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Worlds apart

A flea market and resale shop share a Detroit street corner ... but little else

MT Photo: Detroitblogger John
Cheryl Johnson cleans tools for resale.
Grandon displays some of his wares.
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Published 8/19/2009

Murray Grandon has a problem.

He owns a resale shop that sells high-quality things, but on his parking lot next door there's a ragtag, outdoor flea market that sells cheap, used tools. They share the dingy corner of Van Dyke and Davison, between the weedy railroad tracks and an old cemetery. The flea market and its rough customers deter Grandon's desired shoppers.

"As good as the flea market is to create some revenue, that's bad for over here," he says of his warehouse-sized place, named Back in the Day Hidden Treasures Resale Shop. "They're gonna drive by here and see barbed wire on the fence and stuff like that. Would you want to stop? It's not inviting."

Grandon, 58, is what one might call a character, a brash-talking, joke-cracking hustler, yet even his considerable skills can't sell expensive wares to the broke and poor, the usual crowd at the flea market.

"Certain things, like this '60s deco mirror and this lamp, I could keep them here for years and I might get lucky and one collector will come in," he complains.

His stock comes from Kosher Garbage, the junk-hauling company he co-owns. Its customers are mostly older Jewish families in such places as West Bloomfield. A cartoon on their flier trumpets the endorsement of two local rabbis.

Grandon runs through his spiel. "People either gotta downsize or move or whatever, and as long as it's what we call kosher, means if I'm taking more good stuff out than bad, I'll dump your shit for free 'cause I can donate or resell this to offset my costs and maybe make a living. And I'll even plant a tree in Israel for you!"

The result is a collection of unique and quirky things. "Where else you gonna find an iguana crawling cage next to a 90-year-old antique desk?" he asks as he passes both. The warehouse is full of old furniture in new condition, silver serving trays, china, once-expensive artwork, pillows with Hebrew lettering, books and records, all of which spent years collecting dust in the attics and basements of the well-to-do miles away. "I get eclectic shit, I get crazy shit, I get garbage shit. I get a lot of Jewish stuff. I get it from places where other people can't, being Jewish and shit."

As he talks, flea market customers step in and, sensing goods beyond their price and taste range, wander back out. Unfortunately for Grandon, the people around here can't afford to buy what the people in the suburbs can afford to give away.


Outside in the
parking lot, laborers with worn hands and dirty clothes barter over rusty hammers and wrenches.

"Instead of going to Home Depot and stuff, when they need one cheap for a job, they're gonna stop there first, 'cause usually, between 10 or 15 people, they'll have the tool they want," Grandon says.

The Van Dyke Community Flea Market, as it's called, has been fixture here for at least 60 years, customers say. It opens at first light. There are usually about a dozen sellers here with tools and machine parts spread out on tables, which rent for as low as $10 per day. Lawn mowers and hedge trimmers lean against the fence that circles the lot. Brooms and rakes stand upright in batches.

Grandon stresses his separation from the market, partly because he only rents the space to others, mostly because the police sometimes come by, looking for anything taken in recent nearby burglaries.

"If somebody reported something stolen, like a landscaping trailer or something like that, they'll come and check to see if the parts are here," says Cheryl Johnson, the 49-year-old lot manager. She cleans tools for sellers for a small fee and collects rent. "A lot of times people come and say that it's their stuff. We tell them you don't have to call the police if it's your stuff; just take it. Usually they have the paperwork and stuff, but usually you can tell by their attitude."

Russell Brown, gangly and sunburned, wanders over. The zipper on his pants is wide-open and jammed. "If you can't zip it, well, pull your shirt down or something, Russell, golly," Johnson says to him. "It's broken," he mumbles. He's asking around for a safety pin to fasten it.

Brown, 51, works at the flea market, helping with odd jobs or repairing broken machinery, earning a few bucks at a time. "It's all right," he says. "I get by. I'm good with my hands." He says he lives nearby in a room he rents from an old man.

Actually, "Russell is homeless," Johnson says after Brown walks away. "He lives in an abandoned house. He helps the guys set all their stuff up and at the end of the day he packs it all up for them and they pay him for doing it, so he's able to buy food and candles and whatever else he needs." He's too proud to admit his situation to a stranger, she says.

Brown says only that he grew up in a bordering suburb, and moved to Detroit with a woman. "I went with her for 20 years, and next thing I know she passed away on me," he says, flatly, though his eyes suggest sorrow behind the gruff voice. Some cope badly with a loss and lose everything, and now Brown sleeps in an empty house with a fictional roommate and works on a hot lot all day to scrape by.

He's not the only one. "We have a couple of transients every now and then; they come through and they do the same thing," Johnson notes. They hang around the lot with five nameless wild cats, waiting to get odd jobs and earn a quick buck. "We just try to help everybody out," Johnson says.

A customer offers $2 for a large wrench. The seller wants $3. The customer stares at it and intently thinks it over for several minutes before agreeing.


Back in the resale
shop, customers drift in. They offer Grandon pocket change for things that cost dollars. Grandon is blunt but friendly in declining, though he sells things like clothes or baby strollers for next to nothing sometimes if a customer is clearly down on his luck.

He's decided to accept demographic reality and move the higher-end goods to his new store of the same name on Joseph Campau in Hamtramck, and restock the Detroit one to reflect the buying habits of the neighborhood's shoppers. He's given it half a year here, but it hasn't worked.

"We'll replenish up here with stuff that's more conducive to what sells in this area, like pots and pans and clothes, 'cause a lot of the art shit don't sell, and if it does they want it for nothing." Rows of silverware and antique dishes line the tables behind him and triple-digit price tags hang on modern art pieces. "These are ornate things," he says. "Over at the other store they'll fly out the door; here they'll buy glass and stuff that's 50 cents, a dollar."

An old woman stands with a dress shirt and offers him $3 for it. Grandon, in theatrical indignation, extols its quality, style and nametag and says it's worth seven times that. Then he sells it for $5 anyway. At this location, a small sale is often the only sale to be had.

"I can't lose money, you know, but I'm willing to help anybody," Grandon says. "I'm just trying to give back, 'cause I've been down and out like a lot of people are, but in doing all this we're also trying to make a living. One hand helps the other, or washes the other, or whatever the hell I'm talkin' about."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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