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Quartzsite’s vendors prepare for flock of snowbirds
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Quartzsite’s vendors prepare for flock of snowbirds

  • Jean Allen is ready for her first season as a vendor in Quartzsite, selling products including art and decorative boxes. She said he’s optimistic but still a little nervous about what the economy will bring.
    David Rookhuyzen/Cronkite News ServiceJean Allen is ready for her first season as a vendor in Quartzsite, selling products including art and decorative boxes. She said he’s optimistic but still a little nervous about what the economy will bring.
  • Quartzsite Mayor Ed Foster says all signs point toward a better season for winter visitors now that the Great Recession is officially over. The desert town west of Phoenix overflows with RVs each winter as snowbirds enjoy the good weather and look for bargains at what’s billed as the world’s largest swap meet.
    David Rookhuyzen/Cronkite News ServiceQuartzsite Mayor Ed Foster says all signs point toward a better season for winter visitors now that the Great Recession is officially over. The desert town west of Phoenix overflows with RVs each winter as snowbirds enjoy the good weather and look for bargains at what’s billed as the world’s largest swap meet.

QUARTZSITE – Every winter, vendors descend on this remote patch of western Arizona desert. Right behind is a flock of RVs filled with retirees looking for a warm winter and good deals.

For the past few years the selling and buying has been a little subdued because of the down economy. But Mayor Ed Foster said this year, with the Great Recession officially over, the town is seeing a reversal.

"All the early indicators are that we are ahead this season," Foster said.

Roughly 400,000 winter visitors come to camp around Quartzite, and around a million will pass through to shop at its dozen swap meets, Foster said. By February, RVs will cover the desert for 10 miles in every direction – filled with customers for what's billed as the world's largest swap meet.

So far this fall, street traffic, vendor and visitor permits and event attendance have been high – all positive signs for the winter to come, Foster said.

First-time vendor Jean Allen said she's optimistic that snowbirds will flock here in even larger numbers this year, buying her booths art, decorative boxes and homemade hula hoops.

"It makes me nervous; I have no idea what to expect with the economy," Allen said, "But we were going to come anyway."

Before making the trip, Allen said she received advice saying that having a variety of products and the right pricing are key to good business at the swap meets.

Larry Muhlhauser, a vendor who has come to sell his wares every winter for a decade, said he expects a good season, but mainly from knowing what to provide cash-strapped customers rather than a rebounding economy.

Muhlhauser once sold gold but dropped it and gravitated toward lower-dollar items such as key chains and earrings because that's where the market shifted.

"We have to reinvent ourselves as vendors and try to meet what they can afford," he said.

Since the majority of his customers are retired vacationers, Muhlhauser said expensive and big-ticket items no longer sell. In past years, he said, vendors tried to sell imported stained glass and jukeboxes but had little success with people living out of their RVs, he said.

Muhlhauser said vendors will be fine even if this year's crowd isn't as large as hoped.

"It's kind of a hit and miss – a dance," he said, "You know, if you miss it this year, you look forward to next year."

Quick facts about Quartzsite

  • Location: Two hours (130 miles) west of Phoenix at the crossroads of Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 95.
  • Founded: In 1867, named after quartz found in the area.
  • Tourist attraction: Hi Jolly Monument, a small pyramid that marks the grave of camel driver Hadji Ali. Ali participated in a 1850s U.S. military effort to use camels as pack animals.
  • Average high temperature in January: About 66 degrees.

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