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Sniffing out treasure in a sea of stuff

Recession hones the deal-making instincts of buyer and seller alike at Florida's big marine flea market

Julio Cordero wheels a box full of boat parts on a hand truck as he walks the aisles of the Dania Beach (Fla.) Marine Flea Market with a friend.

Rick Gray came from Ontario to sell reconditioned outboards and lower units at Dania.

"I'm rigging a 29-foot Striper," says Cordero, of Miami Lakes, Fla. He bought the twin-engine walkaround as salvage, stripped of its hardware. "I'm trying to put it back together now and not have to go to a dealer."

Call it a sign of the times. Just another working stiff trying to save money. In a sluggish economy - anytime really - the Dania Beach Marine Flea Market is the place for boaters to find deals on parts and accessories - new, used or salvaged - and for marine retailers and manufacturers to unload surplus inventory.

Merchandise at the March 18-21 flea market ran from a handful of new boats to new and used anchors, chain, line, rods, reels, deck hardware, props, outboards and outboard parts, plus hats, shirts, shoes and a whole lot more. A few boatbuilders were exhibiting, along with electronics retailers, marine hardware dealers, outboard shops, trailer parts vendors, accessory manufacturers (fishboxes, heads, live wells, bolsters), salvors, junk collectors.

"This is the 32nd year we've done this," says Al Behrendt, president of Al Behrendt Enterprises, which owns the flea market. "Over the years, it seems that when business is booming on the retail side of things, a handful of retailers come here to get rid of used items, overstocked inventory and dent-and-scratch stuff they can't sell." When retail sales are "in the toilet," he says, the flea market goes into overdrive as a venue for bringing buyers and sellers together to make deals.

And dealing is what it's all about.

Shoppers can find virtually anything nautical at the market.

Dave Miller sells a used boat stove for $200 Thursday morning, holds it at the booth for the buyer, and by afternoon has an offer of $300 for it. Miller, a broker for New River Marina Trawler Center in Fort Lauderdale, calls the first buyer, asks if he wants to resell it (he does), and makes a $20 commission.

"It's a lot of fun doing this," says Miller.

"If you're a fisherman, you always come here to get something for your boat," says Michael Brown, vice president of center console builder Dusky Marine of Dania Beach.

Brown is showing five new boats, 18 to 25 feet, since the flea market is in his back yard. "We sold a couple here last year," he says. "You know there will be fishermen here. They are buying rods and reels and gear to fix up their old boat. They see us and figure maybe they might want to get a new boat."

Miami salvor Felix J. Gonzalez has no illusions about his product line. "I sell junk," he says. Poring over a table covered with salvaged hardware, a customer picks up a heavily oxidized steering wheel with a spoke missing. It's just what he has been looking for. Does Gonzalez have the missing spoke? Or another wheel like it with all its spokes? No, what you see is what you get. "[That wheel] has been coming to the flea market for years," says Gonzalez.

Gonzalez's company, Atlantic Aero Marine, does salvage work for insurance companies. He salvages boats and disposes of them, but he strips them first. Then he sells the parts. Trade in used or salvaged parts is brisk these days. "Your everyday Joe just won't put a boat together with new parts anymore," he says.

"I sell some stuff here. I buy stuff, too," Gonzalez says. Sales have been good. "I'm way ahead." He has taken in more than he has spent.

Other vendors come by on Wednesday, before the show opens, and buy his brass ports and lights for cheap, shine them up, then sell them later at the show for a tidy profit, the salvor says. Among his inventory: an outmoded fishfinder with paper graph he doubts he'll ever sell unless it's to a museum, and a Loran-C, still in its box - never used. "If someone comes by here and has $20 in his pocket, it's his," says Gonzalez. "It's brand new, but it's from a different era."

He picks up a set of throttles, badly oxidized but still usable. "You can't buy these new for less than $400," he says. "I'll sell these to somebody for $75."

A browser asks how much the T-top tower is. When Gonzalez quotes him $1,500, the man shakes his head and turns away - without a word said.

"Don't be bashful," Gonzalez tells him. "Talk to me."

Make a deal.

New, used, surplus - dealing and haggling are often encouraged.

Camp Out Inc., a chain of trailer and accessory dealerships, is attracting a crowd to its tent filled with trailer parts and equipment - lights, bolts, rollers, winches, tongues and tongue jacks. "We brought six semi loads to the show," says Mike Scott, one of seven Scott brothers who operate six stores around the country. "We're selling at 50 to 100 percent discount. Some stuff is below invoice."

He says Camp Out comes to the show to liquidate overstock. "We buy stuff by the container-full," he says. "Everything we buy is in bulk, volume." The Scotts have 500 winches and 600 wheels, priced to sell.

In another aisle, David Federico of Palm Bay has just spent $400 for a new Bimini top for his 25-foot Sea Ray. He figures he saved about $250. He's still looking for a center console and fishing rod, and jewelry for his wife. "I'm going to have to buy something for her, or this top won't go over too good," he says.

Vendor Rick Gray has come all the way from Ontario to set up his display of reconditioned outboard lower units. Gray says there's a lot of demand for the "freshwater stuff" he brings down from the Great Lakes. "Three-quarters of my business is dealers-only," he says. The flea market gives him a chance to not only sell to boaters, but keep up contacts with local dealers.

Maurice and Lise Baron Droled, on vacation from Montreal, are looking for a prop for the outboard on their Princecraft pontoon boat back in Canada. They haven't found it yet, but they buy some lures. And just down the way are some $5 Sperry Top-Sider sneakers and $10 boat shoes. They're hard to pass up when you're on a budget.

"We get genuine buyers to come through our gates, not people looking for something to do on a Saturday afternoon," says Behrendt, noting that the gate this year was up 6 percent from last year. "It's for hard-core buyers."

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.