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Originally published Monday, September 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Midway Swap records its final sale

For Rebecca Morales of Sea-Tac, the Midway Swap Meet was where she bought her first baby crib. For Yakima native Ric Gasca, the bazaar's...

Seattle Times staff reporter

KENT — For Rebecca Morales of Sea-Tac, the Midway Swap Meet was where she bought her first baby crib.

For Yakima native Ric Gasca, the bazaar's 500-plus stalls were the closest thing in the Puget Sound area to Mexico City's mercados.

And for West Seattle native Paul Sexton, who has sold goods at the flea market almost since its founding in 1971, the market had kept his entrepreneurial dreams alive.

Now, the bulldozers are coming.

The sun set for the last time on the Midway yesterday, an oasis of lively cultural exchange along an otherwise nondescript highway of gas stations, car-repair garages and fast-food joints. Soon the Midway's parking lot will give way to a Lowe's home-improvement store, joining 15 other Lowe's stores in the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett metro area.

"It's kind of a shame it's being replaced by something as commonplace as a Lowe's," said Gasca, as he and his 7-year-old daughter, Noel, strolled by a table of Mexican wrestling masks and rosary beads.

In the heyday of drive-in movie theaters, the old Midway took visitors to Hollywood. When the drive-in industry faded, Pacific Theatre, one of the largest operators on the West Coast, turned the Midway and similar properties into swap meets.

Thirty years later, Kent and other suburbs south of Seattle are growing rapidly, attracting families and big-box retailers such as Lowe's.

Gary Plante, 67, isn't interested, even though he has a claw hammer hanging off his belt. There's a Home Depot and a McLendon Hardware by his house near White Center, he said.

For years, Plante and his wife have driven to Midway.

"You never know what you're going to see," Plante said. Like the Jarritos Limón soda he bought at a hot-dog stand. Or the $2 hammer he procured, albeit with a crack in the handle. It would've cost $18 to $20 new at a hardware store, Plante said. He's now on a quest for an intact handle.

Plante is sad about the swap meet's end. "We'll just have to give it up," he said. "I'm not going to drive an hour from where I live for a flea market."

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Gasca and his girlfriend, Delia Cortes, may be willing to make the trek to swap meets in Tacoma or Everett. Cortes, 27, who arrived five years ago from Mexico City where she worked as a lawyer, reminisces as she wheels her baby stroller past a merchant hawking fresh cactus and sugarcane.

"We come here with nothing, [so] this is someplace for us to buy things cheap," Cortes said, who now works as a paralegal while studying to get her law degree here.

For some of the Latin American, Asian and African shoppers roaming the aisles, the items they buy at the swap meet chronicle part of their story of settling in a new land.

Cortes found her first chairs here. First vacuum. First blender. First microwave. First VCR. "We still come even though we don't buy anymore," she said.

Mexico doesn't feel so far away here. Note the smells of "elotes" — corn on the cob coated with mayonnaise, chili powder and cheese — and crunchy pinwheel-like chips drizzled in picante sauce and lime juice. Walk down any row of stalls and the sound of Mexican folk music undulates from open vans selling inexpensive CDs.

Even these old-time swap meets haven't escaped the pull of globalization. A CD album by a folk group, Alegres de la Sierra, was produced in China.

Rows of handmade straw baskets neatly laid out on the ground aren't from Mexico, Cortes said. They're from Africa.

Gasca's son, Jordon, excitedly shows Cortes some Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards he bought from a merchant. The Japanese game is similar to Pokémon.

For Sexton, the longtime swap-meet merchant, just the sight of thousands of people from all walks of life is evidence enough of the global village. He's anxious about what the future holds for the Spanish-speaking young man in the stall across from him.

"The kid next door works on commission," making good money, Sexton said. "Nowhere else he's going to work except a hamburger joint."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

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