Guest Post: The Found’s Albert Tanquero on the Rose Bowl Flea Market (Pt. 1)

When my friend Albert Tanquero told me about his crazy shopping trip to L.A.’s Orange Bowl Flea Market, I asked him to write about it, and he kindly agreed. Albert’s one of the busiest guys I know, so it means a lot that he takes the time to contribute now and again.  In addition to running his thriving Ebay vintage photo store, Albert and his partner Jim York, whose Bucktown dwelling was featured on Strange Closets two years ago, co-founded their stationary company The Found. (Check out their new Matchbox line). Be sure to visit next week for part two. Take it away Albert!
How did I, a college graduate with dreams of being a psychologist, end up selling other people’s antique/vernacular photos on eBay for a living? That’s what I have to ask myself every now and then- while I sit here, in my tiny one-bedroom apartment, which is full of other people’s family photos and now doubles as my office, shipping area and warehouse. Am I insane or just creative? In order to answer that question we have to go back a few years to where it all started. Two years ago this May, I decided to leave my work in non-profit, after years of a long commute and disillusionment I thought I would venture out and do something else. Explaining what I did and whom I worked for would just be a bore so we’ll skip that part.
Flash to scene:
Second Sunday in March of this year and I am waking up at 4:00 a.m. in a run down motel in Pasadena- 10 minutes from the famed Rose Bowl Flea Market- the grandaddy of all flea markets. I race to shower, brush my teeth, grab all the essentials- 2 bottles of water, $750 dollars cash (they certainly don’t take plastic), sunglasses, energy bars, and a positive attitude. Positive energy flow will bring me lots of vernacular photos, which are photographs by amateur or unknown photographers who take everyday life and common things as subjects. Vernacular photography has become an accepted genre of art photography, and my buyers are artists and collectors from all over the world: NYC, L.A., S.F., London, Paris, Australia, Japan, Copenhagen. (I get around). I jump in my car and I’m off. Since Starbucks is closed, I’ll buy my coffee at the market. The air is chilly and I’m glad I have my coat on. It’s still better than being back in Chicago where it’s still snowing and dreary.
When I left my job in 2008 the plan was to work selling antiques and collectibles at different antique shows throughout the summer and see if any other non-profit jobs opened up. I never expected the economy to tank, but it forced me to get creative. It’s amazing how fast you switch gears when your bills start piling up. I had been collecting photos, matchbox labels, and ephemera on eBay for a while and then it hit me: I would start selling on eBay. Why not? I’d spent hundreds buying from others why couldn’t I sell too? I did my first show at the Chicago Antique Market in the summer of ’08. I sold photographs, mug shots and small collectibles that I had bought at different garage sales and flea markets. My table was one of the smallest at the show, but it stood out with raunchy porn rags and mug shots. I made over a grand in one weekend, which made me feel assured I could make a living doing it. If others had done it, why not me? That’s how it started.
Back to the scene:
I’m just pulling into the Rose Bowl parking lot, which feels like an acre away from the entrance. I can see there are lots of early buyers already here. It’s 5:30 a.m. Did they sleep??? I pay the $20 dollar early entrance fee and my adrenaline is racing. “I’m going to find the best photos.” I keep telling myself. I step inside and there is chaos brewing – trucks are pulling in, vans are unloading mid-century furniture, boxes of God-knows-what?, collectibles, a set of 80’s mannequins, neon street signs, etc.. From the corner of my eye I can see a gang of Japanese buyers on roller blades with miners hats on – the kinds with flashlights. Yes, I forgot to mention you need a flashlight. I made a mistake and bought mine from a dollar store – so not much shine. The Japanese buyers are just skating around inspecting some biker boots and a pair of vintage Levi’s – I guess they’re still hot. I’m getting frustrated in the dark. What the hell was I thinking? I flew from Chicago to LA to get up at 4:00 am on a Sunday morning to dig through dirty, dusty boxes to find old photos I could sell on eBay? What am I doing with myself, I wonder as I begin to feel more disoriented and dizzy from the commotion. I feel lost.
When the sun begins coming up I start to make sense of where I am. The Rose Bowl is huge with close to 800 vendors and what seems like tens of thousands of chic Angelenos all vying for that cool, vintage piece. The competition is fierce but my claws are out. The photos start showing themselves. A box with some cute photobooths, a military photo album full of attractive gay interest photos, lots of 1950’s California snapshots, a small collection of African American photos from what appears to be Boston in the 20’s. Perfect. I find what I’m looking for. My investment of $750 today could turn into four or five grand, maybe more. I’m hunting, running from vendor to vendor on the prowl, like a madman, a lunatic, an ANIMAL. When your livelihood depends on it and you love it, you will find it. It’s close to 4:30 pm., and I’ve been searching for 11 hours. I take one break to eat an overpriced hot dog and four bathroom breaks, but the rest of the time I’ve been searching. My trip to LA doesn’t end at the Rose Bowl. I still have two and half more days left. I’m on my way to Orange County land of the blonds, Bentleys galore, and hopefully more photographic loot. Gotta pay the bills!
To be continued. Until then, check out The Found’s awesome new matchbox cards.
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4 Responses to “Guest Post: The Found’s Albert Tanquero on the Rose Bowl Flea Market (Pt. 1)”

  1. Albert’s finds capture my imagination and take my mind off somewhere new and cool. I love them. Thanks for the firsthand account of bagging the prize. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Awesome journal-like post. Can totally identify with him! More please.

  3. Hi, Albert, I can see why La-La Land would be nirvana for you as a collector of ephemera and photographs. Los Angeles must surely be the #1 city on earth for the “let’s get rid of this old junk, gotta have the newest” attitude. Anyone seeking remnants of the past, even as recent as last week, could probably find what they were seeking at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. Bring on Part 2!

    My personal fave flea market on the planet is Namdaemun (South Gate) in Seoul. You have to pay in Korean won there, but I found most of my best buys during my whole 8 months in the country in that market. They included ginseng tea, a gorgeous tea set I sent to Germany for my friends’ wedding, and T-shirts with Hangul (Korean) writing on them, very hard to find. I still have all 3 shirts that I bought there in 1996.

  4. Congrats Albert – You are amazing