Lugging two old wooden ironing boards, Cheryl Bell trudges toward her truck at First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas. Her face is flushed and the boards keep slipping, but she’s smiling. “Five dollars for both of them,” says Bell, 48, of Mesquite, Texas.
Bell is among 300,000 bargain hunters who descend upon America’s oldest and largest flea market each month to rummage through more than 200 acres of every kind of antique and collectible imaginable, from horse collars and china hutches to waffle irons and old wagons.
First Monday Trade Days sprang up in the 1850s when the circuit judge visited Canton (pop. 3,292) on the first Monday of each month to conduct legal business. Farmers and townspeople soon began showing up on the town square with hunting dogs, guns and other goods to swap and sell. The shopping extravaganza still is called First Monday Trade Days, but nowadays it’s actually held Thursday through Sunday before the first Monday of each month.
From sunup to sundown, treasure hunters armed with maps of the sprawling market poke through piles of handmade quilts, postcards, ’50s prom dresses, old Archie comic books, retro bowling shirts, ice cream scoops and enough cowboy boots to outfit more than one rodeo. Food vendors sustain shoppers with baskets of catfish, gumbo, turkey drumsticks and homemade ice cream cranked out by an old John Deere tractor engine.
“This is a fabulous place,” says Bell, who has shopped at Trade Days since she was 16. She plans to use her wooden ironing boards for laundry-room shelves to display a collection of antique irons and vintage detergent boxes.
Bell, as with most flea-market fanatics, delights in the vast mishmash of merchandise where fine jewelry and delicately beaded Civil War-era purses mingle alongside $1,500 antique phonographs and $20 guitars.
“I’ve sold six so far this weekend,” says Jack Deeds, of Beaumont, Texas, holding one of the homemade instruments he fashioned from a bedpan and barn wood.
Down a nearby path, R.L. and Randi Lasater of Tyler, Texas, ponder the purchase of an antique iron baby bed. Randi, 61, imagines it parked in front of their bay window holding visiting grandbabies or her doll collection. She takes out her cell phone and makes a call to see what it would cost to sandblast the bed’s lead paint. R.L. takes out his wallet and counts out $200.
Some treasure hunters don’t know what they can’t live without until they find it, while others search for specific items to complete a collection or restoration project.
“My husband is looking for a carburetor for a ’64 Nova,” says Lou Williams, 51, of Quinlan, Texas (pop. 1,370). While her husband, Eddie, hunts for classic auto parts, she buys sweet potatoes and two 5-foot-tall plastic candy canes. No, it isn’t Christmas, but the price is right.
“We’ve been coming here for 25 years,” Williams says. “It’s good entertainment.”
Some professional vendors have been setting up shop at Canton for decades and reserve the same space so shoppers know where to find them. Often, lasting friendships are formed among the 3,000 vendors.
“This is like a neighborhood watch out here,” says Dennis Baters, 54, of Wister, Okla. (pop. 1,002), who sells brooms as fast as he can make them. When Carl Heflin, 72, also of Wister, fell off his RV in 2004 and broke his hip, his fellow vendors collected $1,000 and took it to him in the hospital. Heflin and his wife, Mary, are back selling collectible coins alongside their poodle, Tuffy.
“Wave at the shoppers, Tuffy,” Heflin coaxes, prompting the pooch to stand on her hind legs and wave her front paws.
Along with the professional vendors are occasional sellers who rent spaces in an unreserved section on a first-come basis.
“We have a holding area where they line up and on Wednesday at 11 a.m., it’s like a land rush,” says Linda Hatfield, the market’s marketing director. Many of the sellers don’t bother with the formality of tables and simply spread their wares on the ground.
In grassy fields and parking lots across America, at least 5,000 traditional fresh-air flea markets are in full swing sometime during the year, says Larry Krug, of Gaithersburg, Md. (pop. 52,613), co-founder of www.collectors.org, a website that lists flea markets nationwide.
“Going to flea markets is a good pastime,” Krug says. “It’s a nice way to spend a Saturday or Sunday.”
Some of the outdoor bazaars, such as the Brimfield Antique and Flea Market Shows in Brimfield, Mass. (pop. 3,339), have boomed into major productions and tourist attractions.
“It’s as if you’re walking into hundreds of antique stores and you’re not knowing from one to the next what you’ll find,” says Judy Mathieu, 66, the daughter of Gordon Reid, who started the open-air show on the family farm with 67 exhibitors in 1959.
Today, 20 individually operated shows, some with hundreds of exhibitors, flank a mile-long stretch of Route 20 through the New England town, attracting shoppers from across the nation during three weeklong events in May, July and September.
On the West Coast, the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif., is transformed into the bustling Rose Bowl Flea Market on the second Sunday of each month.
“Tons of antiques is what we’re known for and lots of vintage clothes,” says Mike Campbell, the market’s general manager.
An added thrill at the Rose Bowl is that the person tugging on the other sleeve of that vintage Levi’s jacket may be a Hollywood celebrity. Many stars, including Whoopie Goldberg and Clint Eastwood, have been seen shopping for bargains.
Hunting and haggling
Part of the allure of flea markets has always been the opportunity to dicker over prices.
“It’s tradition, that’s what it is,” Krug says. “It’s a game. People will see something for $5 and will try to get it for $3 and you go back and forth. You can’t go into Wal-Mart or McDonald’s and haggle over the price of a hamburger or Coke.”
Most vendors leave wiggle room for wheeling and dealing, while others set firm prices or list no prices at all.
Along with the fun of browsing, bargaining and buying is the anticipation that just around the corner will be a valuable treasure for a few quarters.
“I happened upon a basket full of old silk embroidery thread. These were unused packages, all in mint condition, although 100-plus years old,” says Susan Ryan, 46, an avid flea-market shopper in Webb City, Mo. (pop. 9,812). She bought all 150 skeins for $15 at a flea market in nearby Carthage. Ryan listed the thread on eBay and sold the lot for $485.
“I enjoy exploring flea markets, especially where everything is crammed together and overflowing from boxes and shelves,” Ryan says. “I’m not afraid of getting my hands dirty or my knees stained. That’s part of the adventure.”