The Portland Swap Meet has been on hiatus for the past two years, for obvious reasons. It’s been a long and boring pandemic, so this year’s event was highly anticipated, at least by me.
The swap happens at the Portland Expo Center, with five large buildings and the entire parking lot filled with parts and cars for sale. For the past 20 years or so, the swap has also spilled over into the neighboring Portland International Raceway, ringing the two-mile racetrack with a couple thousand more vendors.
It’s a huge event, to say the least.
With two years of pent-up demand, I expected this year’s swap to be bustling. I was enthused enough to commit to the whole three-day weekend and rented a stall to sell off my old stuff.
The show was good, but it was not full. There were empty rows inside the buildings, which is uncommon, because April in Portland usually means rain. Even some areas in the less expensive outside spaces were open. The number of cars for sale was down a bit, and the crowd was thinner than I expected.
Is it a lingering fear of large gatherings? Or is the swap maybe going out of fashion? It’s hard to say, but likely a little of both.
As I shopped and watched the crowd from my booth, a number of observations presented themselves.
You could see the Bring A Trailer effect in the cars for sale — the top-tier vehicles were simply absent. Better results can be realized online for the same price as a parking space at the swap. You market to a much larger audience and you don’t have to negotiate.
For the most part, what we saw this weekend was the dross that didn’t or wouldn’t make the cut online.
Many trucks were available for sale, and comparatively few were restored or resto-modded. Many appeared to be Grampa’s old F-150, complete with the little bug deflector on the nose. Most showed reasonable asking prices — or they got more reasonable as the weekend went on.
The last few years before the pandemic were subject to what I call the “flea market premium,” in which prices were less attractive than you could find elsewhere. After all, nobody wants to come home empty-handed. And as the saying goes, a bird in the hand…
Stupid pricing went even further this year. The old days of finding bargains at swap meets seem to be long gone, unless you find the right seller on the first day of the swap. A couple items I sold early (and cheaply) ended up on other people’s tables at a handsome markup.
Today it seems the swap meet is less about finding that rare or perfect part, and more of a tribal gathering. It is one of my favorite rites of spring. I ran into old friends, found a few unexpected treasures, and ate an overcooked $8 hot dog.
The experience scratched my itch for the summer driving season. I’ll see you there next year.