Swap meets show off the fantastic, exotic in Las Vegas

To find them, you have to be a bit of an explorer. You must wander down crowded aisles and jostle amid the hubbub and hustle of two separate Las Vegas swap meets located miles apart — one indoors, the other open-air.

As you turn a corner, you’ll see them there, these colorful vendors and their often-exotic wares, hawkers with humorous nicknames bestowed by loyal customers.

The Bird Man. The Doughnut Guy. The Wig Lady and the Snake Dude. The Coconut Family. And the Wheelchair Man.

They hail from faraway places. But they all have this in common: They want to sell you things. They also offer advice and spin stories. Like how some thief once ripped off the Snake Dude’s van and quickly got a slithery surprise. And how couples often shop for wigs together. Not for the wife, though, for the husband.

Petting the belly of a baby white cockatiel as he would a kitten, Marco Ferreira said any bird can become trusting and gentle if separated from their parents early enough. In his corner booth at the Fantastic Indoor Swap Meet, where 60 birds are for sale, canaries sing, cockatiels whistle, and parrots talk and sometimes squawk.

“The Bird Man is exceptional,” said a customer who identified herself only as Adele. “He knows birds, the best seeds to feed them, everything. I used to go to Petco, but no more.”

As he stroked the fluttery cockatiel, Ferreira, a 48-year-old Los Angeles native, said he got his first bird at the age of 12 and never looked back. He removes a few ingrown feathers and then kisses the little bird on its beak.

“Birds are very affectionate,” he said. “They’re big lovers.”

The snakes, not so much.

Levon Holiday comes from Louisiana, in many areas a swampy place crawling with critters. His cubicle features a ball python, a corn snake and a red-tailed boa constrictor. In one terrarium, there’s an oddball albino boa.

He didn’t always sell snakes. For years, he charged $30 to snap shots for customers wearing his serpents like jewelry, or a turban or a fashionable scarf. When the camera clicked, some people smiled while others were gripped with fear.

To overcome their fear of snakes, he said, people must surrender. “They feel like this warm smooth plastic,” the snake-charmer said. “Except that they’re moving.”

But some clients wanted more than mere photographs; they wanted the snakes themselves. So Holiday became a snake seller. In the last year, he’s counted three dozen new snake owners.

Kathy and Calvin Nashiro, on vacation here from Hawaii, visited the swap meet recently with their 3-year-old son, Carson. The boy spied a lizard in Holiday’s booth and wanted to touch it. Before the three left, Carson had two snakes draped around his neck, including the albino boa.

“The snake guy was so gentle,” Kathy Nashiro said. “He made my son so comfortable he allowed the snakes to be around his head.”

To lure in new customers, Holiday places a colorful red-tailed boa on a wooden sawhorse.

A visitor touched the wood, and the snake slightly adjusted its grip on the beam.

“He felt that,” the Snake Man said. “Did you see him move?”

After years as a snake peddler, Holiday still marvels at the creatures. “They don’t have legs. They don’t have hands. And, still, they have this very powerful grip.”

Holiday almost lost some snakes to a bumbling car thief. Six months ago, he returned to the Fantastic parking lot to find his van missing — along with three snakes stored in boxes. He quickly found the vehicle abandoned at a nearby Taco Bell. Why did the thief high-tail it? The van was out of gas, but it could have been those snakes. Said Holiday: “He may have looked in the back and told himself, ‘I’m done with this.’”

Wigging out

A few aisles away, the Wig Lady sells her wares, whether they’re short or long, curly or straight, synthetic or human hair. Susan Schneider began in 1992 with just two cubicles. Now her Vegas Girl Wigs features a dozen booths offering thousands of wigs and extensions.

Her customers? Little old ladies, cocktail waitresses and dancers, not to mention the bald preacher who never hits the pulpit without his rug.

Standing at just under 5 feet tall, the 69-year-old Kansas City native is a dynamo. From her regular store nearby she’s served clients such as Cher, Joan Rivers, Kenny Rogers, Rip Taylor and the Australian Bee Gees.

Wigs have taught her a lot about life. Many women will gut the grocery bill to look good, she jokes. And even with the best get-up, “without the right wig, you’re nada.”

Husbands come, too. Some show up with their wives. Others come alone. “We were just talking the other day,” Schneider said. “With all the colorful clients we get in here, we could probably start our own reality show.”

The Wig Lady included. With a wink, she divulges a little secret: She wears one, too.

Just around the corner, Farid Failey knows swap meet shoppers get hungry, so he lures them in with the sweet smell of confections.

Failey is the Doughnut Guy. He sells crumbly miniatures for 50 cents apiece, six for $3, and he refuses to raise his prices.

He calls doughnut-making a lost art — the act of dropping the rolled dough into the fryer to achieve perfection. For Failey, who was born in Iran, doughnut-making is all about the performance. Especially when the swap meet aisles are teeming, he’s there, frying his doughnuts, for all to see. “People don’t get to see their food made in front of them these days,” he said. “And you should see the kids’ eyes open. They’re huge!”

And don’t believe all that propaganda that doughnuts make you fat. “Forget about guilt,” he said. “People come here to eat doughnuts because they enjoy eating doughnuts.”

And the perfect doughnut? “They’re all perfect,” the Doughnut Guy said.

The main office walls at Fantastic feature black-and-white photos of flea markets around the world — from Cairo and Norway to Mexico, Morocco and Boston.

This one is bigger. Its sales floor sprawls 200,000 square feet and the schematic map of its 175 vendors resembles the periodic table of elements, or some complex equation your physics professor might draw on the blackboard.

Opened in 1988, the business, which sells only new items, has since housed 5,500 small entrepreneurs and attracted 16.5 million shoppers, who each pay a dollar to pass through its turnstiles.

‘We’ve Got It!’

Co-owner Doug Kays said swap meets such as Fantastic, which is open Friday through Sunday, serve several purposes. “They create an authentic marketplace for entrepreneurs who want to start their own business but don’t want to do it out of their garage,” he said. “It’s a location with a built-in customer base.”

Kays says he’s often asked why the large sign outside the swap meet spells Fantastik with a K. Can’t he spell? He says the venture moved to the location in 1991 after three years elsewhere. The former owner called his business “Fantastik Furniture” and they decided to keep the sign. Kays laughs that he doesn’t care if clients spell it with a “K” or a “C,” as long as they come.

For years, to lure in more shoppers, Kays has broadcast kitschy commercials in which he wanders around the swap meet followed by a camera crew. He stops at unique vendors and tries on a wig or eats a doughnut, followed by the slogan, “We’ve Got It!”

Alfonso Vernal, who owns AR Furniture, operated at Fantastic for eight years before he launched three stores across the Las Vegas Valley. Then the 2008 financial crash hit and he lost everything, so he moved back to a 5,000-square-foot space at Fantastic.

“I started all over,” he said. I won’t move again.”

Ten miles away Evelyn Sanchez walks the grounds of the Broadacres Marketplace, a swap meet that opened 41 years ago in North Las Vegas. On a Friday afternoon, vendors readied their stock as a Spanish-language radio station played from one stall. More Mexican flags fly here than Old Glory.

The grounds are mammoth. “We have 44 acres; we’re half the size of Disneyland,” said Sanchez, who is on the Broadacres marketing team. “Many of the 1,100 businesses here are family-run.”

Open Friday night through Sunday, Broadacres, she added, is designed for the family on a budget. There are kiddie rides and nightly live entertainment. Admission is $2.50 on Fridays and $1.50 on weekends, Kids are free.

Originally called the Broadacres Swap Meet, the venture was renamed by new owner Greg Danz in 2007, and Broadacres markets itself as a place “where value and entertainment come together!” on its website. A $5 million renovation added six restaurants and a canopied picnic area where families can listen to live music late into the night.

These day, as more Latino families have relocated here, Broadacres, which sells both new and used items, has increasingly catered to their tastes. Vendors specialize in pinatas, handmade boots, gorditas and Mexican chili. The surrounding ZIP code, 89030, Sanchez said, is now home to the biggest Latino population in the Las Vegas Valley.

One early evening, a woman pushed a stroller past a booth that sold Halloween costumes — from fairy dresses and magic wands to ninja turtle weapons. The holiday was over for the year, but there were still bargains to be had.

“There’s always next year,” she said.

Love and coconuts

At his Broadacres stand, Urbano Ramirez doesn’t sell coconuts by himself. He has the help of his wife and four daughters.

They’re the Coconut Family. And their stand is called Coco Loco.

A native of Mexico, the 41-year-old Ramirez has sold coconuts since he was a teenager. His father Ignacio started a stand here years ago. Nowadays, Ignacio still runs the original stall with two other sons, while Ramirez has branched out on his own.

He owes his life to coconuts: He met his wife at his father’s stand. Gabriela was working for the family and one day asked for change for a dollar. Urbano came up with the coins and recognized her beauty, but for the longest time, she ignored him.

Now they work hand in hand, selling coconuts with straws inserted or peeled coconut innards served with lime, salt, pork skins or fruit. The Coconut Family has grown their initial stall into 10.

There are family secrets: Urbano won’t divulge how many coconuts he sells, joking that he’s wary the swap meet will raise his rent.

On a recent Friday, Catherine Ramirez stocked coconuts with her father, anticipating the evening rush. A junior studying business management at UNLV, she plans to one day modernize the business. “When I first started at school, I thought I’d know everything,” she said. “I didn’t.”

She said the family still counts change by hand. Their business needs to be automated.

That day, Ramirez, will come.

Rolling along

Nearby, the Wheelchair Man polishes stock that includes walkers, canes, oxygen tanks and chairs both manual and electric.

But who comes to the carnival atmosphere of a swap meet looking for wheelchairs?

“That’s the wonderful thing about the Latino community,” said Brad Stedding, a 69-year-old who hails from Baltimore. “People take care of their parents.”

Sometimes, Stedding’s wares have unintended consequences. Last year, a man bought a knee roller for his son. The device allows a patient with a broken leg to wheel along on a foot-propelled scooter.

The Wheelchair Man warned the father that the device wasn’t a toy. Go too fast, you take your chances. Days later, the man’s wife returned to the booth. She said her husband was fiddling around with the knee roller and fell off, fracturing a kneecap.

“I asked her if she wanted to buy a wheelchair,” Stedding said.

She wasn’t interested.

John M. Glionna, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, may be reached at john.glionna@gmail.com.

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