Pete Agusto says he wakes up at 5 a.m. every Sunday to sell antiques, art work, books and garage sale items at the Maxwell Street Market.
Agusto makes his living in construction work, but he adds to his income by selling goods on Maxwell Street. He said selling objects there is also a hobby for him. Agusto sets up his wares on tables and underneath a large tent. His mother and other relatives regularly join him.
“I like to bargain,” said Agusto. “This is a fun place to work. I’ve met amazing people here.”
Agusto said he has sold items at the Maxwell Street market for 20 years and has seen the number of customers decrease.
“There has been a dramatic change with the people over the years,” said Agusto. “Now every one wants to shop in stores.”
He also noted that parking around the market has become expensive, so fewer people are coming to shop.
Agusto was one of many vendors looking to make sales Sunday at the Maxwell Street Market, on Halsted Street south of Roosevelt Road. Open for over 20 years, the market is on the West Side, which is considered one of the city’s oldest residential districts. The University of Illinois-Chicago encompasses the market.
Maxwell Street, built by Irish immigrants, was named after Dr. Phillip Maxwell, a physician in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. The street first appeared in Chicago in 1847. Nearby housing was built by Irish immigrants; it continues to be a gateway for newly arrived Russians, Germans, Italians, African Americans and Mexicans.
The market represented a fundamental change in American retail. The market allows independent entrepreneurs to sell their merchandise, earn money and develop relationships with buyers. Buyers can shop for antiques, bargain for goods, and or simply search for items that are not sold in stores.
The market is not an ordinary flea market. It has been featured in documentary films such as “Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street” by Phil Ranstrom. Maxwell Street was also featured in a 1980 film, “The Blues Brothers.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, many African Americans moved to Chicago from the segregated South to escape lynchings, the Jim Crow laws and to find higher paying jobs. They brought blues music and began playing on Maxwell Street. In 1999-2000 the last blues performances were played there.
Today, there are performances such as salsa dancing, some live music, clown balloon twisting and puppet shows, but nothing like the large performances of the 1940s.
The market offers a venue for street performers.
“I will tell any child or student to take their talents to the streets if they can’t afford school,” said Charleen Torres, a salsa dancer who said she is earning money to pay for her college tuition
“Thanks to the market, I’ve been able to go to school,” said Torres. “I didn’t get financial aid so pretty much the market has been paying for my education.”
Torres said she dances from noon to 3 p.m. Before she leaves, the vendors offer her food and water throughout the day.
Some customers said they shop at Maxwell Street because prices are low.
Lauren Clarke, a Texan who lives in Chicago, said she loves to buy flowers, plants and household goods.
“Some vendors offer what I like, so I tend to visit them all the time,” said Clarke. “This is the only market I go to. It satisfies my needs.”
Clarke said bargaining is common at many flea markets but not at Maxwell Street.
“I usually don’t try to bargain,” said Clarke. “If I don’t like the price I usually just try to move on. It’s not worth it.”
She said she recalls every moment at the market.
“Every time I eat a veggie quesadilla with my boyfriend where there are buckets of onions, peppers, and salsa you can lather them on,” she said. “There will always be remarkable moments.”
Ceci Rodriguez, a vendor, began selling at the market two weeks ago. She said she likes to give buyers good deals on their merchandise.
“We sell just about anything you need at home,” said Rodriguez. “We sell shampoo, $5 curling irons. Everything is cheap here.”
The market is patrolled by police and security guards.
“Safety at the market is secure,” said Maurice Jones, a security officer for the market.
He recalled only one incident of property theft.
“Someone ran off with an iPhone and sped off in a black BMW truck,” said Jones. “We had to call it in, but I say keep your children and your belongings close by.”
For more information check out the Maxwell Street Market website.