Common Tread

Lemmy's swap meet survival guide

Apr 11, 2014

Warm weather means riding bikes, and riding bikes means breakin' 'em. Swap meets herald the beginning of a new bike season. If you've never been to one, I suggest you give it a whirl. You can find parts for your antique machinery, see some cool scooters, and meet some of the grey-bearded diehards in your area.

Photo by Lance Oliver.

Sure, you can just point your browser to eBay or a motorcycle internet forum and buy your parts, too. I do it myself! eBay won't include the social aspects of a swap meet, however, and while eBay or a forum is great for finding what you want, a swap meet is probably the best place to find your next project, which you didn't know you needed until you saw it.

So, for the rookies and vets alike, here’s a RevZilla primer on how to gear up for the swaps.

If you’re a buyer

Photo by Lance Oliver.
Get there early. First day, crack of dawn. Seriously, I have scammed so much good stuff for so cheap by being there early and buying stuff off people as they are unloading their trucks. Protip: Many swaps have a "secret start day" one day early to give larger vendors time to set up. This is a great way to obtain "chopper gold."

Have cash, and be willing to spend it. If you’re gonna lowball someone and walk around a little bit before you finally break down and fork over your money, you might lose the parts you’re interested in to a more committed buyer. Know what the stuff you want is worth.

Don’t need Knucklehead parts. Seriously. This stuff is about as easy to find as unicorn pelts. If your Knuck breaks, see if you can just have your machinist make new parts from solid gold stock. It’ll be cheaper.

Self-assemble. A complete front end may wipe you out for a few hundred bones, but if one guy has a set of tubes for 40 bucks, you saw triple trees on that table over by the Port-A-Potty, and you manage to scam a wheel and axle for 35 bucks... well, you are most of the way to having a front end cheaper than a complete unit. Be willing to be creative in what you’re shopping for. I built a "swap meet special" recently and the end product was a surprise and a compromise ...but it was sure affordable!

Photo by Lance Oliver.

Know what you are buying. Parts books and manuals are your friends. Sellers have (usually) little idea if a part will work for your application. Casting numbers are important. Anything fits anything else if you have a welder and a cutoff wheel, but with a little research, you can get what you need at the right price and save yourself a headache.

Have beer. I have negotiated the price of parts down on a hot summer day simply by offering a cold brew out of my lunchbox.

Have fun. There are people who swap parts for a living, certainly, and some folks who will take advantage of others just to turn a buck. Happily, they are not the majority. Most people are at the swaps to make room and to make friends, not to make money. I’ve given away a lot of parts for free because I know someone needed something I had to get their old heap back on the road. I met one of my very best friends at a swap meet. When I consider the 10 bucks I paid to get into that swap meet, it was the bargain of a lifetime.

If you’re a seller

Get there early. Giving yourself time to unload your parts and arrange everything nicely in a leisurely fashion can really set the mood for your weekend. Life’s more fun when you’re not working hard.

Price everything. Some sellers like to assess each "mark" as they approach the table, but the vast majority of buyers seem to be irritated if they have to keep asking what you want out of every single item. I don’t like answering pricing questions all day long as a seller, either. I far prefer to munch my peanuts.

Stay comfy. If you’re traveling far to a swap and you’ll be living out of your truck for a few days, try to make it easy on yourself. I bring stuff to make breakfast and hot coffee in the mornings. Mike C., our Merch Specialist, who is also interested in older junk, always brings his “Gentleman’s Walking Powder” (Gold Bond). I also like to bring my kid’s minibike, too. We both have fun riding it around!

Have Knucklehead parts. Those are worth a pile of bucks.

Photo by Lance Oliver.

Bring the title. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen someone selling a whole bike that took half an hour to load and he forgot the title! It’s not the end of the world, but having the title on hand goes a long way to easing a buyer’s mind that your bike is on the up-and-up.

Know what you’re selling. If you can help a buyer know if something will or won’t work for him, you will become a more trusted seller. The community of swappers is pretty tight-knit. At the very least, label what kind of bike the parts came off, if you know. If you’re selling repop stuff (reproduction parts, not OEM), make that clear. And if you’re selling OEM antique parts, do not attempt to clean or refinish them. Doing so often wrecks their value.

Be at peace with the world. Did you give someone a good price on a part, only to see him mark it way up and set it on his table early on? Did someone who told you they only had 40 bucks to buy something hand you a hundred? Don’t fret it. It’s all part of the game. When you help out a rookie with a part he needs or you find a super-sweet taillight still in its box at the bottom of some crate for $4, it all seems to even out. Have fun out there!

The swap meet attitude

Photo by Lemmy.
If you treat the swaps as a place to build a stronger sense of community and a fun destination, you’re on your way to having an awesome time. It’s almost guaranteed you’ll see some crazy bikes and parts and you almost can’t avoid some of the characters you run into. There’s always some passionate folks and great stories.

My favorite time is the evening, when the parts get covered up, the fires get lit, and the guitars and whiskey make their appearances. That never happens on eBay. I’ve met some great folks on some of these junkets. I hope you do, too!