Where geeks go to shop: De Anza flea market

by Niraj Sheth
San Jose Mercury News

Just before 5 a.m. on the second Saturday of every month, the flashlights start turning on at the parking lot outside De Anza College. The hunt – for electronic goodies – is on.

Within hours, the tables at the Electronics Flea Market will be picked clean, and the hundreds who came will go home with new toys to tinker with – until next month, when some of Silicon Valley’s best, brightest and oddest congregate again in Cupertino in search of more hard-to-find techno-paraphernalia.
Unlike shopping at Fry’s Electronics or Best Buy, the real steals at the market are so arcane and antiquated they would be impossible to find elsewhere: first-generation laptops (pre-1996); all types of parts from circuit components to monitors, circuit boards and even oscilloscopes from the 1970s.

A quirky tradition unique to Silicon Valley’s quirky culture, the flea market is a venerable watering hole for many of the Bay Area’s technology wonks, incubating the valley’s innovative spirit as it attracts everyone from garage geeks to top-notch academics to some of the industry’s most respected names.

When the event started in the early 1960s, it was ham radio enthusiasts who gathered to swap equipment and ideas. In recent years, the flea market – organized by an association of local ham radio clubs – has seen the growing influx of computers and electronics.

“You meet a lot of famous Silicon Valley types here,” said Stanford University electrical engineering Professor Tom Lee, who said he regularly runs into top inventors like Linear Technology’s Jim Williams and Bob Dobkins. “But you don’t even know it unless you know what they look like.”

Unlike other secondhand markets that have lost chunks of traffic to eBay and craigslist, the Electronics Flea Market hasn’t seen too much of its business move online. For many in the tech world, it’s still the place to go to find the right raw materials for personal projects – and to mingle with the right colleagues along the way.

Meeting of the minds

Andrew Mellows wasn’t having much luck last Saturday finding an FET probe, a measurement tool he needed for video production. By the time he got to the flea market at 6:30 a.m., Mellows said, most of the day’s best deals were already gone.

But Mellows could hardly call the morning a waste: He kept bumping into old colleagues and friends, some of them with upward of 40 patents to their names.

“The real fun thing at the flea market,” the British-born engineer from San Francisco said in a crisp accent, “is that the people you meet are the people who design the things” you’re looking for.

Like most of the middle-aged white or Asian male regulars, Mellows has deep ties to the valley’s tech industry. He was the director of technical support at Macrovision for 13 years, before retiring to start a custom video production firm in San Francisco. Others at the market come from such valley stalwarts as AMD, National Semiconductor and Applied Materials.

In fact, some companies push their employees to scrounge for used parts at electronics warehouses and markets like this one to keep costs down and encourage tinkering. Jim Williams, a staff scientist at Linear Technology, estimated that a third to a half of the equipment in the company’s lab is secondhand.

At the market, it helps that there’s no cost for shipping and that haggling is expected.

“Out here you can get something that costs $500 new for $10,” Mellows said, glancing at a used Sony monitor priced at $50, less than 10 percent of its original $800 retail price years ago.

But it’s ultimately camaraderie that keeps prices low. Most vendors, who pay organizers a $20 fee to reserve two parking spots of space, are themselves hobbyists recycling old material for cash to buy new stuff next month. That means they aren’t looking to overcharge, especially when they could be selling to people they know.

“Most of these guys don’t want to sell their stuff on eBay,” said Mark Bohrer, an engineer who’s worked at several area tech companies. “They think eBay’s a rip-off.”

The original `hams’

By 10 a.m., Mike Gitschel’s radio parts were selling like hot cakes. It helped that his table, across from the concession stand, was one of the most heavily visited. But to get the prime spot, he had to show up at 9:45 the night before and sleep in his van.

“And I was still the second one here,” said the Campbell emergency communications controller.

Other sellers might share Gitschel’s dedication – they would have to for a market that one organizer said starts at “oh-dark-hundred” – but fewer and fewer share his passion for ham radio.

Four decades ago, the event began under the auspices of the now-defunct Perham Foundation, which maintained a collection of artifacts from American electronics history at Foothill College. Though it is still organized by “hams,” enthusiasts like Gitschel are the market’s dwindling old guard.

“It’s tough,” said Howard Krawetz, treasurer of the Association of Silicon Valley Amateur Radio Organizations, the umbrella organization for the ham clubs that sponsor the market as a fundraiser. “Ham radios were the focal point. It’s being taken over by computers.”

In previous years, other Bay Area electronics markets like this one have vanished for lack of money, organizers said. The only other electronics flea market of comparable size left in the Bay Area, they added, is in a dirt field in Livermore.

But for most who have been coming to Cupertino for years, it’s unimaginable that the flea market could disappear.

Unpacking audio-visual components from his car later in the morning, San Francisco audio-visual technician Dwight Dolliver glanced around at his competition, pointing out how far several had traveled. One seller, he said, regularly commutes from Phoenix.

“It’s one of the best kept secrets in the Bay Area,” Dolliver said, “For many, this thing is second to God.”