HUGHESVILLE -- The tobacco market was going to hell in a hogshead, and Elizabeth and Gilbert Bowling -- who go by Bunky and Buddy -- were stuck with two huge buildings on Route 5 here that were empty most of the year.
What to do? How about a flea market in the picturesque wooden tobacco barn -- with its oak beams and rafters and its gum floors? It was so crazy it might work.
It did, to hear the Bowlings tell it.
They have paid off the $64,000 investment they made in 1988 to install new lights, burglar and fire alarms and exhaust fans, and to repair the roof of the 56-year-old building.
About 150 dealers set up shop in the wooden barn from May to the end of December. Another 50 dealers keep year-round booths -- but on weekends only -- in a newer cinder-block building next door, where tobacco was once packaged for market.
"And I'm paying the mortgage on that [newer] building, myself," said Mrs. Bowling -- Bunky -- proudly. She is in charge of the whole flea market operation.
The oldest barn continues to serve as a tobacco warehouse for part of the year. But if you walk down its center aisle, you can find a dealer selling antique furniture next to one selling used television sets and fax machines. There are water beds and hand tools, T-shirts and crafts, old books and ratty third-hand coats hanging from a dilapidated rack.
Over in the corner are stacks of tobacco on flats near a huge "no smoking" sign made from unopened packs of L&Ms, Old Golds, Pall Malls and Marlboros.
"Bit of humor there," Mr. Bowling -- Buddy -- said with a chuckle.
The flea-market dealers, many of whom live in Southern Maryland, say they do well here, avoiding long trips on their weekends.
"I'd been going to Baltimore for years, but this is a lot closer to home," said Dana Hensely of Mechanicsville, as he laid out sets of hand tools on a long table. "And so far, it's been pretty good."
The managers of other tobacco warehouses in Maryland say they've considered adapting their buildings to alternative uses, but they see the refurbishing costs as frightening.
"The county regulations held us back," complained Bernard Doepkins, manager of the Bristol Warehouse in Wayson's Corner in Anne Arundel County. "We had to put in a sprinkler system, and the cost was prohibitive."
John Bucheister, who runs the Planter's Warehouse in Upper Marlboro, said he has "racked [his] brains for a number of years to come up with something to do" with the building as the length of the tobacco auction season and the size of the market dwindled.
Local churches sponsor an antique show in the fall and a benefit garden and flower show in the summer at the Upper Marlboro warehouse. But to do more would require a major remodeling effort so that the building would meet county codes. "And the stockholders don't want to spend the money," Mr. Bucheister said.
But the Bowlings took the chance.
As Maryland's annual tobacco sales plummeted -- from about 30 million pounds just seven years ago to 9.7 million pounds last year -- Mrs. Bowling began bugging her husband about the underutilized old barn.
"There was nothing you could do with it," she said. "You couldn't sell it, you couldn't rent it. So I said, 'Why don't we open a high-class flea market?' "
As Mrs. Bowling tells it, her husband would have none of the idea; he had to be pleaded with, prodded, coaxed and cajoled before he agreed.
Mr. Bowling concedes he was "a little skeptical at first," but eventually got the money together for the improvements.
They hit a stumbling block when county fire officials told them they would have to install a sprinkler system at a cost of about $80,000.
"I just went in the office and cried like a baby," Mrs. Bowling recounted. "I said, 'You closed me down before I even opened.' "
Mr. Bowling, however, told the officials that the flea market "wasn't a full-fledged commercial operation" and that it would be open only two days a week, persuading them to allow the market to operate without the sprinkler.
They opened Bargain Barn No. 1 in May 1988, with an array of vendors, a country singer and clog dancers. They kept inviting the singer back every weekend until Mrs. Bowling noticed that customers were listening to the singer, not buying.
"We didn't make money for a while, but we had fun," Mr. Bowling recalled.
Now, their old tobacco barn is filled with vendors and the Bowlings have a waiting list for the year-round operation. They describe the market's setting as "the oldest operating tobacco warehouse in Maryland" in advertisements from Towson to the Northern Neck of Virginia.
And Mr. Bowling worries as much about annual repairs to the old tin roof as he does about tobacco prices.
"You can't take a chance on rainwater dripping on some of these antiques," he explained.