The Family That Fleas Together

Camaraderie abounds at Raleigh’s venerable Flea Market.

It’s 8 a.m. on a chilly Saturday, and the Raleigh Flea Market is already hopping. A small city of tents and stalls has sprouted up overnight at the N.C. State Fairgrounds. Vendors have been setting up since dawn, and serious pickers scour hundreds of booths for deals. So far, I’ve spotted caribou antlers, a 5-foot tall metal flamingo and a miniature totem pole.

“This is shopping the way it’s meant to be,” says Marshall Stewart, who manages the popular indoor-outdoor market his father started with six tables and just a handful of vendors, back in 1971. Now, the market spans six buildings and several acres, drawing some 800 vendors and thousands of visitors every weekend. “Box stores are indifferent,” Stewart says. “Here, you get to meet the owner, sales clerk and treasurer.”

And where else can you find such a mishmash of the bizarre and ordinary?

Colorful hand-knits mingle with creepy dolls. Knowledgeable merchants sell with flair and personality. You can comfortably haggle over a tuba one minute, and get a bargain on some mid-century chairs the next. Indoors and out, there’s a variety of new and old, from antiques and jewelry, to custom-made furniture. And the market’s yard sale area is brimming with bargains.

With its friendly people and an upbeat vibe, the Raleigh Flea Market is classed among the best. It’s ranked No. 9 on the 2018 Top 20 list compiled by FleaMarketInsiders.com—the go-to online resource for the world’s best flea markets. It’s also been featured in USA Today’s Travel 10 Best, and it made CNN’s Top 10 picks, too. More than just a place to buy and sell, for many, it’s become a community—and for both rookie seekers and seasoned collectors, it can be an education.

“The flea market is a touchable, viable museum,” says Alisha Ramsey, the most glamorous flea buff you’ll ever meet with her long blonde hair and a quick smile. “Vendors are happy to share the provenance of an item.”

Ramsey and her husband, Steve Pender, are dedicated pickers, often selling here themselves. “This is my church at the weekend,” Ramsey says. “Everybody knows us here. We go to fleas all over, and Raleigh wins, hands down, personality- wise.”

As her husband examines an industrial table, Ramsey explains the ropes. “If you don’t get here early, when the sun breaks, you’ll see an item you want and it’s just been sold,” she says. She’s talking to me, but all the while, her trained eyes are scanning nearby booths.

Ramsey found her best treasure here—she met Pender two years ago at spot #440, while perusing 1930’s Art Deco magazines. They hit it off instantly and together are the ultimate flea market junkies, reselling around 80 percent of what they buy and keeping the rest. What are the weirdest things they’ve found here? “A fossilized whale bone mask from Alaska, and Steve bought a piece of the Berlin wall,” Ramsey says with a laugh.

A huge vintage Coca-Cola sign lords over retired plumber-turned-antiques dealer Billy Markham’s booth. “Every item I sell has a history and comes with a guarantee,” Markham says. “I’m one of the last true pickers. I go as far as Texas and Canada and knock on people’s doors, asking them to sell me their stuff.” He shows me a pair of authentic snowshoes he picked up in Maine. “My stuff is fresh from someone’s house. This is the first time it’s being offered back to people in 30 or 40 years.”

“People line up at 6 a.m. for my stuff,” says Christopher “Toph” Scheid, a retired Wall Street broker, who now sells furniture and antiques in the yard sale section. “They often arrive before I do,” he laughs. “I love the camaraderie among vendors here; we network, help each other out. “

New Yorker Joe Spitzfaden, who has been selling here for a decade, agrees. “Vendors are like family,” he says. “We take care of each other. I like the atmosphere, it’s the hunt—you find cool stuff that’s not in a store. And there’s an art to buying and selling.” Spitzfaden’s friend, Jimmy Leake, pipes in from the next booth. “Yeah, I buy junk and I sell antiques,” he jokes.

I come across something that looks like a missile, the drop tank of a single-engine F-104 aircraft, according to its owner, John Blanton. “I just feng shui it out and people dig through it, ” Blanton says of his wares, including antiques, furniture, crockery and macabre tokens, that are scattered haphazardly on the ground. “People like to buy bones and mummified animals,” he tells me, shrugging his shoulders.

It’s noon. Ramsey and Pender are done shopping, their trunk full of treasures, and Ramsey is tired out—with good reason: the couple is expecting a baby girl this summer. “She’ll be here with us every weekend, and have her own booth by the time she’s 5,” Ramsey says, clutching her growing tummy and the soon-to-be newest member of the Raleigh Flea Market family.

“I describe it as ‘esprit de corps,’ says Stewart, the manager, of the fellowship that all the flea market’s loyal pickers and vendors share. “We’re a collection of families, pulling the same wagon.”

The Raleigh Flea Market is open year-round, every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. except during the State Fair in October.

Flea Market Tips from a Seasoned Picker

1. Come prepared—wear comfy shoes (there’s 200,000 square feet to cover) and make sure you have cash, especially $1s and $5s.

2. Arrive early (before 8 a.m.) for hidden gems and stay late (until after 3 p.m., when vendors start packing up) to get the best deals. Vendors might not want to lug stuff home, so it’s a good time to score a bargain.

3. Be ready to haggle—it’s accepted and expected! Be friendly—building a rapport can snag you a bargain now, and maybe later.

4. If you don’t see it—just ask! Vendors are happy to direct you to someone else who may have what you’re looking for.

5. Have stuff to sell? It’s easy to reserve a spot outdoors in the antiques or yard sale sections. Just call Marshall Stewart at 919-899-FLEA and he’ll set you up.

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