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An older version of this article was published in the Russian "Photo Courier" magazine, No. 1, December 2000.
Oh, the joys of the flea market. That fine piling of clothes, old computers, wall tiles, discarded books, junk from the attic, stuff you haven't seen since your childhood, ridiculous trash, kitsch, art, and nostalgia. What's nicer than walking along lines and lines of small market stalls on a Sunday morning with money in your pocket and an open radar, haggling with the tobacco-smoking leather jackets, and discovering that one discovery waiting to be made by nobody else but you? Always a surprise at every corner, always the unexpected. Especially for collectors of old commie stuff, there's no better place.
Apart from being a veteran flea market visitor (in 1987, when I was five, I bought my first camera at a car boot sale in Wales for a pound), I'm also an extremely genteel and kind person, so in a supreme act of altruism I'll let you in on the secrets of the trade.
I realise that the only real experience I have is with Dutch flea markets and the people who sell there, so use these tips abroad at your own risk!
Perhaps the most important rule is to never let your attention slip. Murphy's Law says that the minute you do, you're guaranteed to miss the ultimate find. Check the boxes, check under the clothing – but make sure you've got a pretty good idea of what's there.
It's very important to develop an "eye" for cameras. Once you know what to look for, you'll be surprised at how fast you can scan a pile of inordinate junk - and be spot-on every time. It isn't difficult. Cameras all have the same general shape, so all you have to do is practice a little bit on Zenit-E's, and soon enough you won't miss a single one.
Once you notice an interesting camera, it's very important to be extremely blasé about your find to the seller, no matter how excited you really are. Prices are usually not fixed at flea markets but are made up by the seller as he goes along, so it's important to make the right impression. If the seller sees that you want his item really bad, you'll get a worse deal. It's capitalist psychology.
On a side note, some sellers who have some sort of emotional relationship with their cameras like it if they fall into good hands, so revealing yourself as a collector might actually make them more co-operative. Go by intuition.
If you have some sort of problem with the seller, perhaps that you sneered at him or walked away when he named his price, but you later decided you wanted his goods anyway, or if there's some tension, or if he could sense your greed or some such thing, you can save face or avoid overpricing by having someone else buy the items for you. Just make sure that the seller doesn't wise up to the scheme, because you never know when you might meet again at a market somewhere. Specifically, exchange the item outside the market and avoid being seen together.
Getting in contact with the seller is somewhat tricky, because you want to start off on the right foot and establish a good understanding. This means not getting down to business right away, but asking about some other items first. Then, as an afterthought, you can say something bland and half-interested like "and that camera over there, how much is it?"
Just as long as you remember to never show your burning desire!
Once you're in contact with the seller, be careful not to take the "casual" thing too far. For instance, don't describe a Lubitel-2 as a "cute double-lensed camera", but just call it by its name. Coming across too interested is dangerous, but so is coming across like a total layman. Laymen know nothing about cameras and see them all as valuable antiques, so the seller thinks he has a free run in deciding his price. More often than not, you'll pay too much – and because you started off acting like a layman, you can't suddenly switch to "collector mode" and tell the seller he's overpricing.
Try to be as honest as the situation allows. He doesn't have to know that you're a big collector, but show him that you aren't a total fool. If he finds out halfway during conversation that you've been wearing a mask, you can forget a pleasant transaction.
Don't try to be witty and make smartass remarks like "'let's have a look at the factory logo – aha, definately a MMZ Zenit-E, made in Minsk in Belorussia in the year –let's see– 1968", or tell the seller that you have a large Russian cameras website (hehe) – he'll think that you're fooling him, or at least trying to impress him with your intelligence, and all benevolence usually disappears at that.
Although it isn't culture to haggle in shops, flea markets obey totally different rules of society. You can often strike a good deal with a seller, especially if you've earned his trust. Always start with a deliberately low bid (that's what's expected), but don't insult the seller. I once asked if I could buy a Zenit-E and a Kiev-10 as a package for twenty bucks, which was stretching it too far...
Some sellers are "smart" and reply "what price did you have in mind?". Hey, that's not the way you play the game! What I usually do is laugh mockingly, like "eheh ahah – aaahhh" to show I'm on to him, and then name a deliberately low price. I mean, you're not really going to tell him what you were going to spend? Always keep your cards under the table!
Knowing what to say if you think the seller is asking way too much is an art form. I never know what to do. "How much is that Zenit-E?" "Three hundred dollars". Get yourself out of that one! What I usually do is just repeat their price and say something like "ah, three hundred dollars, my good man? My, my. Well, I'll think about it..."
What's always nice is if you can pry loose some information about the previous owner. I have to confess that I've never tried it, but I can imagine it can be interesting to know where your camera has been and what it's seen. Just be discreet and try not to come across as a freaky camera fetishist. If your interest is genuine, the seller might just open up to you.
A tip if you're buying photo equipment is to ask if what you're buying is complete, or if the seller has separate items for sale. In many instances the seller will sell some extra lenses, or a light meter, or a case as separate objects.
Always try out a camera on the spot, because flea markets know no thirty-day money back guarantee. You buy something and you're stuck with it for good.
If the camera you're buying has an obvious flaw like a dent or a missing part, then it's perfectly legitimate to inform the seller about it (and try to get something off the price). Just be tactful in the way you do it - most sellers are laymen and don't like their cameras being dismissed as junk.
Don't forget, it's only a flea market and not a camera store. If something is dirty or has a small imperfection, but the price is fair, then why not turn a blind eye? Be reasonable in your expectations.
Some things to watch out for are if the shutter works and is totally opaque when held against the light, and if all the rings on the lens and camera turn as they should. It doesn't matter if they're a bit stiff – most flea market stuff hasn't been used for years, so no wonder.
Rust and dents, on the other hand, are big, big neon signs that indicate serious problems. Rust never comes alone, and if a camera has a dent, then it's taken a serious blow. Missing parts, however small, tend to make a camera useless, and say something about how the previous owner treated it.
Be creative with what you buy. More often than not you'll find loose lenses and accessories without the matching camera. Why not buy them? You don't need them now, but they're not expensive and perhaps later you'll be glad you bought them.