Zoom in: Back of the Yards | Zoom in | Chicago Reader

Zoom in: Back of the Yards 

Swap-o-Rama isn't just the flea market where stolen bikes get sold

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Swap-o-Rama, Maxwell Street Market's little cousin to the south

Swap-o-Rama, Maxwell Street Market's little cousin to the south


In my eight-year-old imagination, all things lost ended up stuffed between the green sofa cushions of the universe. On the south side, the equivalent of that magical place is Swap-o-Rama.

For people familiar with the Swap, it's commonly held that if you've ever had a bike (or a purse, or electronics) stolen, it probably ended up at this giant Back of the Yards flea market (4200 S. Ashland). Every Saturday and Sunday, an enormous lot and warehouse are home to food vendors, booths of handmade items, and tables of used household goods.

Like the better known one on Maxwell Street, this open-air market attracts fledgling entrepreneurs, families in search of bargains, and antique hunters alike. The scene is impressive: thousands of shoppers wander the maze of fresh herbs, used tires, stacks of Mexican comic books and religious figurines, and family heirloom jewelry. It's a bit like an amusement park, but instead of rides there are crates of socks, instead of games there are barbershop booths, and instead of standing fun houses, the whole expanse feels slightly unreal, backdropped by a colorful Hector Duarte and Mariah de Forest mural of flying spiders and palm trees.

Resist the urge to Instagram—a friend was kicked out for trying to take photos—save some cash for tamales, avoid stands with clearly fake designer goods, and be prepared to haggle. Your bike may be gone forever, but there's other treasure to uncover.

Have a particular observation or favorite oddity about a neighborhood? E-mail it to zoomin@chicagoreader.com.

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