Call it time travel shopping. Or collection cruising. Or picking.
Or that thing you do on the weekends because your spouse forces you.
Flea markets provide weekend sojourns for people who like to collect stuff.
And when I say stuff. I mean all kinds of stuff.
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I found four South Sound flea markets crammed with every imaginable collectible: Underwood typewriters, Steuben glass, weathered baseball cards, 19th century arm chairs, rotary telephones, elaborate beer steins, vintage marbles, Irish crystal, taxidermy, holiday Barbies, polished rocks, a dinged up euphonium, disco shoes, vintage couture purses and the list goes on.
Defining a flea market creates murky territory. Is an antique mall a flea market? A vintage market? How about a swap meet? A garage sale? Depending on whom you ask, the answer is yes to all of those, to some degree.
So where did the idea of a flea market come from?
Nicolas and Ashley Martin, who operate the website fleamarketinsiders.com, trace flea markets to France, home to the Porte de Clignancourt flea market, which also is known as Saint Ouen, after the city in which the flea market is located.
“It is a true legend among flea market enthusiasts and antiques lovers worldwide,” said Nicolas Martin. “The story of the Porte de Clignancourt flea market started in the 1870s under the reign of French Emperor Napoleon III (the nephew and heir of Napoleon I Bonaparte), when ragpickers, evicted from the center of Paris for insalubrity, set up their bazaar in the city of Saint Ouen, situated in the northern periphery of Paris.”
That flea market today features the largest concentration of antique dealers in the world, said Martin, “with more than 2,000 shops and a dozen independent flea markets spreading over 10 miles.”
The American version of the Porte de Clignancourt would be the First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas, which started in 1873 as a place to trade horses, livestock, dogs, tools and farm equipment, said Martin.
Today, the largest single event flea market happens the first week of August, called the 127 Corridor Sale, which stretches across 690 miles along U.S. Highway 127 from Michigan to Alabama.
Defining what exactly is a flea market can be a squishy endeavor, but Martin took a stab at it, “To me, the essential elements of a flea markets are the ability to bargain/haggle to get a better price … and that the market must include a mix of antiques, vintage and second-hand items.”
Without those, he said, “there’s no flea market. And that’s one of the big issues nowadays. Some flea markets, like the San José Flea Market, are turning into cheap swap-meets, with knock-off products from China, discounted products sold in bulk, car stereo equipment, toiletries, tools, etc.”
That’s why some markets across the country are devising rules, such as that all vintage items must be manufactured before 1970 and anything labeled as antique must be more than 80 years old, explained Martin.
The four South Sound flea markets I visited fit Martin’s idea of a flea market. No knock-off electronics or cellphone charging cords from China to be found. No toiletries or car stereo equipment. Plenty of vintage items, antiques and second-hand everything, though.
Commonalities emerged at the four South Sound flea markets. They were open one to four days a week. Numerous individual businesses sold their wares in a communal building portioned into vendor spaces. The vendor spaces were artfully arranged and aesthetically pleasing.
I consulted more experts — the flea market managers — to help further explain what they thought a classic flea market ought to include.
Karla Davis, the owner and manager of the Olympia Flea Market, said that turnover is key in a flea market. A visitor has to find something new, even if they visit every weekend.
Like Martin, she believes negotiation is a draw.
“In an antique shop, there’s one person, an owner, and if they take a lot of items on consignment, they have to make a call to negotiate,” she said. “At a flea market, it’s a one-on-one conversation. They offer you something and then you take it or you go back and forth. It’s a fun thing. I think people really enjoy this. You can’t go to Ikea and offer two dollars for a blanket, it’s something that makes a flea market a flea market.”
Molly Alvarado, who organizes the newly opened art-and-vintage focused Tacoma Flea Market in the Proctor neighborhood, said a good flea market should offer high-quality second-use items.
“By purchasing something like that instead of going to Target or Fred Meyer, you’re also participating in the preservation of history. I would say that it’s the best way to create a sustainable way of consuming. We’re all consumers, we need items, we need plates to eat off, we need items to function, but in buying second-hand items, we’re creating a sustainable, tangible way of repurposing items instead of going out and getting things that end up in landfills.”
Mike Schmauch, who oversees the Puyallup Flea Market with wife Erika, noted that while antique stores might carry items priced close to market value, a good flea market usually offers tremendous value.
“There’s still an opportunity to find a treasure at a flea market,” he said. “I’ll give you an example. We don’t have very many books, but a couple years ago, a gal came up with a book. She asked, ‘How much is the book?’ I said, ‘a dollar.’ She said, ‘Really?!” I asked what she found. It was an 1890s first edition of ‘Little Women.’ …. You can find something once in awhile, that little treasure. That’s part of the fun.”
OLYMPIA FLEA MARKET
210 Thurston Ave. NE, Olympia; 509-855-1269, bit.ly/29fASS0.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Background: The market started six years ago (as the Olympia Weekend Market) with six vendors until Davis took over. Now it’s up to 15 vendors in the 8,000square-foot building.
High turnover: “Vendors bring items by the truckload every weekend,” said Davis, She’s also one of them. Her section takes up the back left corner of the market.
Handmade: Hand-painted shabby chic wooden signs at the front of the building or the vendor, Faery Tail Creations of Tacoma, selling scented handmade soaps at a mid-building booth.
For collectors: A parliament of decorative owls perched atop a dresser. Ornate beer steins crowded onto the top of a circular table. A display of green glass, some of it Depression-era, sprawled across a big table.
Where do all the items come from? “Everywhere,” said Davis. “My vendors, they do a lot of Craigslist, Goodwill. They’ll pick up a piece of furniture falling apart and fix it up. Or they do garage sales to find things.”
Cool find: In early June, a ’50s-era metabulator from the Sanborn Co. was a featured item. The kit, which included an instruction manual, medical kit, recording compartment, a barometer and more, came in a mahogany cabinet with a drawer.
PUYALLUP FLEA MARKET
601 Valley Ave. NE, Puyallup; bit.ly/29bthD4.
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays.
Background: A market with six vendors tucked into a two-story storage facility that formerly was an apparel warehouse. It started more than four years ago as “two guys selling some stuff,” said Mike Schmauch, who became the default organizer after becoming the longest continually operating vendor.
Sourcing: The Schmauchs have three spots to the right of the front entrance and the big room on the second story. They find most of their items from storage unit auctions.
Neatest find ever: “Last year, I bought a locker that had a two main components. It had hundreds of still-in-the-box Star Wars toys from 1977-1985. It was figures, vehicles, all new in the box. Also in that storage locker were 500 movie posters going back to the 1930s,” said Mike.
Turnover: “We like to blow through inventory,” said Mike. “We like to constantly bring in more. If somebody walks in one week, two weeks later they’ll see completely different stuff.”
Check out: The vendor who recently purchased a hobby store that was going out of business. Another vendor, a former interior designer, has a variety of fashion items.
Handmade: Find a small cubby off the main corridor with jewelry. On one visit, a metal taco salad bowl had been repurposed into a wind chime with the addition of dangling spoons. Another vendor sells handmade bird feeders.
Cool find: A Rock-ola jukebox.
TACOMA FLEA MARKET
At Blooming Kids Children’s Boutique, 3810 N. 27th St, Tacoma; 253-752-2027, facebook.com/tacomafleamarket.
Hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m., second and fourth Saturdays through Sept. 24.
Background: Alvarado, the founder, wanted an open-air flea market to be an extension of the artists she already features in her children’s consignment boutique, Blooming Kids. The market began in June and is a collection of up to 25 vendors (different vendors come every time) with every market day featuring a theme, such as June’s “Americana” theme.
Collections: “Basically, my vision was a European flea market,” said Alvarado. “I didn’t want it to be like a swap meet. I wanted it to feel like you’re at a French flea market. Each vendor is required to have a hand-painted sign and a curated booth. So you feel like it’s a window into their little shop. Everyone is packed in really tight so when the community comes, they feel like they’re getting a little glimpse of each of these people. It’s not a bunch of junk, it’s collections of items.”
Artists: John Breslin, of Fallen Tree, takes fallen trees and turns them into live-edge slabs, selling them as tables or other custom furniture pieces. Native American artist Al Zantua sells drums, rattles and all kinds of items painted with his coastal designs. One artist creates succulent plant groupings in vintage copper pots.
Vintage: Three vendors, Alvarado said, have “a really curated selection of sought after items, like hiking gear, Birkenstocks, Pendleton blankets, wool goods, American pottery, wooden bowls and vintage concert T-shirts.”
Cool finds: “We have live music with local musicians every time. They’re buskers. They’re not paid. They accept tips. They’re different each week and they’re all local musicians.” Also, a kids crafting area.
UPTOWN MERCANTILE SATURDAY FLEA MARKET
816 Pacific Ave, Bremerton; 360-801-0361, uptownmerchantile.com.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays.
Background: The flea market behind Bremerton’s Uptown Mercantile, which is owned by Michelle and Pat Patton, just celebrated its second anniversary in April. The 24-vendor market operates in an oversized building that once was a Pontiac dealership.
Vintage: “This is a vintage market,” said Michelle Patton, the owner-manager. “The idea is that we want those unique one-of-a-kind items for people, such as toys or collectibles or decor for their home. My desire is that it wouldn’t be a swap meet. We’re not looking to have a garage sale. We want quality vintage and repurposed items.”
Repurposed: Head to Richard Hausdorf’s booth toward the right and to the back. There, find two big spaces filled with industrial and repurposed pieces, such as empty wooden picture frames, sold as individual elements to create something new. Also find Hausdorf’s projects, such as a lighting fixture made from a wagon wheel.
Vintage toys: The giant collection of vintage toys, including a stuffed E.T. doll and vintage train set, is the collection of Ed Agius.
Who’s the DJ?: That’s Helen, who is the vendor mid-building with the sizable record collection for sale. She plays music from her vintage record collection.
Cool find: Always at least one food truck attends, plus there’s a coffee and doughnut counter inside.
Pop-up flea markets
Events that happen once or occasionally.
Sumner Vintage Market at Rhubarb Days: A pop-up vintage market held in conjunction with Sumner’s Rhubarb Festival, July 16-17 in downtown Sumner along Main Street and Heritage Park. rhubarbpiecapital.com/event/vintage-market-at-rhubarb-days.
Flea Market of Thurston County: Third Friday and Saturday from October-November and February-May. Next event is Oct. 21-22 at the Thurston County Fairgrounds.
The Great Junk Hunt Vintage Market: Nov. 18-19 at the Washington State Fair and Events Center, Puyallup. thegreatjunkhunt.com.
University of Puget Sound Flea Market: The 49th annual flea market will be March 18, 2017, at the Memorial Fieldhouse. facebook.com/PugetSoundWomensLeague.