How to make pounds 500 from a car boot sale - or not: Hester Lacey meets a man who knows all the tricks of the trade
Sunday 27 February 1994
The hard-working can make a good living from trading at boot fairs, according to Roger, author of pounds 500 A Week From Car Boot Sales, but it's not enough simply to clear the garage. Junk auctions, bin raiding, charity shop and jumble sale swoops, house clearances and bargains snapped up from inexperienced booters provide rich pickings for the dedicated boot dealer to turn into profit.
Roger has been a booter for 20 years, since the first car boot sales evolved from American trunk sales and garage sales in the early Seventies. Now semi- retired, he only needs to trade 'for fun, in the summer'. But he would not be photographed. 'I've had death threats over the book. The regulars don't like their secrets revealed.' He looks slightly disreputable in a furry hat and battered jacket, but this is all part of the
experienced car boot dealer's disguise.
'Most of us don't wear watches because they are usually Rolexes and it gives us away, pushes the prices up. You can recognise a dealer by his good shoes, though.' They take this cloak and dagger aspect very seriously. 'Over there, the guy with the suede jacket - don't look,' hissed Roger, discreetly indicating a tall scruffy man ferreting through a dusty heap of stock. 'He's a really big dealer, goes around with pounds 1,500 in his pocket looking for the big stuff.' Although acquainted, the two were careful to look straight through each other.
These professional dealers have taken over the ubiquitous car boot sale from amateur sellers who cleared out attics and garages. Roger estimated that 90 per cent of the pitches at the Bristol sale were taken up by professionals as interested in wheeling and dealing among themselves as in selling to 'mug punters'. There are around 1,500 boot sales every week, estimates the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, involving around a 250,000 vehicles. Exeter City Council, which runs its own boot fair, reckons that the minimum take per pitch is around pounds 50, rising to pounds 300 in the summer.
But professional dealers are a cause for concern. 'Traders are taking over, selling stolen and counterfeit goods,' the Association of County Councils claimed. This month the ACC organised a conference attended by the Consumers Association, the police, the Anti- Counterfeiting Group and the Trading Standards Association. It concluded that regulations were necessary to control the numbers of traders.
At the Bristol sale, however, the goods disgorged on to trestle tables from a motley assortment of battered hatchbacks, vans and trailers looked more like jumble than the results of successful heists. 'Look around,' said Roger. 'No self-respecting thief would steal this stuff. I mean, would you bother to steal any of this? Most of it is junk. Anyway, housebreakers don't get out of bed before 2pm.'
Junk or not, he put his glasses on to take a closer look. By 7.30am most of the pitches were set up - many by regulars that he recognised from other sales. 'That rough looking pair there - they're skip- divers. Never buy anything, get all their stuff from skips.'
The amateur attic-clearers, or 'two-bob booters', stuck out like a sore thumb. Roger pointed one out, huddled behind a table of baby gear. 'He should take home pounds 50 or pounds 60. The pushchair alone should go for pounds 20, it's in good condition, nice and clean.' Half an hour later, one of the women pros had relieved him of it for pounds 5.
Roger's car boot philosophy is sweeping. 'People can't afford to buy retail so they come to the boot sales. This is a growth industry - and a green industry, ecological. A vast amount of stuff is discarded by the consumer society but it's still usable. There's nothing you can't sell, however bizarre.' The profit on each transaction is tiny, but he claims to know of several car boot millionaires.
Whenever a new vehicle appeared, there was a frantic rush as the seller opened his boot. 'That's vulturing,' explained Roger, 'getting the good stuff before it even gets out of the wagon.' How rare are real finds? Roger recalled that after one house clearance he went through the goods for a boot sale and found a Second World War RAF pilot's kit. It sold for pounds 9,000 at auction. How did he feel afterwards? 'How does the hunter feel when he sees his prey? I look at it this way. I don't do knocking - getting stuff off old ladies for nothing. If he'd been poor I'd have given him something. But he was a businessman, he should have known better.'
By 9.30am the 'mug punters' had arrived in force, and trade in old records, tatty paperbacks, cracked china and old clothes for a few pence a time was brisk. But for the professionals, the real business of the day had long been transacted. Roger surveyed the crowds pityingly. 'They just don't know the value of anything. Anything at all.'
' pounds 500 A Week From Car Boot Sales', pounds 9.99 inc p&p, Imperia Books, PO Box 191, Edgware, Middlesex, HA8 7NY.
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