Flea market traffic up, but buyers wary

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Hugh Fisher
These days, it takes a while to find a parking space at the Webb Road Flea Market.
On any given Saturday, cars fill the gravel parking lot and crawl along roads as bargain hunters make their way into the sprawling market.
There are definitely bargains to be had, including things people might never associate with a flea market.
But the recession has hit here as well. Vendors say traffic is way up, but sales are still down.
Buddy Johnson, manager of the market, said more first-timers are buying and selling than ever before at the market’s 1,050 indoor and outdoor spaces. Some of those spaces are rented by longtime vendors, a few of whom have been selling there for 20 years or more.
The outdoor “daily rental” tables go quickly. On this particular day, Johnson said, all but one or two were rented.
“People are scraping for cash and finding they’ve got something in their house to sell,” Johnson said. He’s managed Webb Road Flea Market for three years and was an employee there before that.
“We’ve seen people who are losing their house, and they bring their whole house out here to sell it,” he said. “It’s sad.”
Others are trying to sell their goods outside the traditional yard sale season. Becky Overcash brought a pickup truck of things she no longer needed around her house. Her father Fred Burchette and brother Fred Jr. had their own spaces adjacent to hers.
“Most of mine is personal stuff I no longer use and household goods,” Overcash said.
Her brother sells more regularly. “I’m what you call a weekend warrior,” Burchette said. “I try to keep a different variety of stuff, to diversify,” he said.
His table features blue glass jars, tin toys, old pictures, some antique tools, and other odds and ends. Many of his purchases come from estate sales.
“I have a good time out here,” Burchette said.
Virtually all sellers agreed the number of people looking is up, even if buying is down.
“It’s a buyer’s market, absolutely,” said Jeff Hoffman, a Davie County resident who shops flea markets for antique toys to resell. He stopped by Overcash’s booth to look at some G.I. Joe toys from the ’80s รณ part of her husband’s childhood collection.
“There are people trying to take advantage of (the economy),” Hoffman said. “You see a lot of yard sale items out here.”
Some sellers complained of excessive haggling and people offering very low sums to take advantage of buyers’ need.
Hugh Tilley has been a flea market seller for 22 years. “This is the roughest it’s ever been,” he said.
Tilley said he has a rapport with a number of other sellers. He said he also sees many first-timers making mistakes.
Speaking of a nearby seller, Tilley said the asking prices were too high and the seller wasn’t being approachable.
“He’s got stuff out here priced at $100, $200,” Tilley said. “You’ve got to work really hard to get something out of them.”
As he talked, a woman asked him about a piece of jewelry. Tilley turned on a winning smile and offered it for $3.
“It looks good on you, too!” he said.
She looked a moment longer, put it down and walked away.
“You see? That’s sterling silver and I couldn’t sell it for three bucks,” Tilley said.
Others who don’t depend on the flea market for survival have a different view.
“I can always work with people,” Paula Guzman said. She brings her family’s used clothes and personal items out for a weekend three or four times a year.
“It could be a treasure for somebody else,” Guzman said. And the more she sells, she said, the less there is to take home at the end of the day.
“People that come out here, they sell anything,” Buddy Johnson said. “Produce, t-shirts, everything.”
Food is a big seller. Several tables offer dry foods like cereal as well as canned goods and pet food.
Some of these items are past their sell-by dates; others are still in date, but have damaged packaging. Regardless of how they got to the flea market, they sell.
Fresh foods are also available. Underneath a metal shed, out of the sun, Jesus Villarreal and his wife Veronica sell fresh produce.
“There’s more people here,” Jesus said when asked why he chose Webb Road over other places to sell. “You don’t pay too much for the space.”
The Villarreals carry some local produce. They also stock Latino cultural foods such as plantain and nopales, the cactus leaves loved by many Mexicans.
Villarreal said that business is down slightly, but there was a steady flow of customers.
The market offers variety: Secondhand stalls sit side by side with furniture sellers and cell phone dealers.
Tables full of collectable cars, toys, perfume and toiletries, shelves of boots and racks full of clothing draw curious shoppers.
And specialty shops offer music, electronics and pets.
“Today we’ve had probably 500 people walk through here,” said Norman Harold, owner of First Flight Birds. Around him, perches are filled with cockatoos and macaws, with cages and shelves of supplies around the walls.
Harold chose Webb Road instead of a storefront or standalone building because of the number of customers and low overhead. “You’re not going to have the traffic you have here,” he said. “It’s really an attraction for the kids, too.”
As a result, the recession hasn’t affected him as badly. “It’s holding its own,” he said.
Other veteran sellers say this recession is just part of a cycle.
“Business is down, but I don’t think it affects us as much in people in storefronts,” Bertha Mae Miller said. She and daughter Robin Jordan have sold secondhand goods at Webb Road since the early ’90s.
Audie Trexler started selling at Webb Road in 1986, a year after the market opened.
Trexler, along with wife, Cindy, and his mother, Dot, sell collectibles, toys and silk flowers. Dot also helps provide wedding planning services.
“I can provide everything except the groom, the preacher and the catering,” Dot said.
Audie and Cindy first sold flowers and collectible toys to supplement his other work.
Then, in 2000, he was laid off from Freightliner in Cleveland. He was rehired, but is about to be let go again.
“I’ve seen a lot come and go in my time,” he said.
His shop stretches for about 40 feet along one hallway. Soon, it will be his family’s primary source of income.
“I buy my socks and clothes here,” he said, pointing out a shirt emblazoned with the name of his business. “I just bought 45 pounds of cat food that would have cost over $200 in a store. It’s still in date.”
“The way things are getting, every dollar counts,” Audie said.
Sue and Dave Carr sell computer equipment, collectibles and anything else they can get their hands on, and they shop at the flea market as well.
It’s how they help pay for Dave’s medical expenses, Sue said.
When they started coming to Webb Road last year, she said, other sellers were very helpful. “They gave us tips,” she said.
That sense of goodwill works in another way. Dave said he’s felt moved to help other people who are obviously hurting.
“Sometimes God puts it on your heart to bless them with something,” Dave said. “There are some people who are more needy than others.”