At the height of Union Swapmeet in the ’80s and ’90s, lines of people would wait to shop at 70 different stalls.
Families got haircuts and bought clothes, toys, and pets. They ate and sent money to their home countries. Latino radio stations held events, mariachis played, and there were even car giveaways. Latinos and Koreans, hundreds and thousands of miles away from home, spoke their native languages. A trip to Union Swapmeet was an all day affair.
“I grew up in this swap meet,” says Maria Sandoval, surrounded by stuffed animals and men’s clothing. “You can pretty much find everything here, and it’s a community.”
Her mother, Olga Avila, has made a living at the indoor market in East Hollywood since Joo Lee opened its doors in 1986. He modeled the concept on ones from his home country of Korea that allowed multiple people to own businesses in one place. For merchants, the rent is more accessible than a traditional brick-and-mortar, and it attracted new immigrants like Avila who wanted independence—but didn’t have the capital for a larger enterprise.
Joo retired three years ago, leaving the swap meet in the care of his two daughters and son-in-law. Mindy Lee, Gina Lee Wong, and her husband Vince Wong, wanted to continue their father’s legacy but in a way that was viable to the changing tastes of the community.
Describing the market as “time capsule,” they attempted to modernize by repainting the exterior with murals of long-time vendors and even added an Instagrammable set of wings. They threw pop-ups and a heavily attended Hong Kong-style night market and tried to fill some stalls with Etsy vendors.
It wasn’t enough.
The Lees have struck a deal with Koreatown developer Jamison Services to demolish the market and turn the property into a seven-story residential and retail complex.
For now, customers continue to trickle in to pay their cell phone bills, buy jewelry, and visit longtime friends. Many of the them, coming from places like Hesperia and the San Fernando Valley, no longer live in the neighborhood, but continue to come back, because it’s familiar.
“When one first arrives in this country, it’s easier to go to a swap meet and be able to speak your own language than going to a mall and having to speak English,” says Avila, standing in the stall where she’s sold music, incense, and perfume for more than 30 years. “It’s a place where Latinos can feel like they’re in their own country. They don’t feel so sad, because when you leave your country, it’s a sad thing. You feel alone.”
When Avila opened her stall, she specialized in selling Latin music records and cassettes. Her curated selections of cumbia, punta, merengue, and norteño were popular with Mexican and Central American immigrants who lived in the area. As technology evolved, she did too. Today her top sellers are incense and glass pipes.
“It’s over, so I’m going to close. I’m a little sad. It is normal... My next step is to work, but in something else,” says Avila. “All the time I spent here was very beautiful. I got to know many people. I got to know the feelings of many people, from sorrows to joys, everything.”
Vendors at Union don’t plan to move to another swap meet after this one closes. To them, it’s a futile attempt. They understand they’re a dying breed.
Their reflections continue below.
F&G Shoe Repair
“I’m from Guatemala. I repair all kinds of shoes, women’s bags, luggage, leather jackets. I work with leather. I learned this in my country, when I was 8 years old. My mother made me learn this work. I know how to manufacture the entire shoe not just repair. I am 65 years old now.
“I wanted to become independent and be my own boss, that’s why I’m here. Thank God I’m doing very well. At first it took a while, but now I’m fine.
“This can not be done online, so I still have customers. If this were just retail, I would have left, because it is easier to buy online.
“A lot of swap meets are disappearing. I think I’ll look for a place outside. I do not plan to close. The swap meet gave me a lot of life. It has given me everything—how to survive, everything.”
Michoacan, Mexico Travel Latino Express
“The majority of my clients are from Mexico. Many are from Durango and Oaxaca, but I also have many from Guatemala. What I do most is send money.
“I like to take care of people. I like listening to them. The kind of people I deal with are very humble people who come to work to send money. I like to give them my trust, and they feel trust in me.
“Many people are also returning to their countries. And it’s sad, but I have 10-year-old clients who have already left. At the beginning that Trump won, they sent and sent money. They took their money from the bank, because of all the changes that were happening. They were afraid of being deported, and so they sent the money.
“They come with the illusion of helping out their families back home and building their houses. That is why they come and work so many jobs so they can send money and finish their houses back home. And then they return. Many have left, because they have already accumulated money. They did what they had to do, and it is time to go back to their family. Those stories are very common in this type of business.
“It’s very nice, because sometimes they tell me their stories, they tell me their lives, about how they left children back home. They feel trust in me, and maybe that keeps them coming back. I’ve connected a lot with my clients.
“I do feel nostalgia about the swap meet closing, but these are the changes of life, and you have to accept them. Everything has an end, right? What can we do?”
“I’m from Los Angeles, but my parents are from Guatemala. I opened this up when I was 18. I like animals, so it’s kind of like a passion and a business at the same time.
“I’ve been coming to this swap meet since I was maybe three or four years old, because I grew up in the area. I actually have pictures of me when they would come and visit the swap meet and buy jewelry. When we would visit, I would buy animals without my mom noticing, and I would hide it until we got home.
“I went from having one small 500 square feet locale to having four little spots. The next step I think for me would be to get an actual brick-and-mortar location.
“I have customers that come in here, and I’m like a therapist to them. They’ll talk to me not just about their animals but about family. It’s a community based business. You’re serving the community.
“The swap meet is a dying industry. The products that we have in here don’t cater to the people that are in the neighborhood now.
“Swap meets are important, because they preserve culture and preserve history. They service the community. It holds for people an emotional part. They’re unique.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this column, Mindy Lee’s first name was misspelled. It is Mindy, not Miny.
In her new column “Intersections,” journalist Samanta Helou Hernandez is creating an archive of LA’s changing neighborhoods.