For kids only. `Dinosaur Bones, 25 cents': swap meet run by and for children is a summertime success

Five years ago, 10-year-old Laurie Walker had a great idea which germinated one of this area's most popular summer events for small fry. Her brainstorm: a swap meet run entirely by kids, featuring nothing but kids' stuff sold exclusively to other kids. She broached the concept to her parents, Mike and Nancy Walker, after noticing that most garage sales the family attended were geared mainly to adults, with few items for youngsters.

``We thought, `Hey, that could be kind of fun,''' Mr. Walker recalls. ``It snowballed and we rented the [Nevada County] Fairgrounds. We didn't really know what we were getting into.''

The ``For Kids Only Swap Meet'' caught on fast, attracting about 250 young participants and 1,500 potential customers the first year, and more every year. This year's fifth annual event will be held July 25.

Youngsters pay $5 to rent a booth space, and the cost is usually shared between friends, neighbors, or siblings, Mrs. Walker explains. ``Parents let them pay, so they have the whole experience,'' she notes. Young entrepreneurs prepare for the event by cleaning out their closets, and repairing and sprucing up items they plan to swap.

``They'll get their stuffed animals and they'll wash them and brush them up and put new ribbons on them,'' Mrs. Walker says. ``I have some kids who call every day for two weeks before and ask my opinion on what things are worth.''

``The stuff that's overpriced doesn't go and the stuff that's shabby doesn't sell,'' Mr. Walker adds.

The Walker kids (Laurie, her sister Melissa, 8, and 6-year-old brother, Jack) are in charge of organizing and promoting the swap meet, and mobilizing other participants to do the same. Sellers color in advertising posters and hang them in their neighborhoods and invite people they know to attend. Mom and Dad fill in with some details, like reserving the fairgrounds and running classified ads in the local newspaper.

When the big day arrives, sellers set up their displays and mark prices beginning at 7:30 a.m. The swap meet runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Potential customers - no one over 21 may attend unless accompanied by a child - will find computers, toys, sports equipment, and clothing for sale. Children have also sold goats, rabbits, parakeets, dogs, and kittens.

Some youngsters make attractive displays for their goods, including a little girl who showed beaded jewelry she made against a black velvet cloth, and a 13-year-old boy who earned more than $100 some years back selling ``Star Wars'' toys under an eye-catching sign that read: ``Swap Wars.''

A batch of siblings hawked fossilized trilobites picked up in Moab, Utah, beside a blackboard sign advertising, ``Great Stuff Cheap. Dinosaur Bones, 25 cents.'' Nearby, a pint-sized bargain hunter held up a yellow tulle tutu speckled with sequins. ``Mommy, can I get it?'' she asked. ``Oh, it's awful,'' her mother replied. ``But at least I can get something fun,'' the youngster, perhaps a Cyndi Lauper fan, shot back.

Other items seen at the ``For Kids Only Swap Meet'' have included a rabbit house marked ``$30 or make offer,'' and a homemade go-cart, minus the steering column, priced at $7. One child selling an empty hamster cage answered the obvious question matter-of-factly: ``Well, it got loose and we think it got ate.''

Little girls with painted fingernails and toenails sold brownies and cupcakes for 25 cents each and displayed their enviable gross receipts in a cardboard shoebox. Other refreshments, sold at the snack bar by the Walker kids and others, also have kid-scale prices, such as the 75-cent hotdogs.

``If things are too expensive, too many adults get involved,'' Mrs. Walker said. The family's intent isn't to make a profit, although they like to have about $100-$150 at the end of the meet to cover printing and other up-front costs for the following year.

``The kids are learning that the price of printing is up and insurance is up and that there's more and more approval needed at each step,'' her husband notes. ``One school district lets us send flyers home with the kids with no problem. Another wants approval from the district superintendent,'' he explains.

The only complaints so far have involved adults who somehow managed (using a child as ``front person'') to set up shop and sell at the swap meet. ``We want to keep it for kids, by kids,'' Mrs. Walker stresses.

Anyone planning a similar event should be sure to host it at a site with ample shade, such as the well-treed fairgrounds, and plenty of telephones, restrooms, and parking.

Laurie, whose idea it was to start the swap meet, prefers selling food in the snack bar to selling her possessions, ``because I've had them for a long time.'' She manages to part with about four items a year, but shops avidly and brings home as many or more ``new'' treasures. Her younger sister, Melissa, has years of experience peddling lemonade at the snack bar. She characterizes the event as ``very, very, very fun.''

Counting change, making decisions, and dealing with customers are some of the skills the Walker kids and others at the swap meet are developing. Mike Walker says, ``Always, from the very beginning, we've thought that this may be the best education we ever give our kids.''

The Walker children have put together some information and advice on setting up and running a swap meet, which they'll send to anyone who sends them a self-addressed stamped envelope and $2. Write to: The Walker Kids, 11865 Heather Lane, Grass Valley, CA 95949.

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