One sliver-sized sector of the U.S. economy is going strong: flea markets. You want to get rid of it and I've got to have it, n'est-ce pas?
Mademoiselle Bebe Flea yelled to Monsieur Andre Flea in her most charming French, “Darlin,’ is there room for little ole me up there? I’m coming aboard.”
“Why, you come right on up here, you pretty little thing. We will make room for you.” Monsieur Andre nudged the nest of fleas that had settled on French poodle Eiffel from the right ear further in the direction of the left ear, making room.
After settling in Eiffel’s soft down, Mademoiselle Bebe tearfully broke the news to Monsieur Andre that since the renegades from the Dancing Fleas Troup had invaded their favorite nest, all 12 lbs. of Eiffel, she was thinking of moving on.
“But where will you go, my darlin’?” Monsieur Andre asked in a half choke, half whisper.
Mademoiselle Bebe Flea turned her face away from Andre and said, “I’m catching the next stray boarding a boat to America. I am going to follow my dream to the New World. I will open a market along the road where visitors can buy and sell goods at bargain prices. I will call it ‘Market Flea.’”
The very next day, Pierre, wearing a sparkling new collar and sleeping soundly in a travel carriage labeled “Bound For America” was gently placed on the floor next to Eiffel. Seeing their chance to escape to a better life Mademoiselle Bebe and Monsieur Andre Flea jumped on the back of Pierre. They crawled to safety settling in their favorite spot — his right ear — for the trip to America.
They landed safely in New York Harbor, and the rest is history.
History is inexact, of course. But the flea market did originate more than 200 years ago, in France, when homeless men and women and men (called “pickers” and “rag and bone men”) rummaged through the garbage of Paris at night searching for junk to sell. At first they built stalls in the city’s ghettos, but pickpockets and thieves in these these sleazy neighborhoods soon chased flea market vendors outside the city limits. There they gathered in groups to draw their customers out from the city center. Gradually collectors and antique dealers began to shop these flea markets for bargains. Today, Paris is famous for its many flea/antique markets.
Not all of us in America parlez francais but we do understand the universal language of the flea market.
As companies like General Motors, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual and WorldCom, Inc. have gone belly up, the humble flea market is soaring like an eagle. What makes these tiny local businesses recession proof? Possibly it’s because both buyer and seller win – small businesses make a profit and consumers save, people find a way to get what they want or sell what they no longer want or need.
The annual Labor Day Flea Market held at Hillsville, Virginia, is a prime example of small business skills in action. To understand how and why this event continues to grow warrants a case study, with input from college experts holding many degrees, but I am not aware of any universities offering MBAs in Flea Market at this time. Instead, the experts come from Laurel Fork, a rural road barely visible on the Google Earth map. A couple of friends came up with the idea of a local gun show/flea market in the late ’60s as a fundraiser after the VFW Post 1115 home had collapsed under snow and ice. They needed a new facility but there were few funds to build on. Pierce Webb, a gun collector/trader, and his friend Glenn Jackson, both of Laurel Fork Road, wanted a local gun show in the area. Hillsville Police Chief Gene Pack thought it was a good idea. He offered to direct traffic for the event. Dennis Quesenberry, a serious gun collector in the area, liked the idea as well. The first gun show/flea market, in 1968, was held inside. That year the kitchen crew at VFW Post 1115 was told to cook enough to feed, on the high end, around 2000 – more than twice that number showed up.
Members of VFW 1115 Post, the Ladies Auxiliary and others combined forces to make this an annual event, which soon outgrew any facility in Hillsville. To accommodate vendors, the show moved outside into the streets, in front yards, on the downtown corners, down inclines and up steep little hills — or anywhere else a local property owner will rent enough space for a table, tent, stall or tub. When I stopped by, the closest parking spot was well outside the city limits. As I walked up and down the narrow, crowded streets, winding my way in and out of thousands of visitors, I found everything from tubs of rubber sandals made in China to treasured local antiques. (And I bought a cookbook with many delicious recipes published by the local Round Knob Baptist Church. ) Food vendors were also hauling it in, feeding the bargain hunters funnel cakes, hot dogs with chili and slaw, Mexican dishes, and cotton candy. One vendor from North Carolina explained to me that vending spots are usually contracted a year in advance, and go for $300.00.
There is no stopping this recession-proof business. On Labor Day weekend this small town of Hillsville (pop. 2600), in Carroll County, Virginia, hidden away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, reinvents itself as the biggest flea market event this side of the Mississippi. The town expects to host between 400,000 and 500,000 visitors during this year’s four-day Labor Day weekend.
In the coalfields of rural West Virginia, a few miles out of Summersville at the edge of family property, entrepreneur Liz Underwood tends her flea market/antique business. I stopped by a week and half ago. Liz used one board to make signs for both the flea market and the antique business. If you are traveling west from Summersville to Charleston on Route 39, you will find Liz’s antique market. If you’re traveling on the same road east from Charleston to Summersville, you will find Liz’s flea market.
I got to know Liz as I browsed through Mason jars and teddy bears, wooden baskets and used clothes. In our discussion of the flea market business she made no mention of the rich French history behind the business concept or plans of traveling to Paris. Instead, she told me one of her life’s dreams is to go to Hillsville, Virginia, over Labor Day weekend.
A flea market can be started with little business overhead. You can start by cleaning out your closet or garage and selling what you no longer want or need laid out on a makeshift table in your front yard. Or, like Liz, you can sell your own crafts and handmade items.
Location is a key factor for flea market success. Wide-turning areas on rural roads in the coalfields of West Virginia are favorite spots for instantaneous flea markets. These vending spots are free.
On the same day I visited Liz, I pulled over at another flea market outside Glasgow, West Virginia, where three or four vehicles were parked. This was a family affair. The inventory was displayed on the backend of a pickup truck, on small tables and blankets spread on the ground. There was everything from large life-size cutouts of NASCAR Drivers, to baby clothes and bouncy chairs, cowboy boots, garden ripe tomatoes and sweet corn.
It may be a mystery to many business experts why local, small business flea markets are thriving in these economic times when multi-million dollar companies backed by Wall Street investors and our government continue to collapse. I am not an expert in the field of business. I cannot give you educated theories on the certainty of the outcome of a well-written business plan, nor am I good at projecting quarterly returns, but I do know why I go to a flea market. I am looking for a bargain.