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As the work week ends and the weekend begins, in the pre-dawn hours between last call and first light, the sellers start unpacking their wares.

Meanwhile, equipped with warm clothes, a flashlight and ample motivation, buyers begin streaming in from across the country to Jaffa's flea market, driven by the prospect of finding the item that could make their week.

Early this Friday they will again fill the market's slender alleys, as have many have for the past 10, 20 or 40 years. Many already know each other, but in the narrow window of opportunity before the break of dawn, most are dedicated to the act of browsing, not speaking. Some could barely spare a minute to speak with a Haaretz correspondent.

"Every Thursday I escape from my wife between 1:30 at night and 10:00 Friday morning," said Avi Barsheshet, an executive at a company providing military hardware. "I come here and just have to buy something. I've been doing it since age 16. I have 3,000 square meters of items I bought around the world." Barsheshet's favorite finds include Judaica, bronze articles and 1950s and 1960s memorabilia.

A tour of the flea market reveals an often-hidden buyer's Eden of furniture, clothing, housewares, silver items, old photographs and bicycles - for starters. Buyers, likewise, hail from every imaginable profession, social stratum and locale - men and women, children and parents, religious and secular, urbanites and kibbutzniks.

"It's a healthy disease," said Hannah Frucht of Haifa at 4:30 Friday morning. "I've had it for 40 years. I come every week, and by the time Shabbat comes in I'm back in Haifa."

Frucht said she prefers collecting to any other recreational pursuit, including travel abroad. "Every single shekel goes to this. At times I even get into debt. Sometimes I spend NIS 200 or NIS 300 per visit, and sometimes NIS 1,000 or NIS 2,000."

The trade-offs, she noted, are worth it. "The entire house is a museum," Frucht said, noting the bustling trade in antiques and other collectibles on the Tel Aviv-Haifa corridor: "The Tel Avivians come to Haifa on Saturdays. Today, those of us from Haifa come here. The important thing is not to miss any merchandise."

Some collectors expressed nostalgia for the pre-Internet days when a find was really a find. "Everyone online sells at high prices, and it's harder to come across great things," said Yossi Hazan of Holon. "Whoever sticks at it will find something, but it's not like it used to be. Sometimes if you forge a bond with a seller, he'll keep an item for you. But that has a cost."

"The most exciting item I've bought is a spaceship belonging to Luke Skywalker," said Asaf Roth, a robotics developer from Rehovot, whose passion is toys produced in the 1980s. "Basically, whatever my parents didn't buy me when I was young I'm buying now."

"Once it was possible to stumble upon a find - sellers didn't know anything," said Michael Stern of Bat Yam, a 35-year market regular. "These days it's hard; everyone's a professor. But for that one item you may find only once in six months, it's worth coming every week."