Fleeing the Flea

My family is not religious. Most of us have been baptized in the Anglican church, but aside from weddings, baptisms and funerals, as a child growing up, I can’t ever remember getting up to go to church. In fact, when questioned about religion, I’ve often joked that our religion was the flea market, because that’s where you could find us on any given Sunday morning in the late 70s or early 80s.

As far back as I can remember Halifax had a Sunday flea market at The Forum, an aging sports arena in the north end of town. But especially in the summer, the flea market motherload was just outside of town, in Sackville.

Originally held during the summer months at the Sackville drive-in, vendors would pull in, park their cars and open their trunks to willing shoppers. There was a parking hierarchy, with regular vendors of new goods (yay, tube sox!) taking the best spots by the entrance, followed by farmers, antique dealers and then the non-regular vendors who were looking to unload crap from their attic or basement. The ground got worse the further back you went, transitioning from pavement to crushed gravel to something akin to boulders near the back, but in the summer, there would be vendors crammed in, sometimes two to a space, selling everything under the sun. Literally – few people used tents back in those days.

We’d come home with used comic books (a buck a dozen if you bargained and took a big stack), the aforementioned tube sox (always spelled with an X), model plane kits for my brother, and usually some selection of produce, bread and baked goods. My old man, never especially patient, would wander ahead, but we’d catch up with him crouched in front of a box of old motor parts, trying to finagle a deal.

I’d be drawn to the book vendors, and always to the boxes of records and music paraphernalia, and my much-coveted (and long gone) mirror with the cover of Duran Duran’s Rio album silk-screened onto it was carried home one Sunday with great pride.

In the early 80s, the drive-in shut down and the flea market moved across the street to the race track. Here, we would circle the track, stopping to poke through figurines, dishware, books and records, looking for a big win, just like the folks who would gather that evening in the stands above the track as the nearby ponies broke a sweat.

After the flea market, we’d drive back to Halifax along the Bedford highway, stopping at a Dairy Queen or the famous Chicken Burger diner for lunch.

In 8th grade, to earn money for a class trip to Ottawa, I even became a flea market vendor. Laden down with boxes of assorted stuff collected from the attics and basements of relatives, I’d show up at the smaller neighbourhood flea market at the local bingo parlour, and sell my stuff. After the first couple of times one of the professional vendors scored something from my table and then marked it up and resold it right in front of me, I even learned to haggle. I was the only kid in the class who paid for their trip with no additional funds from their parents.

As I got older, I stopped going to the flea market with my folks. I preferred to sleep in, and occasionally I would have to get up and do the breakfast shift at the hospital where I worked. And truthfully, there just wasn’t much there that appealed to me anymore. My musical tastes had morphed to the point where finding something of interest in the many boxes of vinyl would have been extremely surprising, and the old man would bring home a stack of comics anyway.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, after watching a PBS documentary about flea markets in the US that I got the itch to visit one again. But there was nothing accessible in downtown Toronto. There were flea markets in the burbs, but being car-free made them too much trouble to get to. Greg and I mused about how cool it would be to have a flea market at the CNE grounds (seriously, why the hell isn’t there a flea market at the CNE on Sundays?), and we joked about how something like what we grew up with could easily fill the Better Living Centre, or at least the smaller Queen Elizabeth Building, both of which are used for trade shows. In the summer months (except during the actual CNE, of course) it could even spill outside.

We were vaguely intrigued when the Junction Flea Market started up, but were scared off a bit by the hipster element of it. While it was not created to copy the famous flea market in Brooklyn, it had sort of morphed into that, and we weren’t sure we’d have the patience to deal with it.

This past weekend, we finally attended the Junction Flea, moved for the winter from its outdoor location in the Junction to the Great Hall on Queen West, a few short blocks from home. As expected, the curated vendors were slightly off-putting. Not because of anything anybody said or did, but because everything was just too carefully chosen. It was just all too beautiful, too hip, too cool. We admired the beautiful things – an antique-framed print of Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies, gorgeous $350 handmade boots, perfectly chosen vintage housewares arranged so you could imagine them in your own kitchen – but there was no thrill to it. There were no tube sox, no Van Halen t-shirts, no boxes of greasy engine parts.

For hardcore flea marketers, the fun is in the find. It’s about digging through that box of records to come across a rare Japanese 12″ that you didn’t know existed. It’s about coming home with a mint condition first edition of Winnie the Pooh that you scored for $3 because the seller found it in their grandmother’s attic and didn’t realize what it was.

Nobody at the Junction Flea was unaware of the the value of the things they were selling. Nobody had just thrown a blanket on the floor and unloaded stuff willy-nilly. Nobody handed you a box, gestured to a table full of vintage books and said “Fill the box for $10!” (Which happened to me once at a flea market in the early 90s. I came home with titles published in the mid-1800’s and worth hundreds of dollars each.) Things were arranged. Just so. To attract the eye, to make the precious things seem that much more precious. And nobody walked away feeling like they got a great deal. Those vendors all knew the value of what they had for sale, and had marked up their wares accordingly.

This is the cynic’s viewpoint, obviously. After leaving, we returned to the Junction Flea a few hours later to pick up some pickles from a friend who was vending (we had errands to do and didn’t want to carry them around) and the place was packed. People were eating and socializing, and maybe even buying stuff. But to me, it felt contrived. It was more about the eating and socializing than the market part. It was too packed to linger over a box of records, the vendors were too busy to haggle.

There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, but that’s not a flea market to me. So I stand by my opinion that downtown Toronto needs a proper old school style flea market, with piles of junk, farm stands, musty comic books, and of course… bags of tube sox.

In researching this piece I discovered the the Sackville flea market shut down in 2010, the race track became a WalMart and the new space (where the market moved about a decade ago) became a Christmas store. The Halifax Forum still offers a weekly Sunday flea market; admission is a whopping $1.50 per person, vendor tables are $17 per day. If you’re in Halifax on a Sunday morning and are looking for something to do (and believe me, there’s not much else), it’s worth checking out.

Also, Bill Mont, who runs the flea market in Halifax is an incredibly interesting guy. Check out this piece on OpenFile about him.

4 thoughts on “Fleeing the Flea

  1. Lakefield, ON, just outside of Peterborough, still has a Sunday flea market, I think, though I didn’t visit when I rented a cottage for a week in September (the rental was from Sunday to Sunday, so I was busy getting settled and then packing up).

    A friend’s family had a cottage just outside of Lakefield, though, and we used to go to the market on the Sunday of Labour Day weekend, when a bunch of us were gathered for our annual visit. There was so much terrible junk on offer, but just as you say, it made the thrill of finding that one cool thing even more thrilling. One year someone scored a set of Burger King Empire Strikes Back milk glasses (crusty dried milk bits no extra charge), and I’ll never forget the year that we all stood, mouths agape, in front of a stand selling outrageously racist “collectable figurines” from the American South, circa pre-civil rights era. And my ex used to buy a used book, some intriguing or silly volume he’d dig out of a vendor’s bin, to leave for the cottage’s small library, a little thank-you gift that my friend’s parents used to eagerly scan the shelves for when next they visited after our group had vacated from the long weekend.

    All of this is to say that there ain’t nothin’ like a good old-fashioned flea market!

    1. Ahh… so glad someone gets it. 🙂

      And did you know that so many of those racist collectible figurines were destroyed before someone clued in to them being an important part of African-American history that there are now companies (run by African Americans) selling new reproductions?

  2. Part of the reason that fleamarkets have lost the thrill of the find is that it is far too easy for people to google items before they sell them, and decide that it is “worth” a certain amount just because someone is asking for that on eBay.

    I vividly remember selling a bunch of action figures as a kid to buy candy at a fleamarket in PEI. I spent a lot more money than I got for them re-buying a few of them as an adult.

    1. Sure, but there’s also the potential that you wouldn’t want them as an adult, in which case you’d be financially ahead. Unless the candy gave you cavities.

      But you’re right about Google (eBay, Craigslist, etc) – real flea markets are dying out because people find it easier to sell items separately from the comfort of home than to load up the trunk and spend a day sitting in the sun only to have buyers who expect a great deal. Sometimes the internet really ruins a good thing.

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