Jimmy Kaplow, the star of the new “Flea Man” reality show, got an early start in the business as a teenager, after a personal tragedy. “In the early ’70s, when my father passed away, the items in the house had to be sold,” he recalls. “I took the items to the flea market. I watched people purchase them. I was in awe of the fact that just about everything we put out on the table sold. People bought everything from used encyclopedias to pots and pans, things I never would have expected to sell. That was my introduction.”
And inspiration struck while he was at the flea market. “One week some guy was selling tiger-striped Paul McCartney vinyl albums,” he says. “I got them for about a dollar each. I bought a stack. I carted them maybe 50 feet, 100 feet to my table. And I sold each one for 15, 20 bucks. That was my ‘aha’ moment.”
Since that time, Jimmy has made a lively career in the industry. He has sold at flea markets and in eBay. He starred in a local cable show called “Urban Spelunking” in Manhattan. “I’ve learned to buy what I like and what I was interested in, and I’ve learned I can sell it for more because I could engage in an intelligent barter conversation with customers,” he says. Connecting with customers, talking about the things he is selling, and being passionate about it — because he likes the things he sells — gives him a leg up when it is time to barter and haggle. “Things that I like,” Kaplow says, “I find easier to sell than things I know less about.”
Kaplow has made his engaging personality a part of his business. “I have a bit of a reputation around the state of New Jersey,” he says, “as not only a flea marketer, but as a bit of a character. I’m known for my unusual items, especially in the amusement field, rock and roll, sports — I have people come by my booths every year for that. I’ve carved out a niche for myself for items that are unusual and fun.”
Now he limits his swap meet selling to twice a summer, but he is a busy buyer the year round. “I do not sell full time, but I buy full time,” he says, emphasizing the difference. “I sell at two markets a year, now, both in Ocean Grove, N.J. I spend the rest of the year buying.”
His new show starts tonight on the National Geographic Channel with back-to-back “Flea Man” episodes at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. tonight, and with the first episode repeating at 11 p.m.
Birth of a ‘Flea Man’
It was Kaplow’s enthusiasm, outgoing nature, and random dumb luck that landed him the role as star of a new TV show. “Someone at the production company, KPI, knew somebody who new somebody who knew somebody who called me,” he recounts, marveling at how things fell into place. “It was like three degrees of separation. At the time I had a cable show in New York City on Manhattan Cable. I’d had it for about three years, called ‘Urban Spelunking.’ This guy at KPI had seen the show, put two and two together, and gave me a call. It was an ex-girlfriend’s brother’s best friend. I swear that’s how it happened. You can’t make this stuff up.”
The ‘Flea Man’ name is new to Kaplow. “That was created for the show,” he explains. “I’ve been called ‘moron’ and ‘dirt man,’ he laughs. “It is hard to describe what we do to people who don’t do it, like getting up before dawn and climbing through somebody else’s garbage. I’ve always enjoyed it.”
“When I’m at the flea market, I’m never happier,” he adds. “It’s no holds barred. You have no idea what you are going to find. You don’t know what you’re going to pay for it. The show is a mirror of that exact experience, and I try to turn other people on to it.”
He is careful to emphasize that the “Flea Man” show is going to be a real reflection of his actual flea market experiences. “The thing about this show is that it’s a real show. I would call this the most realistic show of any reality show ever made,” he says. “National Geographic was very very clear that they wanted no fake buys, no fake sells, no set-ups. There is nothing that’s rehearsed. Every once in a while I will be thrown an adjective by the director. When I’m selling something he might say, ‘Be a little more exuberant. Give us a YES.’ But the show really is about learning how to sell at flea markets, which exist in every nook and cranny of this great country.”
Jimmy has also considered the negative ramifications of what may just be an ascent into celebrity. “The bad side is that it’s going to be a little tougher for me to go to a flea market and offer a dollar for something, which I love doing,” he says. “I did that just this past weekend — I bought two amazing things for a dollar each. I’m hoping that it doesn’t destroy what I have loved to do forever, which is buy low and sell high!” he laughs. “Really, I’m just looking to get dates out of it.”
Advice for flea market and swap meet vendors
Kaplow is a man with a mission, and this new show is giving him a chance to see it through. “People have stuff in their basements, garages, and attics,” he says. “They know they need money. The economy sucks, we all know that. So if you want to sell at the flea market you should be prepared.” One way to get prepared is to watch his new show.
The world is filled with people who do not understand what they have to sell, and who may be more eager to clear out their garages and closets than make a buck. “I’ve bought stuff at flea markets and garage sales that I felt guilty about,” says Kaplow. “I’ve thought, ‘They really have no idea.’ There have been times when I had to stop people in their tracks and say, ‘Five dollars? Ten dollars? Do you know what this is? Come on, double the price, triple the price, go have it authenticated, call Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Use your mind!’ That’s really what this show is about.”
Other sellers grossly overestimate how much their stuff is worth, for personal reasons. “On the other side,: explains Kaplow, “sometimes people want too much for stuff that they have, because their Aunt Edna died and left it to them. They have an emotional attachment to it. It represents their youth, or Edna, or something that plays an emotional role in their psyche, and they’ve got to divorce themselves from that thinking.
He has two fundamental axioms for doing business at a swap meet, flea market, or garage sale. “One, know the value of your item and don’t screw yourself. Two, know the value, and don’t think you’re going to screw anybody else.” If you do that, Kaplow suggests, you can make a buck and have a good time as a vendor. “It’s a hard way of life,” he admits, “but nonetheless, it can be very lucrative. You are your own boss, and most importantly, it’s fun. If you’re not having fun, don’t waste your time.”
Kaplow expands on that point, and urges sellers to be humble. “The real key, not only to success in a flea market but in life, is learning to use your ears more than your mouth,” he says. “Now, there’s an element of salesmanship that absolutely takes place, but learning is the key to life, and putting it into practice is the key to making money. When I’m selling, someone often corrects me. How the heck can you know about everything? Well, you can’t.”
The Flea Man himself has a streak of humility and self-deprecation. “I’m not such a maven,” he avows. “Pretty much what I do is common sense. Don’t sell what you don’t know. Don’t expect more for trash. Get there early, stay late, smile, have a great attitude — you’ll make money and get rid of stuff. And if you want to make a living, you can! Just be prepared to work! Like anything in life that’s worth anything, work is the key.”
And he ends, where he started, reminiscing about his dad. “You know, everything my father told me was true,” says Jimmy. “I remember being a teenager when my father said these exact words, and I laughed at him and went to go see the Grateful Dead. But you know what? He was 100 percent correct, God rest his soul. And the flea market is a perfect example, If you work at it, it is guaranteed that you’ll succeed.”