Strict rules at San Jose flea market drive out vendors

Behind the colorful booths, lively music and tantalizing smells of local Mexican foods at the San Jose Flea Market are tears and heartache.   

Vendors greet patrons with a smile but mask a world of pain and anxiety many are feeling regarding future development. A 2021 San Jose City Council vote allowed flea market operators to move forward with developing and selling the land the 62-year-old market sits on, leaving the market's future uncertain.   

The flea market is still open and guaranteed to operate until 2024, and many of the 450-plus vendors are trying to make the most of it before the land is turned into the Berryessa BART Urban Village. When that happens, the largest flea market in the city will shrink to a third of its size--potentially displacing hundreds of longtime vendors.   

In the interim, changes in operations and enforcement have made it harder for vendors to do business as usual. Some vendors have left, and others are thinking about leaving.   

"I have been working here 45 years," vendor Anthony Tamyo told San Jose Spotlight. "I am old now, how can I get another job? I do not know what is next."   

When asked about his future, Tamyo struggled to quell tears forming in his eyes. He plans on staying until the flea market closes but said some vendors around him have already closed shop.   

"There are no more customers," Tamyo said, pointing to the parking and entry price hike as the biggest reason for a drop in patrons. In early March, parking fees increased on Friday-Sunday to as much as $20. "Many people have shrunk their booths in half too."   

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Vendor Angel Lin cried as she explained how she spent her life savings trying to make her storefront profitable since opening five years ago. Lin said she was finally able to turn a profit in the last two years. The ground under her finally felt solid after moving to San Jose from China, but the news of imminent closure has cracked her foundation.   

"I put everything into this, all my money, time, and hard work," Lin told San Jose Spotlight. "It is just so sad and I do not know what I will do after."   

Lin said her next-door booth neighbor was forced to shut down after a verbal altercation with management. The vendor was angry that the operators wouldn't fix his leaky roof.     

Increased enforcement   

At a Monday San Jose community and economic development meeting, representatives of the Bumb family, the flea market owners, gave an update on operations--noting the market expelled two vendors due to lease agreement violations in the last quarter.   

"One was selling counterfeit goods, which is illegal," said Erik Schoennauer, a land-use consultant who represents the Bumb family.   However, Jesus Flores, president and CEO of the Latino Business Foundation Silicon Valley believes the number of expelled vendors is much higher.   

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"They have been more strict than ever," Flores told San Jose Spotlight. "Vendors are telling us there is more security now walking the aisles and making sure that no one breaks the rules."   

Rigoberto Gonzalez, a vendor who has sold Mexican sweets, piñatas, and other goodies for 30-plus years, said it's hard for vendors to comply because rules change often.   

"I am not allowed to hang my piñatas during the weekdays," Gonzalez said. "They say it's because of a fire hazard, but why now and why not on the weekend?"   

Flores said at least half the vendors are thinking about leaving because of worsening conditions. In the past few weeks, Flores said he tried to conduct a study, but couldn't because his access to vendors was restricted. Vendors are also not allowed to talk to each other and organize within the market, and some leaders from the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association were also expelled, he said.   

However, Schoennauer said the reason vendors are not permitted to converse is due to outsiders wanting 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 hikes, inflation, and higher security costs. He countered there has not been any unusual vendor turnover or a decrease in customers since the cost of parking went up.   

"We only get revenue from three sources: vendors, food and beverage concessions, and parking fees," Schoennauer told San Jose Spotlight. "If we had raised vendor space rent, there would be a riot. So parking was the only option."     

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City relations   

While relations with the landowners are contentious, flea market vendors and advocates say the relationship with the city's Office of Economic Development is hopeful. City leaders recently started preliminary steps to conduct three economic studies to help determine the value of the flea market.   

"Basically all three studies as putting numbers on paper to show that the market is an economic power," said Roberto Gonzalez, president of the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association. "It highlights the cultural aspect as well, showing how much of an asset it is culturally to minority groups and immigrants because it is a first entry point to jobs and helps them assimilate."   

The city is using the initial $500,000 installment of $5 million provided by the Bumb Family to pay for the studies. This installment enables the office of economic development, the Berryessa Flea Market Vendors Association, and advocates--to be selected this fall--to set up an advisory committee to determine the flea market's future. The remaining $4.5 million will be split up, with a portion paid a year prior to closure and the remaining balance paid when the market closes to support the vendors.   

"Our goal is to keep the five-acre market plus an additional market. Maybe 10-15 acres or whatever amount of acres to fit all the current vendors and leave room for even more," Gonzalez told San Jose Spotlight. "We want the city to be our partner."   

The idea is that the market be vendor-owned and operated on city property. It's not clear how plausible the goal is, but Gonzalez said the city has certainly not shot down the idea.