SAN JOSE, California. – Behind the colorful stalls, lively music and tantalizing smells of local Mexican food at the San Jose Flea Market hide tears and heartache.
Salespeople greet customers with a smile but hide a world of pain and fear that many feel about what’s to come. A vote in San Jose City Council in 2021 allowed flea market operators to go ahead with the development and sale of the land on which the 62-year-old market is located, leaving the future of the market uncertain.
The flea market is still open and guaranteed to operate through 2024, and many of the 450+ vendors are trying to make the most of it before the land is transformed into the Berryessa BART Urban Village. When that happens, the city’s largest flea market will shrink to a third of its size – potentially displacing hundreds of longtime sellers.
Meanwhile, changes in operations and enforcement have made it harder for providers to continue business as usual. Some providers have left, others are considering it.
“I’ve worked here for 45 years,” seller Anthony Tamyo told the San Jose Spotlight. “I’m old now, how can I get another job? I don’t know what’s next.”
When asked about his future, Tamyo fought back tears in his eyes. He plans to stay until the flea market closes but said some vendors around him have already closed.
“There are no more customers,” Tamyo said, pointing to the increase in parking and entrance fees as the main reason for the decline in guests. In early March, parking fees increased to as much as $20 from Friday through Sunday. “A lot of people also halved their stands.”
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Shop assistant Angel Lin cried as she explained how she’s spent her life savings making her business profitable since it opened five years ago. Lin said she has finally been able to turn a profit in the past two years. The ground beneath her finally felt firm after relocating to San Jose from China, but news of the impending closure cracked her foundation.
“I put everything into it, all my money, my time and my hard work,” Lin told San Jose Spotlight. “It’s just so sad and I don’t know what I’m going to do after that.”
Lin said her booth neighbor next door was forced to close after a verbal altercation with management. The seller was upset that the operators didn’t want to fix his leaking roof.
At a Monday community and economic development meeting in San Jose, representatives from the Bumb family, flea market owners, provided an update on operations – noting that the market had evicted two vendors for violating leases last quarter.
“One was selling counterfeit goods, which is illegal,” said Erik Schoennauer, a land use consultant representing the Bumb family. However, Jesus Flores, president and CEO of Latino Business Foundation Silicon Valley, believes the number of excluded vendors is much higher.
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“They were stricter than ever,” Flores told the San Jose Spotlight. “Salespeople tell us there’s now more security walking the aisles and making sure nobody breaks the rules.”
Rigoberto Gonzalez, a vendor who has been selling Mexican candy, piñatas and other goodies for more than 30 years, said it’s difficult for vendors to comply because the rules change frequently.
“I’m not allowed to hang my pinatas on weekdays,” Gonzalez said. “They say it’s because of a fire hazard, but why now and why not at the weekend?”
Flores said at least half of the sellers are considering leaving the company because of deteriorating conditions. In recent weeks, Flores said he tried to conduct a study but couldn’t because his access to providers was limited. Vendors are also not allowed to speak to each other and organize within the market, and some leaders from the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association have also been expelled, he said.
However, Schoennauer said the reason vendors are not allowed to converse is because outsiders wanted to come in and sell products to vendors. He also defended the increase in parking fees, saying it was a business decision due to minimum wage increases, inflation and higher security costs. He countered that there hadn’t been any unusual vendor fluctuations or customer declines since parking fees went up.
“We receive revenue from only three sources: vendors, food and beverage concessions, and parking fees,” Schoennauer told the San Jose Spotlight. “If we had increased the rent for the retail space, there would be an uproar. So parking was the only option.”
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While ties with the landowners are disputed, flea market sellers and advocates say the relationship with the city’s Bureau of Economic Development is hopeful. The city leadership has recently begun initial steps towards conducting three economic studies to determine the value of the flea market.
“Basically, all three studies put numbers down to show that the market is an economic force,” said Roberto Gonzalez, president of the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association. “It also highlights the cultural aspect and shows how much cultural value it has for minority groups and immigrants because it’s a first entry point into jobs and helps them assimilate.”
The city is using the first $500,000 installment of $5 million provided by the Bumb family to pay for the studies. This rate allows the Bureau of Economic Development, the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association and advocates selected this fall to establish an advisory committee to determine the future of the flea market. The remaining $4.5 million will be split, with part paid a year before closing and the balance at market close to support the sellers.
“Our goal is to keep the 5-acre market plus one additional market. Maybe 10-15 acres or any amount of acres to accommodate all of the current providers and leave room for even more,” Gonzalez told the San Jose Spotlight. “We want the city to be our partner.”
The idea is that the market is vendor-owned and operated on municipal property. It’s not clear how plausible the target is, but Gonzalez said the city certainly hasn’t shot down the idea.