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Sunday, August 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Midway Swap Meet mirrors area's changing face

Seattle Times staff reporter

You need boots? Jose Jimenez has boots. Rows of them, poking from the ground in stumpy little pairs of caramel, cocoa, beige and butterscotch. These ones'll cost you $25. Want something a little nicer? Try these over here — they're $60, but look at the stitching. They'll last a long time.

Jimenez, a barrel-chested Oaxaca native, wears a collared pullover with silhouetted cowboys. Here at the Midway Swap Meet in Kent, most of his customers are Mexican, which is why he and his crew truck all the way down here from Arlington every weekend morning in the first place.

Midway is the largest swap meet in the Puget Sound region, with 6,000 to 8,000 customers roaming its aisles on a good summer's day. Not far from Jimenez, another seller, Isabel Quiroz, keeps watch over her wares — stuffed animals, cordless phones, a 5-foot-high stack of toaster ovens.

"When we arrived from Pasco, there were not as many (Latinos)," she says. "But more and more started to come."

In the other direction, what some call Asian Row — aisles six through eight — beams with new, elastically priced clothes, backpacks and luggage set out by Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese sellers. Elsewhere, Pakistani, Russian and Ethiopian vendors carefully arrange items as stroller-pushing Mexican, Cambodian and East African families begin to arrive en masse.

Once home to the Midway Drive-in, whose dormant screen casts a blank stare over the weekend marketplace, the event has been a weekly fixture on this chunk of Pacific Highway South for more than 30 years. But its once-white, suburban character has been kaleidoscopically altered in the last decade, partly mirroring shifts in the surrounding area.

The Kent/Des Moines area that includes Midway, roughly defined as Interstate 5 on the east, the Puget Sound on the west, Highway 516 on the north and South 272nd Street on the south, has changed notably since 1990.

Whites, once 87 percent of the population, dipped to 68 percent in the 2000 U.S. Census. Meanwhile, the percentage of Latinos nearly tripled, now equaling Asian and African-American representation — about 9 percent apiece — among 17,000 area residents.

A major transformation

But even those figures don't fully illustrate the transformation at Midway, whose buyers and sellers come from as far away as Mount Vernon and Wenatchee.

First-generation Latinos are the bulk of the change, a once largely transient population now settling in for the long haul. Most are Mexicans, many via California. Ten years ago, says grizzled, longtime vendor Mike Ross, there was one Mexican seller at the Midway, and all the other vendors knew him. People came by looking for a certain item, and he'd tell them, "Go see the Mexican."

"Now if you say that, there's about 150 of 'em," he says bluntly.

That includes Arlington's Jimenez, who came here from Fresno in 1999. Public markets are part of Mexican culture, he says. "We don't have the super mall. That's an American style." And for immigrants like himself without college degrees, it's a place to make a decent living. Other swap meets are closer to home — Everett's Puget Park Swap, for instance — but the Latino population there is too small, so he comes here.

Latinos, he says, are the best customers. "They always buy. Now Koreans and Chinese people are learning a little bit of Spanish."

It's true: Along so-called Asian Row, Korea native Sun Cho of Tacoma has two spaces worth of casual pants and sportswear. Two guys sidle up and paw through the jeans. "How much?" one asks in accented English, picking up a pair.

"Treinta," Cho answers in practiced Spanish. Thirty. She's picked up the language from her daughter, who's learning it in high school.

The guy eyes the whitewashed jeans again. Thinks a minute. "OK, I come back."

"The true regulars, they learn," says Kent Police Sgt. J.J. Gagner, who has patrolled the swap meet for 18 years. "They have to start speaking the languages themselves. This is their livelihood."

Things weren't always this way. At his longstanding booth in the swap meet pavilion, the 60s-ish guy known widely as "The Book Man" — he won't give his name — remembers when antiques ruled the grounds. A comfortable symmetry prevailed. "Items would get bought by one seller and then another, and in the afternoon they'd still be here," he says.

Change arose in the 1980s with the advent of antique malls and greater Seattle's Asian immigration. Newer items crowded display tables, many proffered by a growing number of Korean merchants.

Meanwhile, The Book Man says, buyers seeking antiques eschewed the meet for the malls, while antique dealers would hit the meet early to see what was worth taking. The place was stripped by 8 in the morning. Then, in the 1990s, came the Internet. "Now some of the antique dealers are here again. But their best stuff goes on eBay."

New merchandise has literally divided the swap meet's present from its past, carving a shiny, fresh-scented swath of purses, luggage, sportswear and undergarments down the middle. The household detritus of old — the spice shakers, bicycles, chisels and shoes, the life-sized cardboard cutouts of Darth Vader — have been relegated to outer aisles.

Still, all of it has been ably weathered by The Book Man, who's missed few weekends since he first set up shop in the pavilion 20 years ago but foresees his imminent end. A woman asks about dictionaries; she walks away with a pair, one seemingly five inches thick. ("Some of my romance novels use big words," she explains.) Kids poke The Book Man on the arm, interrupting, "Excuse me, excuse me," looking for games and videos he doesn't have.

A dark-skinned girl prods: Do you have any books in Spanish? The Book Man stops and says, yes, he has a couple over here, and starts to head into the stacks when the girl turns and yells, "Mamacita! Si tiene!" Mommy! He's got them!

Yes, all of it ably weathered by The Book Man — until now. The event's biggest consumer market is one he can't reach. The mother quickly scans his weak selection and leaves. "The thing I didn't see coming," he sighs, "was that, right there."

The new face of Midway is most evident Sunday afternoons, when the majority of customers are Latinos, many fashionably dressed, fresh from church services.

Midway opened in 1971 after Pacific Service, Los Angeles-based owners of the Midway Drive-in, coaxed managers to dig wares out of their closets for a test run. The experiment was a success, and the indoor pavilion, added in 1982, enabled year-round operation. (Not a day goes by that rumors don't fly about the place being sold, but the closest it ever came was when the Seattle Seahawks sought a site for their new stadium, says Frank Wilson, who has managed Midway since 1975.)

All 500 outdoor and 220 indoor vendor spaces are full on this summer morning. Teenagers robbed of sleep help staff booths run by their parents as shoppers amble by with DVDs, car mats, small appliances they aim to resurrect from the dead. Outside, the drive-in marquee reads, in big capital letters without punctuation: "CLEAN OUT THE GARAGE OR BASEMENT MAKE MONEY BE YOUR OWN BOSS HAVE FUN ALL BOOTHS 17.00 A DAY."

Plenty of business

Vendors appear every few minutes at the office counter to get the sales-tax forms they're required to submit at day's end. With total taxes ranging from $600 to $1,100 a day, that's about $15,000 to $20,000 in total sales each weekend — or at least that, since store-owning vendors generally incorporate swap meet dues into their standard monthly payments.

For many families, seller Wendy Dybdahl of Bellevue says, Midway serves as a low-rent shopping mall. "They don't go to Nordstrom's," she says, straightening her racks of children's clothes. "They don't go to the Bon. This is where they come get their kids' clothes. A lot of them have no clue about sales at the stores. You can tell by what they pick up, what prices they'll pay for pots and pans. This is their store."

Sellers complain that sales are slow these days, a sign of the economy. Among them are pals Ha Nguyen and Claudia Juarez, who run adjoining tables under one tarp, watching each other's booths when necessary. Nguyen sells children's clothes; for Juarez, it's religious items and bath accessories. "Yesterday, I sold only $65," Nguyen says. "Before, people have jobs, money. Now, no jobs, no money."

Still, "This is a good place for me," says boot seller Jimenez, who came to the U.S. 15 years ago with his father and now has three kids of his own — a 1-year-old daughter and newborn twin sons. Between the swap meet and weekday hours at a Mexican grocery in Marysville, he keeps his family fed.

"Ten years ago, Hispanic people were not buying houses," he says. "Now they are buying houses. I think they are making plans to stay."

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published August 24, was corrected August 27. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article about the Midway Swap Meet left out the name of Wendy Dybdahl of Bellevue. Dybdahl, one of the sellers at the swap meet, was quoted as saying, among other things, that for many families, Midway serves as a low-rent shopping mall. "They don't go to Nordstrom's," she said of those families.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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