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Master of Markets

Photo dealer Ron Slattery shares his secrets—but not all of them.

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Trying to get to know Ron Slattery is like rummaging through the piles at the flea markets he frequents: It's much simpler to just enjoy the random finds amid the hodgepodge than to get all worked up looking for something in particular. That'll make you crazy. Among the details the otherwise highly affable Slattery is reluctant to disclose are where he lives, his age ("Ancient. 43, I think. What year is this? Forty-four?"), and his eBay user name ("Never, never, never will I tell anyone that").

Granted, he has reason to be secretive, at least about some things. Slattery makes his living by scouring Chicago-area flea markets and reselling his purchases, directly or online, to prop companies, auction houses, and collectors. If other dealers knew his eBay account name, they could monitor his transactions, figure out what collectibles are hot and what they're selling for, and start scooping up similar items. "People stalk each other," he says. "It's horrible."

Dangerous specifics aside, Slattery will cheerfully share stories about his career dealing in what he calls "crapola." He picked up on the joys of junk from his grandma, a flea market seller from way back, during his childhood in Oak Lawn. He remembers her making him and his sister search alleys for discarded items to hawk—"She'd be like, 'Go get that lamp!'"—and accompany her to markets to sell hot dogs (cooked over a Sterno can) while she peddled her wares. "She was totally awesome. Everybody dug her." One day, as an adult, "I had this weird vibe to go over to her house, because I hadn't seen her in a while," he says. She was in the midst of a big yard sale, and she died the next day.

Though he was born into the business, it took Slattery a while to get into it himself. After high school he held odd jobs for several years. In his mid-20s he married a woman he'd known for a few weeks and moved with her to California. "We got to San Francisco penniless, with nobody we could really call for help," he says. "So we went out for pizza—we figured we'd be full for the day. We kind of told the waiter our story, and he came back with a place mat and a key. On the back of the place mat he drew a map to where his apartment was, and he said, 'You guys stay here till you get on your feet. I'll crash with my girlfriend.' One day we found a place to move into and he said, 'Leave the key on the counter, man.' His name was Scott. I never saw him again."

The marriage didn't last, but Slattery stayed on the west coast, managing various clubs and restaurants. Later he moved to Minneapolis to help an acquaintance run a nightclub there. "It was OK for a while," he says. But eventually, "I had one of those midlife things where you say, 'What do I really like?' And what I like is junk."

That was about ten years ago, he says. After his epiphany, he moved back to Chicago and became a fixture at local flea markets as he began collecting. He stores his treasures in a Pilsen warehouse with cardboard-covered windows. Goods of varying awesomeness are heaped up everywhere: a signed letter from L. Ron Hubbard, a box of slides that someone took of a television screen while JFK's funeral was airing, vintage metal signs advertising chain saws, and several pieces of outsider art, for which he sometimes gets good money from galleries. He's got a few mistakes in the pile, too. "I almost crapped when I saw this," he says, holding up a painting. "'Modigliani, oh my god, oh my god!' Nope. Just somebody doing a knockoff."

What he loves most are the photos. Since childhood, Slattery has collected "vernacular photographs"—that is, off-the-cuff shots of things like vacations and birthday parties, usually taken by amateurs with cheapo cameras. It's photographic folk art, and Slattery isn't the only one fascinated by it; in the last decade the trend to collect it has been chronicled in an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art and in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

The best vernacular photos capture a quality that Slattery finds difficult to describe beyond saying, "It's some weird kind of magic, some crazy glow." One favorite in his collection is of a young woman in an old-fashioned bathing suit, standing in surf and holding something in her hand—sunglasses?—with light radiating from behind her. "She's a goddess," he says. He'll never sell her.

How do such personal things end up on a flea market table for strangers to paw through? "There's all different ways people lose their stuff," he says. Once someone hired Slattery to go through his deceased father's house and haul everything off. When Slattery asked him if he wanted to keep the family photo albums, "he went into a tirade of what a prick his father was, and how he didn't want anything to do with him or 'anyone who made him,'" he says. "There's a lot of angry people in the world who say, 'Hell with it. Get rid of it.'"

For a long time he didn't realize the value of the photos he loved, Slattery says. "I was just going to, like, shellac them to a van or something." Instead he made a Web site. In 2004 he created Big Happy Fun House (bighappyfunhouse.com), an online sampler of his photo collection, which he now updates daily. It's garnered a respectable following of aficionados, though its founder doesn't always agree with some of their interpretations. "I guess it's like standing next to someone at the Art Institute looking at a painting, and they start talking about ducks, and it's an abstract, and you're like, 'Ducks, we'll go with that,'" he says.

Big Happy Fun House has been featured in the New York Times, and Slattery has met fans from all over. The site's motto is "Found photos. Free pie," and he means it—fans have a standing invitation to have dessert with him. "Anyone who comes to town, I'll take them out for some of the best pie in the city," he says. "And I have." (He favors the Melrose Diner, on Broadway near Belmont.) On another site, slats.org, he posts his own photography, too. In his spare time, when he's not shopping, taking pictures, or eating pie, he's playing bass in the Adornments, a band that Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis characterized as a "gleefully goofy, fabulously unselfconscious rockabilly/New Wave/garage-rock quintet" and one of Chicago's "10 homegrown acts to watch in 2008."

Of course, Slattery still has a living to make. While he loves junk, surviving in the business is harder than ever, he says: "Times are hard right now, and a lot of guys are getting their asses handed to them. Too many people are educated." That's in part thanks to Antiques Roadshow and eBay, both of which have made it easier for the general public to find out exactly what to ask for grandpa's old bureau instead of having a yard sale and calling it a day. On the other hand, in this economy, "people are selling everything they have. I think it's a lot worse than people think."

On a recent Sunday, Slattery headed to a flea market, as he does at least four times a week ("Any less and I go through withdrawal"). He occasionally sells, but usually he's just a buyer. This time it was his favorite, Wolff's Flea Market, in the parking lot of the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. By 6:30 AM, the place was so crowded it could have been noon. Slattery roamed the aisles, chatting with everyone, sizing up entire tables of merchandise with a glance, cheerfully shouting his standard greeting: "Get a haircut!"

"Are you opening up, Ron?" passersby asked him.

"No, goofing off," he said, in a friendly-but-no-time-for-talk way. Buyers who know what they're doing don't go in for a lot of chitchat, especially first thing in the morning. While you're asking a buddy about his weekend, someone else is beating you to a vintage Fiestaware egg cup or original Harry Callahan photo.

"See, this is why I'll never be rich," Slattery said, stopping at a clumsily executed painting of a little girl with a piggish nose. "Because I would probably buy it." But he didn't. He wasn't buying much that morning. Another dealer had promised him a box of photos and home movies taken in Alaska in the 1950s but ended up selling it out from under him before Slattery could nab it. He seemed only a little irked. That's business.

As usual, he favored the far side of the market, where the "alley pickers"—the people who troll back streets and Dumpsters for discarded treasures, like Slattery himself used to do with his grandmother—tend to set up shop. Some had tables; some just sold out of the back of a van or spread their goods across a quilt laid on the ground. "You see a pile and you're like, 'There's something good in there, I don't know what it is,'" he said.

Then there are the fakes. He picked up an "antique" wooden shoeshine box. "Pretty, innit? Brand-new, though," he said in a discreet aside. "After a while, you just know. It's weird."

That morning the dealers were buzzing about a ceramic crock that someone—it wasn't clear who—had supposedly found at a Chicago flea market (no one seemed to know exactly which one). The finder had made a killing on it on eBay.

"Old hand-decorated crock held together with electrical tape," one of Slattery's friends told him. "Some guy and his wife who sell Beanie Babies for a living. Last I heard it was up to $14,800."

Slattery shrugged. "You're always hoping to find that magical crock," he said.

Around 8 AM, buyers and sellers across the market started peering at an odd-looking cloud formation in the sky. "It looks like a big-ass wall cloud," Slattery said—the kind that sometimes portends a tornado. As rain began to fall, he darted with everyone else into the arena's lobby to wait it out. "I don't want to die in a—" he started, then he corrected himself. "Actually, I do want to die in a flea market."v

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