Being There

Turf wars and flea racket

Show me your wares: John Lui (left) at the China Square Central flea market.
Show me your wares: John Lui (left) at the China Square Central flea market. ST PHOTO: MUGILAN RAJASEGERAN

A flea market novice needs to not just attract customers but also deal with hostile competitors

I hoped to meet all kinds of people when I ran a stall at a flea market last Sunday. I hoped, like many people who run the tables, to get my feet wet in retail. 

What I did not expect was to run into a turf war. 

My stall would be a modest little affair selling knick-knacks, used books and CDs donated by friends in the office who get the items as review samples. All money earned would go to The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund.

Hoping to capture the feeling of running a proper business, there would not be any sign that this would be a charity stall. I wanted the real deal, the authentic capitalist experience. But I did not count on running into Madam Book Supercop.

At China Square Central mall in Pickering Street, there is a flea market every Sunday. Eighty stalls set up tables in its foyer and along its wide corridors. 

This indoor arrangement makes me happy. I will be in easy reach of proper toilets and an espresso. Above all, there will be air-conditioning. If I have to be chained to a table, I might as well be comfortable.

My table is on the ground floor. It is squeezed in at the last minute, thanks to an appeal to the mall’s management. Other sites had either turned me down or did not return calls. Stalls everywhere tend to get sold out towards the end of the year because it is the season when people are bitten by the closet-clearing bug. 

The flea market’s organiser, Mr Michael Poh, 51, runs the Sunday market as a sideline because he has a full-time job as the owner of the View Point collectibles shop on the second floor of the mall.

“It’s a great way to build a base of customers,” he says. It is also a low-cost way to see if you have a head for retail. He points out that a few shops in the mall are run by flea market alumni. 

At 9am, a man with an Australian accent buys a Van Morrison CD. My first customer! 

My low prices will surely bring a flood of clients so I can go home early. My CDs are priced at $2 each, with a buy-four- get-one-free deal and paperbacks at $4. 

One of my neighbours is a book business. The boss, a woman who looks to be in her 50s, turns up at 9.30am and eyes my stand quietly. I feel the air temperature drop 10 degrees.

“Hello,” I say.

“Your table is blocking the walkway,” she replies, then turns away. No welcome cookie from her then. 

I get a much warmer welcome from Mr Roy Tan, 60. Like me, he’s a Sunday stall-holder, dealing in used books and CDs. The retired human resource executive covets my stock and wants a good bulk price. For the 40 or so CDs, he offers to pay $1 each. The price of each CD is $2, I correct him, feeling a little offended by his low-balling. 

“Look, your offer is ‘buy four get one free’, right?” he asks, hands flipping through the CDs. My CDs.

“Yes,” I say. I get an ominous feeling. Haggling: It is his world, and I have just entered it.

“So this means that you are charging $8 for five CDs, correct?” he asks. 

This is not looking good for me. 

“So your real price of each CD is $8 divided by five, amirite? So am I asking for a big discount? I don’t think so,” he says, springing his trap.

I hated maths in school. I cough and ask him to come back at 3pm, and I will sell him what is left. I ask him if he wants to bulk-buy any unsold books. No, he says. My table has too many fiction titles. These are nearly impossible to resell.

His quick lesson in reader psychology is that fiction readers never buy across genres. A science-fiction fan will never buy a romance, for example. Fiction stores therefore have to stock a huge amount to represent all genres. A great way to go bankrupt, he says. 

And the trading day is as Mr Poh has described: Before lunchtime, a lot of the action will come from dealers buying from one another. This is why flea markets are terrible places to find bargains on second-hand goods, explains one grumpy toy collector I chat with later that day. Stallholders snap up one another’s good deals before the shoppers are even out of bed. 

The stalls at the China Square Central cost $180 per month to rent, which works out to $45 a Sunday. The demand for general-purpose stalls such as the ones here is high because the management allows the sale of any product, as long as it is not a fake, a food item or a live animal.

Most other places ban everything except handmade goods because a cluster of clothing and jewellery stalls looks classier, compared with the riot of the anything-goes flea market. In the six years it has been running, though, the China Square Central market has picked up a strong nucleus of Sunday vendors dealing in curios, banknotes, watches and toys.

Around noon, the woman next door decides to escalate. She interrogates me, asking where my stock is from and why it is so cheap. I suspect that she just wants to rattle me and it is likely that no answer will satisfy her. Also, she is not being nice. I blank her out.

She whips out her phone and prowls around the stall, taking pictures, making sure I can see her doing it. She seems convinced that I have either hijacked a library van or am a member of a Latvian book-smuggling ring. In any case, it appears that Interpol must be informed.

Then there she is, casually fingering my merchandise, wearing a smile. I want to buy, she says, purring. I say no. I just want her to go away. She doesn’t look pleased and whips out her phone to call someone about my outrageous behaviour. She complains loudly so I can hear. Who is she calling? Her Pilates instructor? Her MP? Spider-man? I have no idea.

The Australian bloke running the tie-and-sock stall across from my stall has witnessed the drama. He sighs. In Singapore, retailers play rough with new competitors, he says.

“Instead of rising up to meet the competition, they’d rather bring the competitor down,” he says.

Suddenly, ninja-like, she snatches three books. 

“Call the police, call the security, see if you dare,” she declares, then leaves. 

I am frozen in shock. Wow. But I try to put it out of my mind. I have better things to do.

By 3pm, only the dregs of my stock are left. About half the books are unsold. Mr Tan is right. Fiction is a tough sell. Mr Tan the haggle-meister has also taken the two dozen or so unsold CDs off my hands. All in all, the School Pocket Money Fund is $324 richer. Not bad.

I find out through the mall management later that Book Policewoman has left the books at the security post. I think her plan was to scare me into making a run for it once she gave the authorities hard evidence.

Well, she can rest easy. I won’t be back. Our office stocks are depleted and this flea market business is much too stressful. There’s all that maths, for one, and besides, there’s this library van my Latvian buddies and I have been watching, you see?