9 tips to make the most of a swap meet
The internet has changed a lot of things in the automotive world. One exception is the thrill of shopping for a deal at a swap meet. The sight of endless trailers and tables and buckets, each heaping with potential, scratches a special part of a gearhead’s brain. Sometimes, our foot twitches just like a dog getting roughed up behind the ears. (Just me? Moving on.) Rummaging through piles of crusty parts for that one bracket, accessory, or assembly that our project needs is often cathartic—even if, most of the time, what we are picking through is junk.
The search is half the fun, because it means a day spent walking and talking with other like-minded people. While everyone approaches swap meets a little differently, a few tips and reminders hold true for anyone headed to Pomona, Hershey, Chickasha, Barber, or Mid-Ohio to see just what the farmer’s almanac says is going to be a good crop of parts and projects ripe for harvest.
Know what you are buying or selling
Some people love searching through unidentified parts, but any amount of help given to a potential buyer is likely to work out better in the end. Take a moment to write a brand, model, or year on a piece of tape and stick it to the part. The inverse goes for buyers: Don’t expect every seller to know the exact fitment or specifics of a particular part. If you need a hood latch for the hood on a Dodge Brothers from 1930, know what that looks like.
Organization goes a long way
Considering the number of vendors at most swap meets, few buyers have the time or patience to sort through a giant jumble of parts. Bins with labels encourage buyers because they know their time won’t be wasted on a bunch of radios when all they want is a headlight control. Group similar parts together, and passersby will be more likely to take a look. Some amount of organization provides at least the appearance that you care about the parts you are selling, which makes buyers more likely to make a serious offer.
Price tags open wallets
We all expect to haggle at a swap meet. However, we also know the awkward moment when, after a potential buyer breaks the silence to ask the price of a part, the seller names a price so far from the buyer’s expectations that the two are left staring at each other for a moment before the potential buyer sets the piece down and walks off. Give buyers a clear starting point, and you’ll likely have fewer “tire kickers” asking you random questions, then strolling away.
Cash is king, but consider other options
It is fun to hide a physical fun-money fund from whatever set of eyes or acronyms you fear may threaten it, but making and accepting digital payments has never been easier or more secure. Apps like PayPal or Venmo have precautions in place for both buyer and seller, and either app allows you to easily accept credit cards. In my experience, there is a little less haggling when buyers don’t have to watch the bills leave their hands. That’s a win for any seller.
Consider unconventional negotiations. A beer once tipped a motorcycle purchase for me: Seller wanted $1800 for a vintage Kawasaki, I only wanted to pay $1700. When I noticed his cooler, I said I would pay asking price if the seller included a beer for me and each of my two friends. Are three beers worth $100? Not even close, but we enjoyed hanging out with that guy, and everyone left happy and refreshed.
Bring a bag, backpack, or cart
Since a swap meet is not a store, you never know what you’ll find or, more importantly, what it will weigh. Taking a trip back to your truck with each item is annoying, yet somehow less of a pain than juggling—and inevitably dropping—your latest prized possession. If you are mentally prepared to buy something big, make sure you are physically prepared to deal with it. Otherwise, you will leave disappointed and empty-handed after realizing you can’t get it home.
You can often cut a deal at a swap meet, but if you can only get a low price by being a pain in the butt, take a moment to remember that we are all in this hobby together. If either party in the transaction burns the other, it is that much more likely that parts, pieces, and experts will just stop showing up to swap meets: The money is no longer worth the stress. Smile, be reasonable, and move on if the two of you cannot meet in the middle.
The secret power of a swap meet is the ability to find anything you are looking for, but it’s not always something that will be there in the booth. If I see a few Honda motorcycle or Corvair parts sitting out front of a seller, I will typically skip straight to asking if they have something I am looking for.
If you see it, buy it
If there is one hard and fast rule of swap meets, it is this: Never walk away from anything you are interested in, because it will be gone when you circle back. If you want it, buy it at the first opportunity. Few people restock at swap meets; they’re more likely to rearrange, moving the part you wanted to another booth and raising the price.
Take the time to learn
Sellers often have some idea of what they have. If you see something that seems extra strange to you, take a moment to ask the seller what the story is. You never know what you could learn or which friend you might make. That seller is just hanging around—why not engage in a little conversation?
In short, go out and have fun looking for parts and projects among other folks who love the same things you do. The internet has never been more powerful, but the joy of finding a part in a pile alongside other people doing the same is what keeps the swap meet alive.