters made extra cash on weekends by renting out their parking lots during the day. Swap meets ran at the Orange Drive-In, the Anaheim Drive-In next to the 91 freeway, and the Hi-Way 39 off Beach Boulevard in Westminster.
Originally founded by the Lions Club of Costa Mesa, Orange Coast's version started with just one gathering a month in the school's Merrimac Lot (off Merrimac Way and Fairview Road). Its quick rise in popularity overwhelmed the Lions, so the group approached George Blanc, who ran the school's community education department at the time, and offered the college control.
Community colleges were starting to get into the swap meet game, in an effort to offset budget cuts by the state. Looking for a way to support community education classes and OCC's performing-arts program, Blanc accepted the Lions' offer, and OCC officially took over in 1982. "It started out once a month, but as soon as they switched over [ownership], Blanc noticed his staff kept getting phone calls as to whether the swap meet would be happening every weekend," says Julie Clevenger, OCC's current director of college and community support. "'Just tell them yes,' he said. And just like that, the swap meet went from running once a month to every weekend."
In 1984, the open market relocated to the Adams Avenue parking lot, where it has operated ever since. But it was still relatively small until 1991, when Santa Ana outlawed all swap meets to maintain "the character of the city's neighborhoods," according to a city staff report. Suddenly, dozens of vendors had to find a new place to hawk.
One of those was Jose Cruz. He helped his uncle at the Rancho Santiago swap meet, and his family sold fruit cocktail cups from a pushcart on Fourth Street. Before that, the now-48-year-old owned a mobile produce truck and sold fresh produce throughout neighborhoods in Santa Ana. He set up shop at Orange Coast College just a couple of months before Rancho Santiago (now Santa Ana College) shut down its swap meet. "There were only a few vendors when I came," he says. "It initially started with about 50 stalls. But after the closure of Santa Ana [Stadium] and Rancho Santiago College, everyone started coming here."
Success wasn't guaranteed. When Jose Salazar started selling chicharrones at OCC, customers didn't know what they were. "We'd literally only sell two bags," says his daughter, Maricela Salazar, who now helps run the stall with her sister. "And during a time when my dad wasn't making enough—and this is true for a lot of vendors—when sales drop, you're left with the decision of whether to pay your rent or pay your space at the swap meet."
But vendors grouped together to pass out fliers throughout Santa Ana and its surrounding cities to bring in more vendors and customers. And Jose Salazar suggested to the swap meet's organizers that they put the second-hand items in the back "because a lot of people would come in looking for used items and antiques, and then leave," says Maricela. "Putting them in the back, it forced people to have to walk through all the aisles."
Cruz and his wife started at OCC with a small pushcart. Today, the Cruz stands sell everything from produce to fruit cocktail cups to churros to 18 flavors of agua frescas. Helping him now is his 25-year-old son, Daniel, who has spent his weekends here since he was just a 1-year-old. "I used to ask my dad why we couldn't get a weekend off," Daniel recalls. "My dad would explain to me that if we didn't work, then there wouldn't be any food on the table."
The 2009 recession hit the family hard, and they fell into debt with the bank. That's when Daniel decided to start helping full-time. He had gone to college and taken courses in business and marketing, in hopes of introducing business strategies that would help the family business. "My dad pitched the idea [to OCC] to start selling fruit cocktails and agua frescas made from the fruit we sold," he says. "No one else was doing it, and he was approved."
The innovations proved to be a hit. The family was able to bounce back and grow to be more successful than ever. "Now, I look back and appreciate my dad bringing me and my younger brother to the swap meet," Daniel says. "Because it kept me out of trouble."
* * * * *
At noon on Sundays, waves of people come dressed in their church best. The layout of the swap meet is like a labyrinth, each turn designed to keep your interest for a bit but also motivate you to walk in deeper, lured by the promise of more treasures. Food stalls are at the edges, which give way to branches featuring almost everything imaginable: new and used clothes, electronics, furniture, CDs, antiques, shoe stalls, beauty products—a mile of shopping that grosses OCC $3 million annually in stall fees.
Though everyone wants to make money, there are no cutthroat rivalries here—they're impossible. Everyone does the same hustle for the same few bucks. More important, when you spend weekends together for decades, a sense of family takes over, which makes the swap meet more reunion than commerce and the relationships permanent.
Take the Bird Man, a vendor with a Hagrid-like beard who has sold finches, cockatiels, parakeets and large pet birds for more than 20 years and whose real name is Rocky. "I belong to four bird organizations, one international, and I go to conventions so, yeah, I'm a bird person," he says.
Rocky is the kind uncle of the OCC Swap Meet. He has organized trips to Knott's Berry Farm's Halloween Haunt and recently took kids up to Big Bear to enjoy the snow—some for the first time in their lives. And when it's school-fundraising season, he'll buy entire boxes of candy bars. "Some of the kids who have worked with me over the years, I met them as little kids shopping here, and they grew up in my booth," he says. "Now, they help me sell birds."
For other vendors, the OCC Swap Meet is a place of reinvention. Husband-and-wife team William and Sevgi Pezzullo started hawking dried fruits and nuts 20 years ago, after getting burned out from previous careers as a seller for specialized mining equipment and tailor, respectively. "This swap meet provided me with the opportunity to experiment and learn things, and I didn't have to spend a ton of money to do it," William says, looking up at his custom-made banner that says, "Go Nuts." "And I'm not the only person like that; there's a lot of people here that have gone through the same experience."
They started with one space but expanded to three; today, the Pezzullos sell more than 100 types of dried fruits and nuts from around the world. Their chile-covered mangoes are a customer favorite, made using three types of chiles, lemon flavoring and a secret process that requires a specific mango variety.
The two show up every weekend, but they take pride in also employing local high school and college students. "One of my employees went on to work for homeland security in Washington, D.C.," William says with pride. "We had a kid who was on a water-polo scholarship and went to UC Santa Cruz and another employee who joined the Marines and is going to Japan."
Sevgi smiles as William says, "Our kids have done well."
* * * * *
As the early afternoon comes, the swap meet's makeshift food court starts hopping in earnest. "Eating at the swap meet is entertainment for the whole family," says Jaime Macias, who runs the Taco Time stall and gets lines for his tacos de papa and steaming menudo. "You can spend $25 and feed your family and eat good food."
Here is the best reflection of the OCC Swap Meet's multicultural clientele. Cambujas's Comida Centro America offers Guatemalan and Salvadoran favorites such as pupusas and caldo de res. A Vietnamese family makes delicious corn on the cob and esquites with all the trimmings. H's Chinese Food, a vendor for 12 years, sells Chinese-American combo plates including chow mein and orange chicken.
"The swap meet allows you to grow and keep striving for more," says Miguel Ocampo. His Ocampo's Catering has sold Mexican food at the swap meet for 28 years. Currently, he sells from a school bus he tricked out with a kitchen to keep up with customer demand. "It pushed our lives forward; it gives us a place to live, and it gives us a place to spend time together on the weekend."
Another snack favorite are the chicharrones from the Salazar sisters. The stall is always swarming with customers, yet Sylvia Salazar greets everyone individually and says, "Gracias" no matter how busy it is. "My sister Sylvia has the best memory and always remembers her customers," says Maricela. "That's why they always come back to her."
In 2008, the hermanas were left with their parents' business after their father was killed in an accident on his way to the swap meet. The family also lost the truck that had everything for his booth. At the time, the sisters were still dealing with losing their mother to a stroke in 1999.
"My dad's death was sudden," says Maricela. She had just graduated from Cal State Los Angeles with a bachelor's degree in English literature while working a full-time job and spotting her family's chicharrones stand on weekends. Law school loomed. "We had always discussed taking over the business growing up and knew we'd be faced with the decision one day," she says, "but we thought it would happen later in life."
The thought of letting her dad's business go tempted Maricela, but it just meant too much to her and her sister. "My parents started here from nothing," she says, pointing to a spot near the Salazar booth where her parents would enjoy a quick breakfast together every weekend. "My dad always told us, 'I might not leave you with an actual inheritance of money, but I'm going to teach you how to earn a living, and you'll never go hungry because you'll know how to sell something.'"
Today, the Salazar sisters continue to sell chicharrones, with Maricela running another booth from which she sells home décor, blankets and bedding sets. She enjoys finding items for her customers, calling it a scavenger hunt. "I don't have kids, so I learn what's popular from the kids at the swap meet," she says. "One of the little girls just told me I need to see the movie Moana and that I need to bring stuff for it."
On a recent Sunday, the hot item was sofa covers, of which she quickly sold out. She made sure to take down each customer's name and contact information to let them know when she got more in. A lot of Maricela's customers live in small spaces, rent a room or have small apartments, so she makes sure to stock products that are going to help them. "The reason that I started selling the items that I have is because three customers of mine that clean homes in South Orange County would come here and say to me, 'I want my daughters' room to look as pretty as the one that I clean,'" she says. "So I told them, 'Take a picture of what you want, and I'll find it for you.'"
She soon began getting special requests from more and more customers. "Parents should be able to give their kids what they want," Maricela says. "Why shouldn't everyone have something that's beautiful?"
* * * * *
The swap meet hasn't been popular with everyone. In 2002, a Costa Mesa City Council member proposed to reduce Sunday vendors from 450 to 275, as well as ban temporary vendors altogether. City officials claimed OCC was in violation of a 1984 permit that supposedly limited vendors to just 275 on Sunday, with no Saturday swap meets whatsoever. The Daily Pilot reported that then-councilman Chris Steel "insisted college officials verify the legal residence and state tax numbers of all vendors," suspecting vendors took away clients from "legitimate" businesses. Meanwhile, fellow councilman Allan Mansoor, who's back in City Hall after a stint in the California Assembly, told OCC officials to "reserve the possibility of changing the venue from a flea-market-type swap meet to a farmers' market or art fair," according to the Pilot.
OCC officials didn't take kindly to the city's attacks. "For years, everything is okay, and now they are drastically shutting us down," Blanc told the Orange County Register at the time, which added Blanc felt the swap meet was "a scapegoat during slow economic times."
But after vendors and customers organized and protested (William Pezzullo, in particular, was quoted extensively in the press), the Costa Mesa City Council largely left the swap meet alone, only asking the college to reduce vendors by 120. A year later, the Register reported then-planning commissioner Joel Faris "just had to make it public that he disapproved of the Orange Coast College swap meet." During a meeting, he called the swap meet an "underground economy" where vendors "buy and sell without proper taxes being paid." But, as with the previous attack, OCC officials stood by swap meet vendors, and the issue went nowhere.
There are also hints of racism among the city's residents. On NextDoor and other online forums, some Costa Mesans have claimed most vendors and customers are undocumented—though not using such polite language. That doesn't faze Clevenger. "If someone doesn't have their papers, there's that trepidation, and that's not what we're about here—that's not our role," she says. "Our role is to give [vendors] a place so that they can succeed."
These haters disgust Maricela Salazar. "I've overheard people say, 'We're just people selling on the asphalt,' and I think it's unfortunate that they think that way," she says. "What I think a lot of people don't understand is that each booth is a small business, and if they knew the amount of effort that vendors take into bringing in what the customer wants, they wouldn't make those comments. It's not one giant garage sale where you put all your old junk out; these vendors really take their customers' needs into consideration."
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Despite the naysayers, the swap meet's popularity hasn't ebbed. In August, administration put a call out for monthly vendors after 30 spaces opened; 60 people applied. One of the newbies is Shari Breton, who buys unclaimed storage units and sells her best finds. She was a pilot for 15 years and says vending has become an escape from the daily grind. "It's so much fun," she says. "I work a lot less than I ever did, and you make as much money as you would in two weeks in one day here at the swap meet."
"What I like about the swap meet is the small-business aspect at the very roots level," says Clevenger. "There's all these little success stories, and you get to watch the growth of that."
As the crowds start to dwindle and vendors begin to break down their booths, Maricela gazes into the distance. "Even though I'm tired, there's something beautiful about the way the sky glows when the sun starts going down, and I can't help but stop and look," she says. "This is really a beautiful place."