Strange things have been happening on weekends lately at the Columbia Eastgate Shopping Center in Jessup.
Two months ago, mostly emptyparking lots mirrored the shopping center's empty store spaces.
Now, traffic at the mall is increasing business at the McDonald'snext door. World of Shoes has decided against moving out. And Minnesota Fabrics is considering hiring more employees to deal with the extra customers.
All because of one new tenant: Flea Market World.
Yesterday, the market was scheduled to celebrate its grand opening with an over-capacity group of 110 table vendors inside the mall and outside under its pavilion, as well as nine retailers in long-vacant store space.
Above one store opening onto the crowded central courtyard is a dot-matrix printout urging market-goers to "Buy! Sell! Trade!" baseball cards, tapes, records and comic books.
Another sign, written in felt-tip marker, reads "SOX PLUS" and is accompanied by signs advertising socks and other small clothing items.
Shoppers have been able to go to the mall to get groceries, get keys cut, get their hair fixed and buy just about anything that isn't nailed down for the last seven Saturdays and Sundays, and now, because of the market's popularity, Friday evenings.
Flea Market World has rented 25,000square feet in the shopping center and, in turn, rented the space for $15 a table to about 100 vendors. It also rents individual stores to nine bargain retailers.
"It's certainly nice to see the parking lot full of cars," said Peter Kirk, who represents Maryland WholesaleCenter Associates, owners of the mall.
John H. Puller, president of World of Shoes, agreed.
"For right now, it's brought thousands of people on the weekends . . . compared to nothing (before the flea market opened)," said Puller, one of only three retailers that had been remaining at the center.
"Before that I was going to close thisstore, but now I'm going to stay and move across the hall to a new location" -- one with a storefront outside and a mall entrance.
Puller said he had managed to stay in business by converting the women'sshoe store to selling almost exclusively $9.99 pairs of shoes.
But even that wasn't enough to keep him in a mall with little traffic except at lunchtime and quitting time. Late last year, he opened another store in Ellicott City's Chatham Mall to replace the ailing Eastgate store.
But in September the "Candy Man" came.
John Rosenberger, who has acquired the nickname among other flea market vendors, isa 15-year flea market veteran who rallied his children and their spouses to launch the new enterprise.
"We were just kind of sitting around one night," recalls Rich Dawson, a Columbia accountant and Rosenberger's son-in-law, "and we batted around the idea: 'Wouldn't it begreat to have our own flea market?' "
With the help of a leasing agent, Dawson looked for a suitable home for the flea market. "One day we realized the Eastgate Shopping Center was empty," he said. "We met with Peter Kirk back in May and everything just came together, andhere we are."
So they set out: an accountant, an insurance salesman, a bookkeeper, an ice cream route salesman and others, to begin resuscitating the mall's empty corridors with rows of tables and dozensof merchants selling everything from silk flowers to compact discs.
"It certainly is very consistent with the original plan (for the mall); that (it) would have off-price retailers as well as craft and individual merchants," Kirk said, adding that even packing the mall's central courtyard with vendors' tables is not without precedent.
When the mall opened in the mid-1980s, its hub contained a flower market, kiosks and push-carts, he noted.
Since then, the mall has gradually deteriorated, with the most recent refugees being a children's clothing store and The Eatery, its only restaurant. Puller was vice president of the Gussini shoe store until the company closed it down and he started his own store in its place.
"They just had a poor mix of stores; if they had done a better job of leasing the stores, andgotten a drug store or supermarket with a continuous amount of people coming through," the mall might have prospered, Puller said.
In addition, the intersection of routes 1 and 175 was under constructionfor about a year soon after the mall opened.
"You had a hard timegetting in and out of here," Puller said.