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Flea for all: digging in to DFW flea markets

Posted 7:46am on Thursday, May. 30, 2013

Sometimes a rusted, vinyl dining chair from 1972 just makes sense in my … I mean your office, and no one can tell me … I mean you, otherwise. Darn it, I loved that chair. Sure, I had to tape the seat together and it cut me on the leg because the screws were rusted and, yes, it was ugly, but it was my chair. My flea find.

The find is what motivates buyers and sellers. That one unique old or new item only you have, you lovingly refurbished, that you know your customers will buy. Flea markets are about making emotional connections. What draws the buyer to an item is part materialism, part nostalgia. Old books carved into letters of the alphabet — how creative! A blue vanity with a sitting stool — my Aunt Shirley had one of those. A broken-down china hutch — a quick coat of stain and I can resell it for a profit.

There’s even a whole HGTV series, Flea Market Flip, dedicated to the art of repurposing finds at hipster flea markets. The show pits teams against each another to see who can buy, refurbish and sell with the highest profit.

For the veteran buyer or young DIYer, there are only two things you need to know about fleaing: how to spot a good deal and what to pay for it. Everything else is in the gray area of negotiation, salesmanship and that gut feeling a buyer gets when she just has to have it, no matter how tacky or grandma-chic others may find it.

Yes, flea-ers are a strange bunch: people who spend their weekends looking through old stuff, dead people’s stuff, trash for treasure. People who want to save a penny, shop for fun and come home with something fabulous with a story to tell: “I found it in an abandoned barn south of Mexia” sounds so much more interesting than “I got it half-price at Pier 1 off Carroll Street.”

And fortunately, DFW boasts its share of terrific treasures. From a rain-or-shine cattle barn to an invite-only flea market showcase for Metroplex-area enthusiasts, it’s all about the find.

The Dallas Flea

The moment I heard the acoustic guitar player singing Greensleeves, I knew I was in a very Dallas flea market. The plethora of Toms shoes was also a dead giveaway. So were the Saturday-morning skinny-jeans girls venturing into South Side on Lamar, a retail and residential complex across the street from Dallas Police headquarters — a more urban neighborhood for this very vanilla crowd.

At the entrance, I find Brittany Cobb handing out bottles of water. A Dallas-based freelance writer, editor and interior designer, she created the Dallas Flea three years ago. The quarterly, invite-only market is less junk and more show. “I was trying to get a more curated mix of artisans that attract that shopper,” she says. That shopper in Dallas is probably wearing Toms and skinny jeans and will plop down about a hundred dollars in a day.

Vendor Ashley Crim of McKinney wants to attract that person. Her Texas Trash Jewelry is gaudy grandma in a good way. A rack of old lady slips at her booth catches my attention. Crim is selling the redesigned slips for between $65 and $95. She also collects keys, locks, purses — “old stuff that people would throw away and I would repurpose it to something else,” says Crim, who hands me a flier for an upcoming event in Anna. “It’s stuff you’re not going to find somewhere else.” And like most vendors here, Crim is online and marketing herself and her next show. Vendors at the Dallas Flea sell finished products and are all about Etsy (the eBay for crafters), Facebook and business cards.

Click here for info on more DFW flea market locations.

Times have changed since flea markets first became popular in the late 1800s. One of the first flea markets was First Monday Trade Days in Canton, which started in the 1850s as a livestock swap but has grown into a massive outdoor flea empire. Flea markets now cover a broad spectrum, from bazaarlike junk dealers hawking old stereos and elotes, to indoor antique malls. The clientele has also expanded to include urban recyclers and creative couples willing to make something old new again. Flea markets like the one in Dallas are geared toward more affluent, trendy shoppers. Other markets target DIY-ers, those into country cool or those looking for a swap-meet feel.

“We can’t be a Canton,” nor do they aim to be, says Cobb, gesturing to the 70 or so carefully selected vendors. “[This] is a far more edited show. Here, you want something from everyone.”

She’s got a point. Sure, the Dallas Flea might be overrun with hipsters, but each vendor is different. Each booth makes me (I mean you) say: “Ooh, I want that.” Or, “Ooh, that’s so cool.” Everything is just that unique and interesting, which can’t be said for each stall in a massive open-air market like Canton or even Traders Village in Grand Prairie — much as they have their own particular charms.

Most of the vendors at the Dallas Flea can accommodate credit cards; most are young females, and so is the clientele. No tools. No gently used TVs. No guy offering to tint your windows. These vendors must apply to be included and are selected for their unique, handcrafted designs.

“There are food trucks and music to keep Dad and kids happy, too,” says Cobb, who plans to expand the Dallas Flea in the fall. The event will be moving to a new facility in the same neighborhood, and she hopes to expand to monthly shows.

That’s good news for new shopper and Etsy seller Crispin Deneault, who is standing at Vanessa Pope’s booth, Salvagenation. Pope is selling binder-size letters she and her husband bought from an old casino in Oklahoma. Swarms of shoppers are searching for letters. “I can’t find an ‘F,’” one woman complains.

“Here is where you feel comfortable spending the money,” says Deneault, who usually earmarks about a $150 budget. “For those of us that like to touch and feel, this is a great place.”

Cattle Barn Flea Market in Fort Worth

It’s a much different story in Fort Worth. There’s no guy playing Greensleeves, but singer John Pierce will play San Antonio Rose by request. There are no Toms shoes. No food trucks. No business cards. Who’s Etsy? No skinny jeans except the ones I’m wearing. No air conditioning, either.

This is truly a cattle barn-turned-flea market, and if it’s a steal you’re looking for, this is the place to find it.

The Cattle Barn Flea Market has been a mainstay in Fort Worth for 40 years. Located at the Will Rogers Memorial Center, it’s held every Saturday and Sunday, and is vintage flea in the best way. It ain’t fleaing unless you’re sweaty and talking down the price. No offense to Dallas, but I just feel wrong paying the sticker price for anything at a flea market. Haggling is part of the fun.

And when I spot a black antique dressing table at Jana Currin’s booth, I get that gotta-have-it feeling. My palms are sweaty, my heart is racing. How much is it? How much can I talk her down? Don’t let her see you’re that interested. Look away. It’s all part of the dance.

Click here for 10 tips on being a successful flea-er.

Where the Dallas Flea is more about show and selling a finished product, Fort Worth’s market is laid-back and tasteful. Well, if you can call a basket of vintage 1973 Playboy magazines for $5 tasteful.

Like so many vendors here, Doyce Moore of Fort Worth has cultivated her merchandise — which includes lots of jewelry — over the past 31 years. She knows who her customer is and what she wants. “I make good here,” she says, adding that she has four booths. And she can clear between $800 and $1,000 on a weekend — minus the $31 booth rental fees.

Vendor Cindy Lescoat of North Richland Hills, who runs a sleep diagnostic testing center during the week, says each weekend is a gamble. “Tables sold today that had been at the antique mall for two years.”

Butch Wilson of Fort Worth has a booth across from his ex-wife. (“We still get along,” he says.) “I let my stuff sell itself,” Wilson says. It’s mostly tackle, model cars, rods and reels. “Actually, I do real good with fishing rods,” he says as he spots a teenager eyeing one. “I’ll be with you in a minute, young man.”

Having items at more than one location — online or at an antique mall — brings in more opportunity to sell. But antique malls charge a booth rental fee and take a percentage of the commission, and there is a higher rate of theft, which is why these veteran vendors prefer to man, or woman, their own booths. Many have been here decades and have formed a community in the cattle barn. Everyone keeps an eye out for each other. When the market closes, vendors throw a tarp over their goods. No hauling back or repacking like other markets.

At the coveted corner booth — closest to the door and the cool breeze — is Jean Klein. She has been at the market since the beginning, back in its formative years, when it was located behind the Ol’ South Pancake House off South University Drive. Her booth is an eclectic mix — jewelry, clothes, a Troy Aikman poster from 1992. It’s “lots of stuff from the old era,” says Klein, who admits that “people don’t collect as much stuff as they used to.”

Klein still does — at this booth and at home — says her daughter Milinda Hall. Hall and her siblings helped their mother run the booth when they were children.

By 3 p.m., things are winding down at the Cattle Barn. It’s getting hotter in the space, but Tanya Bell of Graham wanders in with her husband and friends from a nearby gun show. She is looking for blue blown-glass tableware. “This is pretty interesting stuff,” she says. Her husband wants to find tools.

Customers Sid Barnes and Leah Wilson saw a sign for the flea market on their way back from a nearby wedding. “I’ve never heard of this place,” says Barnes, of Fort Worth. “We like what’s here,” says Wilson. The vendors eye the interested couple. These are the customers they are looking for: young, into shabby-chic antiques, asking people where the nearest ATM is located. Definite buyers.

“You gotta have a personality to come down here,” says estate sale manager Norman Price as he packs up for the day. I’m not sure if he’s talking about the vendors or the buyers. He has been a vendor at the Cattle Barn for 17 years, and says part of the charm, part of buying and selling, part of fleaing, is personality.

“Just ’cause you put a price on it doesn’t mean it’s gonna sell.”

Back at Jana Currin’s booth, I’m still silently drooling over that dressing table.

I play it cool. I run my hands nonchalantly along the attached oval mirror. Except for the awful black paint smeared over this precious piece, everything looks good, down to the dainty drawers. Play it cool. I casually ask: “So, how much?”

Within a minute she drops the price three times. We are under $100.

I slowly back away. That’s the dance. Want-versus-price-versus-space-versus-how to fit it in your hatchback and carry it up two flights of stairs.

And on this day, I end up leaving the dance alone.

There’s always next time.

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