PASADENA, Calif. — At 4 a.m. on the second Sunday of every month, headlamps light up like fireflies in Lot K of the Rose Bowl Stadium here. They are worn by collectors searching for treasure: Hans Wegner club chairs, perfectly aged Levi’s jeans (preferably from before 1971), and AC/DC and Wu Tang Clan concert T-shirts.
Owners of vintage-clothing stores complain relentlessly about the deals being “gone,” yet they not only come back, but also scale the chain-link fence at the perimeter to get a head start before the gates open at 5 a.m.
This is what Patrick Matamoros, a dealer who placed Kim Kardashian in a Sade shirt and Rihanna in a Whitney Houston one, did in August, shortly before he nearly came to blows with another vintage dealer.
The immediate cause of their spat was a Black Crowes T-shirt, but the kerfuffle was years in the making.
The other dealer, Kelly Cole, who owns a store on La Brea in West Hollywood, had long said that Mr. Matamoros was a shoplifter and claimed he had a video to prove it. Mr. Matamoros taunted him to release it, but Mr. Cole never did.
Then things boiled over as they stood on opposite sides of a clothing rack, just before dawn, arguing over who first reached the black, white and pink skeleton-print shirt.
Mr. Matamoros pulled it in one direction. Mr. Cole pulled it in the other. Even with headlamps on, it was hard to see what was happening, but everyone around heard the sound as it ripped down the middle.
Mr. Cole started laughing. As he saw it, there was nothing else to do. But this enraged Mr. Matamoros.
“It just seemed so condescending,” Mr. Matamoros said afterward.
The argument escalated quickly. “I called him a thief and a liar,” Mr. Cole said.
“I said if he called me a thief again, bad things would happen,” Mr. Matamoros said.
Mr. Cole sneered at him and walked away.
Once he saw the price tag, Mr. Matamoros turned regretful. “It was $150,” he said. “It wasn’t worth $50.”
Still, he bought it from the seller. Partly because he felt responsible for destroying it. But mostly to spite Mr. Cole. “I haven’t had a chance to repair it yet,” he said.
All over the East Coast, flea markets are withering away.
Buyers don’t want to bundle up on winter mornings and scour for merchandise that can be found easily on eBay, Etsy or 1stdibs, with better guarantees. Sellers don’t want to load pickup trucks with merchandise that can easily be sold online.
Once frequented by Andy Warhol, Greta Garbo and Susan Sontag, the major weekly Manhattan flea markets in Chelsea began downsizing in 2005, after almost 30 years. The outpost inside the parking garage on West 25th Street closed in 2014.
The Brimfield Antique Show, which specializes in furniture and is held three times a year in Brimfield, Mass., is hanging on, but bringing in fewer and fewer A-list dealers.
Yet in Los Angeles, good weather, job scarcity and higher commercial real-estate costs have fueled a thriving swap-meet scene.
The Melrose Trading Post, a weekly rain-or-shine flea at Fairfax High School in West Hollywood, has live bands and food trucks serving breakfast burritos. So many sellers angle for stations that organizers now have a lottery for spare spots.
In May, the 15-year-old Saturday afternoon swap meet in Silver Lake went from once a month to every week. About a third of its sellers are old flea market types who never made the digital transition, according to Fiora Boes, the event’s organizer.
“What’s driving them is the desire to be cool and to have the next post on Instagram,” Ms. Boes said, as she described how “these kids” scour through social-media posts, Goodwills and rag houses for rare finds. “Then they wear it once or twice and sell it at the flea — or over Instagram — and buy something else.”
The legalization of marijuana has also fortified the market, not simply because lots of dealers start getting high with one another at 6 a.m., but also because so many of the products being sold contain THC or refer to weed culture.
Tristyn Rhoades, 29, is a self-described practicing witch who lives in the San Bernardino Valley with her husband and 3-year-old son. A year and a half ago, Ms. Rhoades turned her love of potions and spells into an apothecary business.
During the week, she sells cannabis-oil-infused bath bombs over Etsy. On Saturdays, she brings them to the Silver Lake flea, sharing a booth with her friend Nicol Aiko, a 30-year-old jewelry designer who fashions gemstones into crescent moons, fairy and marijuana-leaf shapes.
Ms. Rhoades is also among the 2,500 sellers paying about $100 for a booth at Rose Bowl, which for 50 years has taken place on the second Sunday of every month in the parking lots surrounding the 90,000-seat football stadium that the U.C.L.A. Bruins call home.
Everything’s Coming Up Rose Bowl
The Rose Bowl flea was started by Richard Gary Canning, whose firm RG Canning Attractions began with concert promotion and car shows. The market was intended as a peripheral revenue stream.
“We never thought we’d give up concert promotion and just have this, but that’s what happened,” said its chief administrative officer, Mike Redd, 71, who has been at the Rose Bowl more or less every month since 1968.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the Rose Bowl’s biggest market was antiques, Mr. Redd said. In the early 2000s, the vintage-clothing market exploded and the Rose Bowl became a religious ritual for hoarder hipsters united in the desire to get baked and beat each other to Cross Colours jackets, Chanel handbags, Charlie Brown sweatshirts and other assorted pop-culture peculiarities.
After rolling in before dawn, sellers use the next few hours to set up their stations and buy among themselves. Around 8 a.m., the Bowl becomes a street-style spectacular, as the bearded and tattooed rummage for Red Wing work boots amid collectors like Lisa Eisner, a jewelry designer and frequent companion to Tom Ford; the transgender actress Candis Cayne; and Brad Pitt, known among this crowd as much for his furniture expertise as for his movies.
A few years back, Mr. Redd said, Mr. Pitt came in and spotted a chair he wanted. The seller was asking $600 for it. Mr. Pitt knew it was worth much more than that. So he pulled out a wad of cash and gave the seller a $2,000 bonus.
Given Southern California’s progressive politics, it’s unsurprising that many of the sellers talk about placing people before profits and wanting to be one with the earth. But many also have an appreciation for memorabilia of questionable taste.
“Free O.J.” shirts from back when O.J. Simpson was on trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, abound. They usually trade for about $100 each, which is around what it costs to get an old R. Kelly shirt (not cheap for someone now infamous for alleged sex crimes).
Nicholas Baier, a dreadlocked dealer at the Bowl, was shopping near his station and stumbled upon a shirt with a Confederate flag. He wasn’t offended. “I have Bill Cosby in my booth,” he said with a shrug. “It’s history.” (Mr. Baier is white.)
Recently, Mr. Matamoros has been buying up Russian Harley Davidson, Tower Records and McDonald’s shirts. “The potential for misinterpreting why someone is wearing a Russia shirt right now is awesome,” he said. “I want the shirts I sell to be political. I’m trying to say something.”
Which is what, a reporter asked. “Don’t be boring!” Mr. Matamoros said.
Given how easy it is to search for concert tees on eBay, finding an authentic one from the Talking Heads 1983 tour for $50 has gotten increasingly unlikely. And shirts by Bell Biv Devoe and En Vogue cost a lot, the prices propelled by scarcity (most R&B and hip-hop acts from that time did not tour extensively) and surging demand from kids born in the ’90s, who now have money, nostalgia and a desire to look like Kanye West, even as they make fun of his behavior.
Americana from every era proliferates at the Rose Bowl, but great antiques, formal wear and fancy jewelry are in shorter supply than they used to be.
In the lot adjacent to the vintage clothing section, Dwaine Williams offered nearly every issue of Playboy Magazine from 1959 to 1985, most priced around $10. A few spaces away, a seller had hundreds of Star Wars toys, which came from his personal collection and became a job when he got laid off from work and his wife told him to start divesting.
Gramophones aren’t exactly a growth industry, but two booths sell them near the stadium’s main entrance.
One is manned by Scott Corbett, a fifth-grade teacher at Sierra Vista Elementary School in Upland, Calif., and his wife, Denise, a teacher’s aide there.
The other is run by Jeff Oliphant, a retired real estate lawyer who is now the treasurer of the Antique Phonograph Society, a worldwide organization of gramophone enthusiasts, and his brother Steve Oliphant.
The Oliphant brothers’ wives are merely “understanding,” about their hobbies, according to Jeff, while Ms. Corbett has become an enthusiastic partner.
After years of competing for customers at the Rose Bowl and bumping into one another at hobbyist events, the Corbetts and the Oliphants barely speak.
“It is what it is,” Mr. Corbett said.
And when Jeff Oliphant seemed particularly cheery on a recent summer morning, it didn’t take long to figure out why. “He’s not here!” Mr. Oliphant said, smiling brightly.
Brian Cohen, a 44-year-old dealer who that morning was selling a rack of ’50s-era harlequin print shirts, priced at $50 each, said: “There could be an ensemble Christopher Guest movie based on the cast of characters at the Rose Bowl.”
Mr. Cohen, wearing a retro flattop, as if he was the sidekick from a James Dean movie, wasn’t being judgmental. In 2008, he plunked down $25,000 on a black crepe Hawaiian shirt with swirling tigers and bright red clouds. “I only wore it once,” he said. “It’s sitting in a bin with a bunch of other shirts, being enjoyed by no one.”
Yet he can’t seem to part with it. “I might never be able to get it again.”
Mr. Cohen grew up in Westchester, N.Y., and made his first windfall as a dealer at the age of 12, selling portions of his autographed baseball cards and souvenir collection for $300 at a baseball memorabilia convention in Poughkeepsie.
In high school, friends scavenged for dates while he headed to the Chelsea flea market in Manhattan for lunchboxes, Star Trek memorabilia and action figures.
During college — Boston University, class of 1996 (“I got a B.S. in b.s.” he said) — Mr. Cohen contemplated entering the business world. But he found summer jobs as a temp unbearable.
What he really enjoyed was rifling for stuff with Robert C. Garnett, known on the national flea market scene as Bobby From Boston. Mr. Cohen began dealing at the Chelsea flea in 1996. He described a partly gentrified tableau, “like a Woody Allen movie” with “kvetchy” sellers and buyers.
His epiphany came a year later during a West Coast buying trip as he watched Japanese collectors dart around the parking lots in Pasadena armed with shopping carts filled to the brim with Big Es Levi’s jeans and old, rare Nikes.
“There was so much action. I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Cohen said.
Soon after, he moved to Los Angeles and took a monthly space at the Rose Bowl. “The night before, I couldn’t even fall asleep,” he said. “I was just so excited about all the things I could sell, all the things I could buy.”
He had a Pavlovian response to the stench of vintage clothes wafting through the dry Pasadena air. And he was fascinated by the people: driven by a compulsion to acquire, yet seldom displaying any serious inclination toward power and wealth.
Indeed, many were selling simply so they could keep collecting. “The biggest thrill wasn’t really making a profit,” Mr. Cohen said. “It was finding that new rare piece for the collection.”
Invasion of the ‘Etsy Girls’
The Bowl’s organizers also defy the conventional laws of capitalism, even as the business got more complicated in the internet age. “We do not tell sellers how to run their businesses, and we take no cut from sales,” Mr. Redd said
People who inherited their parents’ furniture, the sort who once had sold them in yard sales or to local dealers, could now go on eBay and see how much similar things were selling for.
When customers arrive at the Rose Bowl on Sunday mornings, Mr. Cohen said, the first sentence out of their mouth has become, “‘Is that really your best price?’ Even if they don’t speak English, they know the word ‘discount.’”
Although Mr. Cohen has kept his head above water — in 2016, he even opened his own store, Vintage on Hollywood, in Los Feliz — finding balance is tough.
“My romantic life has definitely suffered because of this,” he said, describing dates during which he tried to put his phone away but couldn’t help himself when it started buzzing and he realized there were incoming photographs of clothes he was interested in buying.
Today, there are a lot more young women selling at the Bowl, and many sell in smartly designed tented booths with tribal rugs on the ground. But Mr. Cohen disdainfully calls them “the Etsy girls” and laments their effect on the Bowl: “It became all about ambience.”
Sean McEvoy, 37, who has sold vintage Sonic Youth T-shirts and highly collectible denim at the Bowl for a decade, has a wife, Rikki McEvoy, who runs his online business
“I’ve been doing meditation and seeing a therapist because collecting is like any other addiction,” Mr. McEvoy said. “When he was young, I did blow and chased women. Those things got replaced by this. Part of why I’m buying women’s clothes today is because I don’t have any attachment to the stuff. I just move it.”
Mr. McEvoy walked over to to a seller with a collection of Levi’s and picked out six pairs he thought he could resell. But getting the price from $1,700 to $850 was brutal. “I got to have a ciggie,” Mr. McEvoy said at one point. “I’m getting stressed out.”
Even after Mr. McEvoy prevailed, he seemed unsure of whether he’d gotten a great deal or a big discount on a rip-off.
Off in the distance, Mr. Matamoros was complaining about the cost of his shirts. “Every month it gets harder,” he said.
Yet the bowl is his calling and his compulsion. He knows what would happen if it went away. “I’d be homeless,” he said.