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New estate sale, folks. Lots of new stuff,” a man yells across a table overflowing with merchandise that looks anything but new. An old birdcage with a clock on the top, a stack of yellowed Life magazines and an avocado-colored rotary dial phone—these items and more sit on a card table, awaiting the right buyer.
The vendor, Joe Londrico, is a state-licensed estate handler. “That means I get to go into these old houses and clear everything out,” he explains. Londrico chats with me for just a moment before calling out to other customers. “Old books! One of a kind!” Before long, someone is pawing through a positively ancient copy of Washington Irving’s short stories and asking Joe how much he’will take.
Welcome to the flea market, a place that brings to mind an old Disney song about London’s famous Portabello Road, “street where the riches of ages are stowed.” Northeast Ohio might be a long way from London, but its flea markets still offer “anything and everything a chap can unload.” You name it, and you’ll probably find it here.
Some flea market finds are admirable indeed. One vendor at Medina’s Flea Market of Collectibles sells Golden Oak furniture that rivals any you’ll find in an upscale antique shop, and another vendor deals in extremely rare Steiff and Bing teddy bears. Such pieces are quite pricey, yet well worth the expense.
But by and large, most of what you’ll find at the flea market is inexpensive and not particularly rare or desirable. Regardless, the old adage “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is never more true than at the flea market.
Despite the treasures that may or may not be available, you still have to wonder how these informal marketplaces thrive. Parking tends to be difficult, and almost no one accepts personal checks, let alone credit cards. Frequently conducted outdoors and in the country, they’re exposed to the elements and to the, well, fragrance of nearby livestock. In short, it’s not the most convenient shopping venue. Why bother with the hustle and bustle at the flea market when you can find similar items on eBay in the comfort of your own home?
Marion Coblenz, manager of the Hartville Flea Market, says he believes flea markets thrive for a number of reasons. “Web sites like eBay don’t offer that face-to-face communication,” he says, noting many vendors will set up stalls even when business is slow, just for the camaraderie.
Amanda Whitacre, who manages Medina’s flea market, agrees. “This is how to meet new and interesting people,” she explains.
They’re right. At the Medina market, vendors and sellers alike frequently stop and shake hands like old friends. And at Hartville, the “regulars” enjoy a cup of coffee and a snack together before shopping. In a time where computers are rapidly replacing much physical interaction, the flea market offers an alternative to chat rooms and online shopping. At the flea market, you can escape modernity, if only for a little while.
Whitacre also refers to the hands-on nature of flea market shopping. “People want to see, feel, inspect and hear stories about the items they are buying,” she says. People trust their sense of touch. Take, for instance, the woman at the Medina market who rubs silk scarves between thumb and forefinger, testing each before picking a sheer blue one. Another customer lingers over the costume jewelry, handling each necklace and letting the beads trickle between her fingers before returning them to their display hooks. Touching the merchandise is an important part of the experience, and not something you can do online.
But the biggest draw of flea markets, Coblenz explains, is the fun of negotiation. The art of haggling has been a staple of the open-air market since biblical times, and Coblenz says little has changed since then. “Instead of camels, people come here in SUVs,” he says. “But it’s still very much the same.”
The flea market is one of the last places you can still negotiate prices on small items. The question isn’t “How much?” but “What’ll you take?” followed up by a quick “How about two bucks?” Try doing that at your local department store.
No matter why you’re there, the best part of any flea market is the sheer variety of things to see. Look around, and you might find a Geiger counter, a tea samovar, an anatomically correct tribal fertility statue or even a giant stuffed E.T. doll. You might even stumble on an item that inspires a moment of nostalgia—a long-forgotten toy you enjoyed as child, perhaps. Memories are treasures too, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself buying one.