Grandma and The Schmattes, or How To Sell At A Flea Market - Part II

by Judith Katz-Schwartz


So, here we were at dawn, Arnie and Grandma and I, at the Englishtown Auction, which isn't actually an auction. It's a New Jersey flea market, and we were standing behind the tables in our homestead-for-a-day. The tables were piled high with Grandma's schmattes, a word that translates into English as "rags". There was a big stack of Arnie's type trays on the ground, and my boxes and baubles were buried somewhere, no doubt suffocating to death under a pleated skirt, a skirt reeking so badly of mothballs, that no moth in its right mind would come anywhere near us. In fact, the stench of camphor was so strong that all the neighborhood insects had fled to Connecticut to get away from us, and nothing short of a really bright porch light could ever entice them back to New Jersey. So, Grandma had succeeded, via her basic lifelong philosophy that if one mothball will do the job well, then three hundred will do the job even better, in impacting the balance of nature on the entire Eastern seaboard, as starving birds ranged across all the neighboring inland states looking for a moth, a mosquito, any bug that might be left to eat.

Arnie and I were still feeling pretty stuffed from the fourteen course breakfast Grandma had forced us to consume before we were allowed out of her apartment, so we couldn't muster the energy required to argue properly about placement and display issues. Which might be why Grandma made breakfast. You see, we are Jewish. This means we argue for sport. It's a recreational thing, a sort of Jewish cultural pastime, like baseball is to everybody else in America, and Grandma was an All-Star player if ever I saw one. I'm sure the Argument Hall of Fame, wherever it may be, is filled with the images of hundreds of World Champion Jews, none of whom ever gave in on anything.

Along came the first customer, a middle aged woman, who gingerly handled the fabric of a shiny purple flower-printed polyester man's shirt with collar points about six inches long.

"Ten dollars", Grandma said. Arnie and the lady and I must have looked like the Nairobi Trio, from the old kinescopes of The Ernie Kovacs Show. Our mouths dropped open as if a doctor had just walked in, held up a tongue depresser, and said, "Say 'Ahhhhhhh'."

"Look, such good material, very nice, vunderful buttons", Grandma said. The lady dropped the shirt as if it had just burst into flames, and walked away.

"Hmmph", sniffed Grandma, "I sell this to anudder von".

And that's pretty much how those pre-dawn hours went. Each time someone showed even a passing interest in one of Grandma's schmattes, she quoted him/her an astronomically high price (whether he/she asked or not), singing the praises of the jacket or skirt or poncho as if it were of the highest quality, instead of a hand-me-down that twelve members of our family had each taken a turn wearing before it wound up on this table. In fact, it never would have wound up on this table at all if each and every member of the family hadn't refused to ever put it on again, and hadn't also taken the time to argue with Grandma about that fact (arguing again. See what I mean?). You see, Grandma would somehow manage to trap you in her apartment while she was going through all these old clothes. And she'd pick up each item, one by one, and say,

"Vat? You vouldn't vear this? Look how nice. No buttons? I'll fix it for you. No? It's a pity to give it away. You know, lots of poor pipple they don't have such nice clothes."

I haven't polled my cousins, but I'm willing to bet they all responded the same way I did:

"Yeah, yeah, Grandma. So let's mail it to them, 'cause I'm not wearing it anymore!"

But, I digress.

So Grandma would be shouting the price of each garment at anyone who came near our table at the flea market. Each of her potential customers then dropped the garment as if poisonous snakes were wiggling their way out of the pockets or the fly or something. And then they'd all swiftly back away from the table. Occasionally, some poor schlemiel or schlemozzel made a counter offer, and God help him if he tried that! Let me digress once more, for the sake of those dear readers who may be Hebraically challenged. "What", you are thinking, "is a schlemiel, and what is a schlemozzel?" Jewish people describe them this way: A schlemiel is a guy, who if he were working as a waiter, would be carrying a tray full of soup, and as he approached the table he was about to serve, would trip and spill the soup all over some poor customer. And the guy the soup landed on is a schlemozzel. So, if one of these two types of persons was such a dullard as to make a counter offer, Grandma would assume a facial expression that signaled, from years of experience, to all of us in the family that it would be a good idea to get out of the room quickly and take cover behind the couch in the living room, and she'd say, "Whattsa matter mit you? Is such a good blouse! Are you a goniff?

Calling the customer a thief is not what your average account executive considers an effective sales technique, so Arnie and I were appropriately embarrassed by all this. I have a much shorter fuse than Arnie has (I have a much shorter everything than Arnie has. He's six foot two and wears a size 13 shoe), so I was inclined to argue (there's that word again) with Grandma about her bedside manner. But Arnie, quick thinker that he is, instantly hatched a scheme.

"Grandma", he said, "you know, you haven't even seen the flea market. If you want to shop you should do it now, before the crowd comes, and while the best bargains are still here. Judi and I will watch your things while you're gone."

Genius! Grandma took off immediately. Arnie turned to me and said, "Now, we have to figure out how cheap we have to price this stuff so its all gone when Grandma gets back, so we won't have to load it all back into the car, but we also won't have Grandma hocking us all the way home."

Hocking. What a good word hocking is. In Yiddish, the expression "hochkt mir nicht con chinek" is literally translated as "bang me not a teakettle". If you've ever banged on a teakettle, you know that the sound it makes is very loud and very annoying. So, the idiomatic meaning of the phrase is "stop bending my ear!". What Arnie was saying was, if we didn't finesse this just right, Grandma would definitely be bending our ears on the way home. All the way home.

The first customer strolled by just two minutes after Grandma left. It was an elderly woman who picked up a fringed orange and brown poncho with pockets. "Fifty cents", my brother said. The lady reached for her change purse, and Arnie said, "And here, this skirt is a free gift with your purchase, and we'll even throw in this slip so you have a complete outfit!"

Oh boy. Arnie really knew how to sell! The woman practically kissed him on the lips and then took off with her purchases before he could change his mind. "Who's next?" Arnie shouted. "Step right up!"

When Grandma got back an hour later, all the clothes were gone and Arnie and I had a cigar box full of money. We sold some things dirt cheap and gave everything else away, but the tremendous volume of our sales resulted in a nice piece of change. We handed the money over to Grandma, who divided it and gave half of it back to each of us.

That's Grandma for you. After all the work and all the squabbles, she only wanted to sell the stuff in the first place so she could give us the profits. And she did definitely hock us all the way home.

So, if you're going to sell at a flea market, be reasonable in your pricing and flexible too. And let your customers know that you truly want to please them. You'll sell everything you brought and your Grandma will be so proud of you!


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Copyright 1999 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.