Vendor Village

Rejoice, swap meet turns 40

For 25 years, Donald Acers has been hauling bric-a-brac to the same cozy booth at the Tanque Verde Swap Meet.

There's treasure after find in his shop, which he stocks from foreclosure auctions: Mexican pottery and screwdrivers and socket wrenches, blenders and teacups, tennis rackets and agate slices. A rack of cassette tapes offers James Taylor and the "Footloose" soundtrack.

He calls his cache "antique-ish."

Whatever it is—and, Acers admits, sometimes even he doesn't know—there's a lot of it. "I have to bring out a truckload every week."

All kinds of merchandise passes through, and all kinds of customers.

"All kinds," Acers chuckles through a wide smile. "Bums, thieves, wealthy people."

The Tanque Verde Swap Meet sounds like norteño music. It smells like pickled jalapeños and tastes like duros and kettle corn. It looks like a midway, a farmers market, a yard sale. It feels like Tucson, and this year, it celebrates 40 years in business.

Richard Chapin was in his final semester at the University of Arizona in April 1975, selling handmade tables at a swap meet at the one-time DeAnza drive-in theater. He decided he could run a better market, so he set up shop at the corner of Tanque Verde and Grant roads (hence the name), roughly where a Target sits today.

Times were lean to start, and within a few months, the summer heat threatened to wilt his enterprise. Undeterred, Chapin bought yards and yards of Christmas lights and started evening hours. People loved it. The risk started to show promise.

To keep up with the blossoming business, Chapin enlisted family members. His sister, Linda Fiore, has been with the swap meet from the beginning.

The swap meet offers little slices of the American dream, hundreds of them more than 33 acres, she says. That's always been its goal, appealing to people from all walks of life.

Some Tucson businesses, like Mac's Indian Jewelry and Kent's Tools, have gone on to brick and mortar stores after starting as a booth here. Chapin says he tries to treat his vendors well, and he brings in colorful extras like live music, pony rides, kiddie rides, a beer garden and all variety of carnival comfort food.

Two of Chapin's four grown daughters now help run the swap meet, along with Fiore's children.

"The manager that's there now is my son, who worked there when he was 5 picking up trash behind the snack bar," she said.

In 1987, the family lost its lease at Tanque Verde and Grant. Developers had big plans for the intersection.

By then, the swap meet was well-established, and Chapin again took a risk, sinking his life savings and every nickel he could borrow into a new home for the market. Within 90 days, he had purchased a parcel across town at Palo Verde and Ajo, gotten it permitted, paved it, installed proper lighting and moved vendor buildings. Fiore says Tucson's loyalty during the transition, as quick as it was and as far away as it carried the market, still impresses her.

Marie DeGain, one of Chapin's daughters, says the swap meet has been embraced as part of the cultural scene of Tucson's South Side.

"You can sell anything out there unless it's just absolutely illegal," says DeGain, who does the swap meet's marketing. "We get all of it. I don't think there's a more motley market that can be found."

Vendors hawk appliances large and small, clothing, books, Mexican candies, and plush blankets bearing sports team logos and Justin Bieber's visage, suitable for snuggling or hanging on the wall. You can get an airbrushed T-shirt here, or a rosary, or a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Or a tattoo, or a haircut. (There are at least two micro barber shops, and they had long queues last weekend.)

Chapin says once, a rogue band of bikers was busted fencing books stolen from libraries. He also recalls pianos being sold at one point, and secondhand knick-knacks at a booth run by the prominent physician Robert Jarvik, the inventor of the artificial heart (his implants were not among his wares.)

The mix of new and used merchandise from permanent and transient vendors keeps people guessing, and the faithful coming back for more.

Because you never know what you'll find. It could be the "Footloose" soundtrack on cassette, or a vintage typewriter, or a cell phone case.

"That's the whole idea," Chapin says. "Discover something."

Dollies of Doom

There's something sweet about the doll, even with the rivulets of blood running down its cheeks.

Perhaps it's in the passion of its creator.

Aaron Bates has been a horror film buff and an artist since he was a tot. He now combines the two loves with his customizations of Cabbage Patch Kids, painted up as slasher flick icons, and sells them at a steady clip from a card table at the Tanque Verde Swap Meet.

"They're called Garbage Patch Horror Kids," he says. "It's a cross between Cabbage Patch and Garbage Pail Kids."

Freddy Krueger ("A Nightmare on Elm Street") is here, his red and green striped sweater painted onto his cuddly body and clay capturing his burn scars. So is Jason Voorhees ("Friday the 13th"), whose hockey mask carefully follows the contours of his chubby face. Carrie White ("Carrie"), the telekinetic high schooler whose prom night humiliation was one indignity too many, wears a pink dress Bates sewed himself.

He also does original characters, like Jackie Lantern, a girl with a jagged grin carved nearly ear to ear, and Acid Face, a revenge-driven, pin-striped mobster who was attacked with acid.

"They're freaky," says an amused passerby. "I like them."

Bates has made about 90 dolls over the past two years, selling them for about $25 to $30 each. Billy the Puppet from the "Saw" franchise and Chucky from the "Child's Play" series are among his most popular offerings (they were, after all, dolls in their films.)

Bates used to sell his dolls online, but he likes interacting with people at the swap meet.

His booth is small, but hard to miss. Cherubic Freddy Kreugers aren't something you see every day.

"This is siiiick," another passerby says, most approvingly.

"Thanks. I made them," Bates replies. "They're Garbage Patch Horror Kids..."

Hillary Davis

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