Upham's Corner Online

Maxwell Flea Market - Remembering 14 Years

Posted: Thursday, November 2, 2010
Nancy J Conrad

The flea market is dead.  The vendors are scattered to the winds.  

You cannot return even one time more to meet them and discover their wares.  Nor can you experience the multi-cultural flavor of their flea market community or come to understand why the flea market meant so much to them and to the Upham's Corner neighborhood.  

What follows is a nostalgic look back based on conversations with Marcy Navarro and newspaper articles featuring the flea market - a taste of its character and vibrancy and a distant look at the many people who lost their livelihood.   

Remembering Maxwell Flea Market - It all began back in 1996.

Jose (Pio) Navarro had been intrigued by a flea market he used to visit in Brockton and he wanted to start one in Boston.  "Why not a flea market?" Pio asked his wife, Marcy, and she made the decision to move forward.  They approached Marcy's dad, Hal Cohen, got the okay and placed ads in the Boston Globe and the Herald. On July 29, 1996 Maxwell Flea market was born.  As of the last week in July 1996 the flea market had four or five vendors.  By October there was a waiting list and Marcy had to expand their operations into the next room. 

"Finders, keepers - Dorchester's Maxwell flea market has something for everyone"

-- Leslie Robarge - the Boston Phoenix - January 26, 2001

You can find just about everything at Maxwell, from a massive collection of New Kids on the Block buttons to Avon cosmetics to used electronics to old Time magazine covers.  The flea market owner, Marcy Navarro, asks you to come to the flea market with an open mind. the vendors reflect the habits of the old countries they come from -- time, haggling how they treat each other and their sense of camaraderie.  Don't expect the fleamarket feel like a shopping mall.

You can't say that Maxwell Flea Market was a place for making a lot of money but you can say that the community of vendors and customers was close, caring and down to earth.  Friends they were.

Remembering the diverse cultural backgrounds:  

Marcy Navarro consciously fostered a climate of friendship and multiculturalism among the clients as well as the vendors. Cape Verdeans, Portuguese, Dominicans, African-Americans, Asians, and Caucasians -- all of them coming together  - all of them interested in a bargain.

"Flea market grows in Dorchester"

-- Peter Van Delft - Dorchester Community News (date unknown)

What makes the Maxwell Flea Market irresistible? "It's the variety," said Johnny Clark, one of the charter members of  market and the famous cake lady of the flea market. Clark said, "We have everything here, and it's a fun place to be."

Of course it is the vendors who built the customer base and the flea market's reputation.  How they treated their customers, the languages they spoke, the old country traditions and their merchandise - all of this came together to establish Maxwell Flea Market with a firm footing in the community.

"Community Flea Market Offers Diversity of Great Bargains"

-- Larry Fabian -- Dorchester Reporter -- February 26, 1998

Most vendors are locals who have an entrepreneurial bent.  Some sell their own craftwork.  Some are cleaning out their family attic or garage.  Some are creatively supplementing the family income by working at the flea market.  

Sisters Nola and Deborah Gilbert sell dollar-a-bag surplus produce.  Wild Corn, a vendor with Cherokee lineage, sells Native American jewelry and art.  Diane Hayman sells imported handicrafts from the Philippines and Africa. 

Maxwell's spicy variety is enough to excite any shopper, especially those with an eye for a bargain. 

Remembering her vendor difficulties:  

As of December 2009 Marcy had been in business for over 13 years.  You could think of her as a landlord of space which she, in turn, rented from the building owner.You could also think of her as the manager of more than 30 micro-businesses in more than 50 vendors spaces.  Yet, Marcy was more than that.

She described herself as a social worker even though that is not her training.  She cared about her vendors and thought nothing of picking them up at home and bringing them to the flea market to make sure they could open for business.  When times were tough, vendors often came to her, asking if she could wait for their rent payment.  Instead of requiring the full rent in advance, she often accepted it by the day.  Accommodating to her vendors was a regular way of life

"How to Get a Taste of the Islands without Leaving the Hub" 

-- Jill Redsken -- Boston Herald - January 27, 1999

Maxwell Flea Market has the relaxed feel of a Caribbean island open-air market. A Haitian vendor sews alterations while you wait. A Dominican woman sells fabric for do-it-yourself projects. A man from Antigua sells flags while another from Honduras sells fresh produce.

Apparently, the flea market business does better in a poor economy and worse in a good economy.  As vendors are unable to maintain their own private storefront, they tend to move into settings of the sort that Maxwell Flea Market offered.  When the economy improves, vendors look for how they can run their own business privately.

"97.7 FM Radio" 

August 11, 2001

97.7 FM fan helped celebrate Maxwell flea market's fifth anniversary.

People who wanted to rent space in her flea market fell into a special class all their own.  Many of them were poor.  Often English was not their native language as they were born outside the United States.  Examples included Africa, Haiti, Cape Verde and many Spanish speaking countries.  The vendors tended to be computer illiterate without e-mail addresses and were more comfortable with handwritten receipts than anything that was computer generated.

"Todo Para La Comunidad" 

--- El Mundo - January 31, 2002

Lo Mas notorio es que alli hay una diversidad de comerciantes de diferentes nacionalidades.  Remarkable at the flea market is the diversity of vendors of different nationalities.

When DND took over ownership of 65 E. Cottage St., Marcy began to look for signs or signals that indicated "something's up" -- that maybe her ability to continue the flea market business would be ending soon.  She frequently asked one of the property managers, John Fermino, if he had heard anything, and he would always say "no."

She did not share her uneasiness with the vendors but rather maintained her normal persona -- supporting them and looking for ways to help them continue to stay in business.

The flea market was alive and active every weekend for 14 years until it closed suddenly. 
Remembering the final days:

Marcy received the call from Sandy Duran of DND around noon on August 26, 2010.  It left her in complete shock.

It's not that she hadn't expected the possibility of having to shut down.  It was the suddenness that was so upsetting and without any warning or any chance to prepare.  One day she was in business with a crowd of vendors, customers and endless activity; the next day her business was gone along with the livelihood of her vendors - all with no warning.

Over the next several days, DND escorted the vendors into the building to retrieve their belongings and escorted them back out again, almost as if they were criminals.  DND issued a deadline for September 2.  Anything not claimed would go into the dumpster.

With the change of the locks, an institution in existence for 14 years supporting people from lower social and economic classes in Boston was terminated.  Not true for the close relationships of the 35 vendors and over 50 individual workers.  Marcy and the vendors continue to stay in touch.

Sometimes we measure our lives by how much money we make, and some of us look at how much fun we had.  Some of us count how many friends we acquired.

Maxwell fleamarket -- May she rest in Peace -- July 29, 1996 August 26, 2010

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