It's called the Great American Flea Market, but it has become a battleground over food licenses, baseball cards and bubble gum.
On Dec. 15, Linda McIver, a Baltimore Health Department inspector, responded to a complaint about the flea market inside the Mount Clare Junction Shopping Center in southwest Baltimore.
F: The complaint, apparently from a rival merchant at the
mall, was that some vendors at the flea market were selling food items without a city license.
By the time McIver left the shopping center, six vendors had been cited for not complying with an article of the city code, officials said. The article requires a vendor to purchase a food license whenever an item being sold can be "used as food, drink, confectionary or condiment for human consumption, whether simple or compound."
Among those cited were Sean and Judith Penn, mother and son, of P&P Variety, which sells baseball cards.
The offending item was bubble gum, tucked inside some of the packages of baseball cards the Penns were selling.
The citation upset mother and son. But it sent Neal Penn, father and husband, into an angry frenzy, threatening every thing from a lawsuit to civil disobedience.
"They have in fact killed their business at the busiest time of the shopping season," said Penn. "We don't understand a city that is so poor it's laying people off, and they're trying to run businesses out of the city. I don't understand it."
Neal Penn said that at first he contemplated filing suit against the city, but now he has decided to ignore the citation and continue selling the cards with bubble gum.
He said his family will not purchase the license, which in their case would cost $150. About 20 percent of the Penns' merchandise contains bubble gum.
Should the Penns be discovered selling the cards they could face up to a $1,000 fine or a year in jail, said Charles Gilliam, director of the City Health Department's bureau of food and institutional facilities.
Gilliam said the city was only responding to a complaint from another mall tenant and that the inspection uncovered obvious violations of the code. He did not say when an inspector would revisit the mall.
"They were operating without permits and no one is allowed to operate in the city without permits," Gilliam said.
Gilliam said that even packaged bubble gum would be covered by the food license code. He noted the potential for baseball card packages to be contaminated by rodents chewing through the paper coverings or by water damage.
Gilliam said the six vendors cited at Mt. Clare were hawking such items as candy and spices in addition to selling bubble gum with baseball cards. One vendor already has applied for a license, but the others have not, he said.
The Penns said they can't afford the license.
"I would have to sell thousands of packs of cards to make up that money," said Mrs. Penn. "It's really ludicrous."
Gilliam said there are no exceptions for financial hardship.
"If the business weren't profitable they wouldn't be in the business," he said. "I see an awful lot of children buying baseball cards, and baseball cards don't seem that cheap to me."
The Penns sell baseball cards that start at 50 cents for a single pack, but can run as high as $100 for a collectors' card or $60 for a factory set containing up to 900 cards.
Larry Turner, manager of the flea market, said many of his tenants are temporary and most of those cited will probably remove the food items from their tables rather than purchase a license.
But Turner said he doesn't understand why the city simply didn't tell the merchants they needed a food license when they applied for their traders' permits earlier this year.
Turner, who works for the Fayetteville, N.C.-based Great American Marketplace, also criticized the city's licensing procedures for being too bureaucratic at a time when the city should be encouraging entrepreneurship.
He said it took seven to eight weeks for the flea market to get the appropriate city permits.
"They wonder what's wrong with city government and where all the money's going," he said. "Every city has its problems right now, but it sure could be made easier."
Turner said his company is helping the Baltimore region by employing small merchants that can't afford the overhead of the standard mall.
The shopping center the flea market operates from is tucked into the largely depressed southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Mt. Clare. The shopping center, which includes a mall area and an outside plaza, has been hard hit in the mall area, where there is no anchor tenant.
The flea market, which was introduced Nov. 15, is an attempt to make the indoor portion of the mall viable, said Marian Frieson, who manages the entire complex.
She said she was unaware of the licensing controversy until a reporter contacted her.
"That's the craziest thing I've ever heard," she responded. "I'm going to call downtown and see if I can do anything about this."
But Gilliam said the law is the law, although his department will not go searching for other baseball card shops operating without a food license unless a complaint is filed.
"Our priority is really restaurants and we don't have the manpower to run a campaign like that," he said. "It really wouldn't be to our benefit to chase down bubble gum cards."