By JENALIA MORENO | Houston Chronicle
On a busy Sunday afternoon along Airline Drive, flea markets spring to life for shoppers even before they visit their first stall of the day.
A Spanish-speaking preach-er shouts his sermon into a bullhorn and struggles to be heard over the blare of ranchera music.
The aroma of roasted corn and fajitas wafts through the air courtesy of mobile food vendors. And police officers direct drivers and pedestrians between the five flea markets in north Houston.
Once inside these shopping meccas, buyers are enticed by blue cowboy boots, puffy pink quinceanera dresses for teenage debutantes or caged birds.
Shoppers can fortify themselves with traditional Mexican dishes such as gorditas, tamales and huaraches before continuing to make purchases.
Or they can take a break from shopping by watching soccer games on television or listening to a live Mexican band.
This is not the refined shopping atmosphere of the Galleria.
Every holiday season, wealthy Mexican tourists run up their credit card bills at upscale Galleria boutiques where designer clothing is sold.
But at the other extreme of the social strata, many working-class Hispanic immigrants shop for the holidays at Houston’s 37 flea markets ó up from the 25 registered with the city just five years ago.
“It used to be something done informally to raise some cash. More than economic functions, it provides social functions,” said Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Houston sociology professor who studies the city’s Hispanic community.
“Obviously, in a way, one could call it a parallel economy.”
Every weekend, fortune tellers, farmers, fledgling small business owners and cooks set up their stalls and try to earn an extra buck at these markets that can be found along Long Point Road, the Southwest Freeway and other thoroughfares frequented by Hispanics.
Spanish is the dominant language because the markets’ primary clientele is Hispanic.
“It’s like a tradition for Hispanics” to shop at flea markets, said Rosa Sosa, who runs the Tamales Los Sosa with her husband, Jose Sosa, in the Sabadomingo market.
Hispanics flock to flea markets because they know vendors speak their language, play their music and serve their food, Sosa said, as she served customers tamales, pozole and lemonade.
“A lot of Hispanics are alone in this country,” said Sosa, explaining that many men are supporting their wives and children back in Mexico and so instead of spending their weekends alone, they find solace in the pulgas, Spanish for flea markets.
The cluster of markets along Airline Drive attract tens of thousands of shoppers, requiring several police officers to direct traffic on the busy street.
Newcomer El Mercado Sabadomingo alone, for example, draws in 35,000 people each weekend, said Randy Sim, who owns Sabadomingo and the Houston Flea Market in southwest Houston.
Those numbers are not lost on marketers or larger retailers.
Weekends in December are the busiest as merchants try to compete with big-box retailers for each dollar spent by customers.
Their customers, in turn, try to stretch their small budgets to afford holiday gifts for all of their friends and relatives.
December is also when clients prepare for the cold by buying winter clothing or repairing last year’s wardrobe.
At the Western Wear Emporio shop in the Sunny Flea Market, Gilberto Zaragoza shapes customer Gustavo Conejo’s tejana, or cowboy hat, using steam, shampoo and a rain protector.
Making the used hat look spiffy costs $10, while a new one can cost much more.
“At Christmas is when it’s busiest,” said Zaragoza, who has shaped hats at his father’s business since he was 12 years old.
“Now that it’s cold, everyone wants to wear their tejanas.”
Indeed, many of the visitors are dressed in their finest western garb, complete with cowboy boots, vests and hats.
Even Maria Estrada’s toddler son wears a western-style hat, boots and suede jacket as the family shops for a $13 Los Armadillos compact disc at El Mercado Sabadomingo.
That mercado, along with its neighboring markets of El Buey y Vaca, Tia Pancha, Sinta and Sunny, each have different appeals.
‘Like a fair’
Sabadomingo, the area’s only fully indoor shopping center, draws buyers trying to escape rain and low temperatures. And its ballroom attracts music lovers, who recently crowded in to watch Mexican band Grupo Mojado perform.
“This is the type of talent that most people pay good money to see,” Sim said.
Across the street, Sunny is more reminiscent of shopping markets in Mexico, with their carnival-like atmosphere and exotic wares of pet lizards, fresh jalapenos and videos of cockfights.
“It’s like a fair here,” said Maria Hernandez, as she shopped with her husband, daughter and grandson at the Sunny market.
“You come here and you have fun.”
Pay day paradise
Like many immigrant families struggling to make ends meet, the Hernandez family shops at flea markets every two weeks, after pay day.
Vendor Ann Truong, owner of Ken’s Jewelry, said business is slow because most of her customers spent their first paycheck of the month on rent.
She expects business to pick up during the last two weekends of the month.
Then she turns to a customer eyeing a gold bracelet and begins to bargain with him in Spanish.
How it all began
Sim considered targeting non-Hispanics when he opened Sabadomingo more than three years ago, but then decided to focus on Hispanics, advertising with Spanish-language media.
“Instead of being something to everybody, we decided to be everything to somebody,” said Sim, who grew up working with his father at the Houston Flea Market. Sim’s father, a Korean immigrant, repaired discarded TV sets and then sold them at the market. Sim purchased that flea market 15 years ago.
More than three years ago, he opened his second flea market.
Good place to get started
Other vendors have graduated from Houston’s flea markets, going on to become merchants at more traditional malls or shopping centers, said Sim, who views these markets as business incubators.
“It really is a place where small businesses can start,” said Sim, as he stood near a hair salon inside the Sabadomingo market.
Hoping to help these businesses grow, North Harris Montgomery Community College District leaders are considering sending counselors out to teach vendors business skills such as pricing items and earning profits.
The program would be funded by grants from the college and the newly created Airline Improvement District made up of Airline Drive businesses that will pay one cent more in sales taxes beginning Jan. 1 to improve commerce in the area.
“The reason we’re getting involved is because we think this is an important economic development opportunity,” said Ray Laughter, vice chancellor of external affairs at the college district.
“They do a massive amount of business there. Collectively, they are almost a mall.”
A mall substitute?
In fact, Rafael Iniestra, president of Grupo Mexicano, said working-class Mexican immigrants don’t shop as much at traditional malls as they do at flea markets.
“It’s the mall of the Mexicans there,” said Iniestra, whose company sells appliances that are delivered to the homes of immigrants’ families in Mexico and El Salvador.
In an effort to reach more immigrant customers, companies like Grupo Mexicano, Construmex and Conficasa have all set up marketing booths inside of flea markets. All three sell goods and services to Hispanic immigrants for use back in their home countries.
Other companies targeting Hispanic consumers are also marketing at these markets. Klass Time, a maker of powdered drinks, hands out samples of its products at flea markets during the summer because so many Hispanics frequent the shopping centers.
“People come by and try the product and take home some samples,” said Liliana Flores, marketing manager for the Houston-based company. “Then they go to grocery stores and look for our products.”
Reaching the demographic
Even mainstream companies like Washington Mutual make a pilgrimage to the flea markets on weekends to reach its Hispanic consumers.
“We’re literally going to where they are,” said Brad Russell, spokesman for the Seattle-based bank. “That’s how we are going to differentiate ourselves and get in front of that consumer.”
Even big-box retailers are recognizing the appeal of flea markets as cultural gathering places, said Barbie Casasus, Latino consumer strategist for research firm Iconoculture.
Larger retailers like Fiesta, Sears and Wal-Mart are now hosting events in their stores and parking lots to appeal to Hispanic customers. More retailers are carrying products catering to Hispanic customers, including goods that bear the likeness of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and revolutionary Che Guevara. Retailers are also offering products with Spanish labels.
“With retailers really ramping up their efforts to target this demographic, they’re certainly giving flea markets and other Latino stores competition,” Casasus said.
Although Hispanics, not just immigrants, recently voted Wal-Mart their favorite place to shop in a recent Hispanic OmniTel retail study, she said immigrants will also continue to frequent flea markets.
But flea market vendors will have to find ways other than price to compete with big retailers, as evidenced by shopper Estrada’s recent shopping excursion.
“We’re looking to see if it’s cheaper here or in the stores,” said Estrada, as she shopped with her husband and two children. A battery-operated car was $9 cheaper at Wal-Mart, so she will purchase her son’s Christmas gift at the discount store, she said.