Rose Bowl

Writer Liz Armstrong
Photography Sarah Soquel Morhaim

When California’s legendary Rose Bowl swap meet, the flea market to end all flea markets, officially opens for early admission at 7am, the masses are already lined up, huddled in shawls and piled-on sweaters, pushing granny carts, vibrating with anticipation; the past’s future caged behind tall metal arches bearing imperious gates. It’s a bargain circus of apocalyptic proportions, as patrons push through turnstiles, snatch a free gift of the morning offered in baskets – a stick of petroleum lip balm, maybe, or a refrigerator magnet – and make a mad dash for treasure.

But it’s possible that many have already missed the primo pieces. As sellers – around 2,500 of them in total these days – begin to set up as early as 4:30am, so come the pickers. These are the diehard collectors and vintage shop owners who sacrifice one weekend a month to hunt in the dark before dawn. Helping the sellers unload the goods from their trucks by tearing through the rummage before it’s set up, they home in on desirables with headlamps and flash lights suitably bright for spelunking. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: the sellers rely on these shoppers to get there and thin out the loot before making it presentable for a general public that requires brunch before it’s capable of decision-making.

Regardless of weather, the show must go on in the Pasadena sports stadium, which has hosted this massive spectacle of commerce the second Sunday of every month since 1967. The morning we show up for the temporary wonderland, it’s an ungodly level of cold by the Los Angeles area’s standards: 19 degrees Fahrenheit, one of the chilliest mornings Pasadena has seen in about the last 100 years. Hordes of white vans and trucks bursting at the chassis with stuff – antique chairs, rugs from anywhere in the world, Victorian mirrors, barber shop memorabilia, dresses that would make Stevie Nicks lose her mind, Italian glassware, anything, everything – creeps into the arena’s parking lot like a nomadic herd ready to set up camp.

Those who make it in extra early this particular morning huddle around propane heat lamps, vintage kerosene heaters, and small fires, shivering, surrounded by heaps of antiques. It feels like a squatter’s camp from the Great Depression, until a box plops down somewhere and, upon hearing the sound of fresh possibility, a picker cuts through the scene with a harsh beam of light, searching for something worthwhile upon which to descend.

Piles of junk become tableaus of treasure. Shoppers look for small clues to give a sense of worth to what they have locked in their targets: the type of chain on a chandelier, the style of filigree on a frame, a stamp on the bottom of streamlined wooden furniture. “Will you take $40 for this?” a collector of weirdo memorabilia asks a seller, proudly and protectively dragging away a statue of an unidentifiable alien-esque character as soon as he receives the affirmative. Sellers are ready to strike deals with those willing to pay the relatively high price of admission to shop that early in the morning – it starts at $20 at the crack of dawn and as the day wears on gradually diminishes all the way down to $5. An inside solidarity develops from the pain of waking up so early to focus, dig, and shop.

This is the most hectic it’s ever been at 5am, illegal raves and natural disasters not included. Is a war on and everyone’s leaving town? Are all these people standing in line for the potato famine? Surely something serious must have happened to general society to compel such an event, yes? No. It’s to thrift. And when collectors eventually gather too much, they come back to Rose Bowl to unload.

Rose Bowl is equal parts stuff-hunting and people watching. Stories and finds abound, a system of chaos with infinite strange attraction. Every now and then someone is willing to take a break from the overstimulation and talk to us, say, about her obsession with vintage textiles, Victorian trays, Japanese porcelain, and polka dots. As the sun maneuvers a better angle of dominance, the layers of clothing shed and fashion emerges.


As the seller’s caravan comes through, John Dennis finishes getting dressed on the sidelines. He pulls a belt from a bag he made – a prototype of the ones he constructs out of vintage Navajo blankets and sells at Rose Bowl – and threads it through his pants. He’s waiting on his buddy so they can set up their booth.


Anyone who’s looking for the good mid-century modern stuff after the sun’s risen is in for a bummer trip: guys like Danish Modern’s Jessy Tzarax has already hunted and killed, paying from a checkbook instead of cash because the sellers know he’s good for it. This morning, among other items, he found a simple dining chair by Drexel. “After a while,” he says, “you just know it when you see it.”


Sharon Gile comes here every week to scour for further adornment, which she secures by hand to exposed space on elaborate, thematic outfits. Besides her fabulous Bakelite cowgirl getup, she says she’s got another similar ensemble back home that’s tricked out with antique silver and turquoise jewelry.


Pureblood fashion people shop here too. This day, we bump into the ladies from Australia design duo Sass & Bide, one of whom has just purchased a “bag of babies,” and Los Angeles designer Jeremy Scott, who comes to Rose Bowl whenever he can to find “something inspirational.”


The gods of chaos lay golden eggs inside the stadium, hatching not only serious finds but also serious kooks, the enigmatically gruff yet pleasant type who always has an insane and highly implausible story that’s so fantastic you suspend all judgment simply because you hope it’s real. Dr. Gary Milan, a retired dental surgeon, offers up his allegory reluctantly, though once he’s gotten started it whizzes past so quickly, full of strange details and twists that bend with such force it’s impossible to catch it all. Back at home, slave to the internet, the blanks are filled in: Dr. Gary Milan’s tale places him as the owner of the American piano from the Rick’s Place scenes in Casablanca. He also owns the actual lead Maltese Falcon statue from the 1941 classic film as well – Warner Bros. will even confirm it, as they currently have this Holy Grail of Hollywood memorabilia on loan. “I do not work,” says Dr. Milan. “I am a collector. This means you have an aberrant gene that causes you to want to own things. It’s very materialistic. You have a connection to the past that makes you want to touch, fondle, handle, and do whatever you want with it.”