Junker’s Blues

Our Story So Far: Exhausted from a late Friday night but unable to sleep, the semi-delirious junker has been wandering around Smiley’s Flea Market early Saturday morning in a state of heightened anxiety, turning small decisions into huge dramas fraught with apparent significance no sane individual would give them.

While the junker is checking out a new Smiley’s shop located indoors at Stall No. 13, his internal cacophony becomes external as various stereos bleat dissonant disparities into a tiny backroom echo chamber, testing either his will or his common sense. But hey, at least he got there first.

The combination of NASCAR radio, old techno, and Tex-Mex (probably more properly conjunto) music in the little shop was seriously threatening to conquer my record picking drive. Once I got down to the sleeveless 45s that logic dictated were worthless old-Top 40 or beat-up country — good for neither spinning nor flipping — I was actually about ready to deny my compulsive nature and split. But just when I was about to give up and go through the likelies I’d already set aside and leave the rest, here came the cavalry.

There are a surprising number of individuals who walk the market in search of records. Whether they do it for love or money, or a little bit of both isn’t really my business. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” may be outdated militaristically, but it’s very much in practice at Smiley’s. And not just concerning the ultimate question of “Where do you put the stuff you got?”

For instance, it’s considered a breach of boundaries to ask to see what’s in another digger’s stash. Perhaps this is because gathering junk is a solitary pursuit, and a curious fellow hunter is a threat to the territory and the already acquired prizes. More likely there’s a sense of scarcity of supplies at the flea market, and stopping and talking means you can’t wander and hunt. It can get pretty primal out there.

But the solitary nature of the digging game switches to a pack mentality when there’s a fresh new dealer to congregate around. The individuals more experienced with the territory then circle around the newcomer, and proceed to pick all the useful flesh off his carcass.

While I was halfheartedly deciding whether to continue my foraging, I heard someone good-naturedly say “Get away from my records boy!” I turned to see three regulars walking into the shop, and was suddenly chatting up a storm with people I’d barely exchange three nods and grunts with during a normal Saturday morning.

My own Alpha Junker credentials established by my “first-on-the-scene” presence and the large stack of potential goods I’d set aside, I was able to relax and enjoy the spectacle. Records recommended, trivia exchanged, small piles started. I tried to keep from looking up every time the distinct sound of a “pull” was being made — after all, I’d already seen everything, but instinct demanded I look to see what everyone grabbed, and I noticed other tilting heads doing the same. 

I looked over at the store’s tenant, who was watching us with a strange combination of pleasure and concern in his eyes. I know the feeling. The “Here they come and they’re going to buy stuff,” tempered by the sense that everything you sell, and especially the things you sell the quickest, are the things you should have paid more attention to.

I’ve been on the other side of the counter from this guy more than once, the Eaten as opposed to the Eating. The most intense was the first time my wife and I set up a table in New York at the WFMU record show, one of the three or four biggest shows in the world. There are sharks in those waters — the Northeast is basically where they invented record collecting, and when the hardcore city dealers caught a whiff of the hillbilly record dork from Carolina wandering through the back door with his hand truck full of records they pounced.

I clearly remember one of the dealers asking “Can I take a look at your stuff?” The next thing I knew, I was completely surrounded, dealers throwing lids off of my boxes, plowing through my meticulously sorted sections, sending my entire system into chaos. I’d overpacked, so people couldn’t flip through the records. They had (and they were more than willing) to pull stacks out and stuff them back in the wrong boxes.

It was exciting, but it was also scary. Everywhere I looked, someone was asking me to give them the best price possible on something or shoving money in my hands. And while it was a thrilling buzz to make a few grand off of records in about half an hour, it was possible to feel the top layer of the collection slowly but surely being shaved off by professionals, leaving me not with dregs, but with the most immediately in-demand pieces in the hands and at the tables of other sellers. 

I always try to remember that moment whenever I was in a situation like I was in now, and didn’t even bother to dicker with the new shop owner when he gave me his price on the records I’d picked out. Just paid my $10, told my fellow junkers I’d see them next week, and headed home, semi-secure in the fact that I’m not at the bottom of the food chain, but hopefully humble in the fact that I’m nowhere near the top.

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