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How to Win at the Rose Bowl Flea – LA’s Vintage Mecca

Whenever you see those posts about hundred-year-old denim selling for thousands of dollars, it’s either changing hands at Sotheby’s or early Sunday morning on the hot asphalt of a Pasadena parking lot. For decades, Japanese buyers have flown in to the Rose Bowl with briefcases full of cash to buy up bits of old American denim (although the old time dealers will tell you it was so much better ten years ago).

For those of you who think the Rose Bowl is just a football game and a parade sometime around New Years, you are sorely ignorant of another game that happens at the stadium every month. The Rose Bowl Flea is easily the most impressive flea market in the United States and likely the hottest vintage workwear market in the world.

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But the Rose Bowl has far more to offer than high-dollar pants, it has anything and everything your heart desires. Whether that’s vintage furniture and Navajo rugs or cotton candy and an unopened copy of Pokemon yellow, we’re here to tell you how to get the most out of your Rose Bowl experience.

History of the Rose Bowl

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The Rose Bowl stadium opened in northeastern Los Angeles in 1922 and boasts a seating capacity of over 90,000, making it the seventeenth largest stadium in the world. All that seating requires a lot of parking, a good dozen acres of it. And over 45 years ago (or whenever they last updated their website) promotion company R.G. Canning thought it would be a good idea to use it for a flea market.

According to R.G., the flea hosts over 2,500 vendors and 20,000 shoppers at the event each month. Here’s how you can be one of them.

How and When to Get to the Rose Bowl

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The Rose Bowl is just north of Pasadena in northeastern LA and very easily accessible by the 134 and 210 freeways. Sunday traffic should let you get there in under half an hour from pretty much anywhere in LA. Beware it can gridlock around the Bowl in the afternoon though and take another half hour just to park.

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The flea happens every second Sunday of the month and is open for business from 5am to 4pm. You’ll likely spend about two hours so there are two schools of thought when it comes to optimal timing. The earlier you get there (between 5 and 9), you’ll find better merchandise, it won’t be as hot, and it’ll be less crowded but the tickets are more expensive…and it’s early. The later you get there (between 1 and 4), you’re likely to find better deals from vendors who don’t want to haul it all home.

Noon is probably the worst time because it’s the most crowded, warmest, and vendors aren’t going to cut great deals until 2 at the earliest. I usually get there at noon.

What to Bring

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The Rose Bowl is more involved than your standard shopping expedition. Come prepared to get the most out of your trip. I recommend:

  • Cash – Some vendors take cards and checks, but it is much easier to wheel and deal when you have cash on hand. There are also ATMs near the ticket stand but they gouge you with a $6 fee per transaction, plan ahead and bring some from literally any other ATM.
  • Tote Bag – Many vendors don’t have shopping bags to give you after you’ve made a purchase. Bring along your own bag rather than awkwardly juggle four Stan Getz cassettes and a geode for an hour. A tote is also great for holding your…
  • Water – You’re going to be outside, in the sun, in a parking lot. The vendors know this and I’ve seen water there for as much as $10 a bottle.
  • Smartphone – Kind of a no-brainer, but having eBay (or our vintage Levi’s jeans and jacket guides) at your fingertips is an invaluable resource when you don’t know exactly what you’ve got in front of you is worth.
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The ATMs. Don’t go here.

Tickets

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Ticket prices get cheaper the later you arrive:

  • 5am – 7am $20
  • 7am – 9am $15
  • 9am and later $9

The 9am ticket used to be $8 and one of the most charming things about the flea is that they would give you a two dollar bill as change. Now that tickets are $9, you have to buy at least two to get back a Jefferson.

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Hang on to your ticket once you get inside. You can get your hand stamped for reentry, which is a lifesaver if you buy anything big and need to drop it off at your car between shopping binges.

The Lay of the Land

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Image via R.G. Canning.

The flea market is enormous but luckily there is some semblance of organization in the thing. When you first enter the main gate you’re in the “Ring of Junk”–soaps, candles–artsy-craftsy new stuff that’s a physical manifestation of Etsy rejects. Don’t waste your time here.

However, before exiting the Ring of Junk, be sure to pick up a bag of candied almonds just up to your left near the entrance. My friend Eric can’t not buy these every time he visits.

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Now that you’ve got a sugar fix, it’s time to head down into the good stuff. The Orange section is where you’ll find vintage furniture, art, records, and other knickknacks.

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One of my favorite things about the Rose Bowl is that you can have a booth with thousand dollar posters from the 1920s sandwiched between a tent full of old Nerf guns and overstock prison uniforms. Anything and everything, you can find it here.

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But what we’re really looking to find is across the bridge–Vintageland!

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Vintageland – The Good Stuff

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The White area of the map is the cheapest place for vendors to sell but has some of the most expensive items you’ll find. There are few better places in the world to find vintage American military, workwear, and denim (not to mention the band t-shirts, sneakers, and Star Wars toys).

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Many of the vendors are here month after month and you can start to see the turnover in their inventory with frequent visits. We were here on the weekend after the Inspiration vintage show, and many of the attendees there lay out there stock at the Rose Bowl the Sunday after, so the amount of AAA quality stuff was slightly higher than usual. Like this pair of Big E 501s in size 76:

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Take a lap and see what looks good. You don’t want to buy a second rate M-65 at the third booth you see only to find one in much better condition and $20 cheaper half an hour later.

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Brit Eaton of Carpe Denim.

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Haggle, Haggle, Haggle

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If you’re interested in buying something, by all means haggle. Many of the vendors will be surprised if you don’t. Here are four easy ways to improve your haggling position:

  1. Buy more things from a vendor–two $100 items can be talked down to $180, three to $250, etc.
  2. Have cash on hand and let them know it
  3. Leave and come back later (although this one can backfire because they know you’re interested)
  4. Don’t be an ass
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The shirt says John, but his name is Tom and he’s from Old Colorado Vintage in Durango.

Don’t be surprised to spot folks from the fashion industry and beyond. We ran into Poggy from United Arrows, Mac DeMarco, and a guy who claimed to have Axl Rose’s one-of-a-kind British/American flag leather jacket.

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When you’ve run out of cash (or almonds), pack your haul in and call it a day. The Rose Bowl (and likely you) will be back next month.

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Pro-tip:  if you’re looking for a lunch to match your Rose Bowl experience, I wholeheartedly recommend Pie’n Burger, which is exactly what it sounds like. The Pasadena eatery is just a five minute drive from the Bowl and has been serving up the same menu since 1963. Make sure you get your steps in though, because this place will take them all back and then some.

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The Rose Bowl Flea is held on the second Sunday of every month at 1001 Rose Bowl Dr, Pasadena, CA. For more information visit R.G. CanningPie’n Burger is located at 913 E California Blvd, Pasadena, CA and open seven days a week from 7am to 9pm.

All images by Ryan Lindow.