Sydney Markets 2am. The early bird catches the bargain.

‘If you get to the markets after 2.30, the good stuff is gone,’ our daughter tells me. She doesn’t mean 2.30 in the afternoon; she means that other 2.30, the ridiculous 2.30 that happens while normal sensible people are asleep.

Shopping is hell for me at any time, so bargain hunting at 2 am?? You’re kidding! But I’m a writer, and any new experience is a potential story.

Mevrouw T and I set the alarm for 1 am. We know Sydney Markets, in suburban Flemington, from the days when we used to shop for a vegetable co-op. That required a 5.00 start to a Saturday morning. Things were quiet in the vegie department at that hour, and it was a comfortable time to push a laden trolley between the stalls.

Surely nobody starts at 1.30?

In the secondhand goods section they do. The parking lot is floodlit and a steady stream of cars is arriving. Not only are the dealers setting up their stalls, there are customers too, hundreds of them.

It’s a slice through multi-cultural Sydney. Women in headscarves, Africans, Asians, enormous Pacific Islanders with bleary-eyed children in tow, elbowing each other out of the way as they sift through the mountains of clothing pouring from trucks onto wide trestle tables.

Mountains of clothing, and there's gold in them thar hills!

My daughter dives into the throng, picking up ladies’ tops, skirts, slacks, men’s business shirts and stuffing her selections into a large plastic bag. She’s a professional, sourcing stock for her Sunday market stall.

A quick glance at the collar of each item tells her whether it has a marketable designer. Another quick appraisal. If it’s at all damaged, she flings it back on the heap, from which other hands snatch it up.

She’s a link in a long chain of people involved in Sydney’s recycled clothing business.

Some years ago in Ibadan, Nigeria, I met a woman entrepreneur. She imported shipping containers of biscuits, which she sold to dealers who bought them by the carton and divided them up into packets for shops. Shopkeepers opened the packets and sold single biscuits. Maybe enterprising Nigerian schoolkids sold biscuit chips to their classmates.

Similar dealing down goes on in the used rag trade.

Charities set bins on street corners, into which well-meaning people like me toss unwanted clothing. The floral shirt I never liked, jeans which no longer fit, the worn-once karate suit of a child who’s now into football…in through the slot they go.

In my ignorance I thought charity volunteers sifted the stock, donated the best of it to needy families and sold the rest through op shops to people who needed floral shirts to wear to fancy-dress retro parties.

Sometimes it does work like that, but there are other systems too.

Commercial entrepreneurs pay a charity for the right to operate a particular street bin. It’s a good deal for the charity – they benefit by getting regular money upfront and don’t need to engage staff or volunteers in the tiresome business of sorting through the donations.

The dealers do a basic cull. Rags go to cleaning companies as, well, rags. Wearable clothing comes to places like the Sydney Market, sorted into menswear, children’s clothes, shoes, handbags, cosmetics (so popular that people are queuing to get a place at the table before the truck is unloaded).

Smaller traders like my daughter rifle through the heaps, buying stock (at three pieces for $10) and selling it at markets or in recycled fashion shops.

Most of the 2am shoppers at Sydney Markets look like individuals searching for bargains. You would perhaps say ‘lower socio-economic families’, but they’re no more desperate than the people who burst through the department store doors for those Dante-esque post-Christmas sales.

I hear that when the rush is over, surplus clothing is bought by enterprising dealers who load it into shipping containers and send it to, say, Nigeria.

It’s all quite a business, in every sense of the word. It benefits the needy (at least a little bit), employs people, makes serious money for some, gets bargains into eager hands and keeps Mevrouw T and yours truly sartorially dressed for next to nothing.

I’ve seen it now, it was fun, and on all future Saturday mornings I’ll be dead to the world at 2.30am.

Does this commercialism make you less likely to donate used clothing to charities? Or more selective about which bin you use?


Filed under Travel-Australia


  1. As long as there is some benefit for the charity I guess it doesn’t matter how it works. I usually take things directly into the local Vinnies and they can do with it what they wish.

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