The Pas de Deux At The Flea Market

COMMENT

August 15, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

In the September issue of Living magazine, the author of one bTC article describes how a flea market dealer finally flipped out when a customer offered him $2 for a $100 vase.

He reportedly smashed the vase on the ground, saying: "There, now it's worth $2."

I earnestly believe this story is true. And it could easily have happened at the flea market held on Sundays every spring through fall outside Columbia Mall.

From April into October, hundreds of vendors, many from as far )) away as West Virginia and North Carolina, descend on the mall each Sunday to barter items common and bizarre. Every week is a spectacle as cars jam the mall's parking lots to browse stand after stand.

It's the flea market waltz, where buyers and dealers join in a pas de deux over price. The buyer who gets $5 knocked off the price believes he's the better dancer, but it's the dealer, who knows the true value of the item, who leads this choreography.

The give and take is all part of the appealing grit of flea markets. They lack the marketing flash of the formal storefronts just inside the mall. The makeshift stands are erected on card tables and crates. Dealers come dressed, not in fancy workclothes, but for the most part in t-shirts and shorts.

But then flea markets don't have an illustrious past. Supposedly, the name came from the bug-infested furniture sold at the French Marche aux Puces, which literally means market of fleas.

According to Living magazine, more than 800 full-time flea markets now dot the United States. And, the lure of having one's own business has turned many an otherwise normal person into a flea-market gypsy.

Take Nellie Umbaugh, who left a job with the Hagerstown Herald-Mail newspaper to sell vintage jewelry along the East Coast.

With her husband and two small children in tow, they trek from their Hagerstown home to far-flung places. Most of the summer has been spent at the Columbia Mall and a flea market in Bethesda, but by winter, they will pack up a motor home and spend much of the season in Key West, Fla.

They've been doing this for four years, ever since Mrs. Umbaugh left work on a maternity leave. "I just couldn't face going back," she said, although she concedes that her new occupation has not been easy.

"You have to work awfully hard at it," she said, "This is the first year that we've really been able to hold our own."

From her four glass-top cases, she sells everything from elaborateVictorian pins to gaudy 1930s plastic bangles. Among her more unusual pieces: a Victorian earwax spoon and an Asian fingernail cover, dating to the 1940s, that bears ornate metalwork and gemstones.

Often, though, the people at the flea market are even more exotic than the items for sale.

One man who spoke with a mysterious accent refused to talk to me about his imported African masks, Oriental rugs and jewelry. At another stand where Victorian lithographs are sold, all I had to do was pick up a piece and the dealer told me how much she would shave from the asking price if only I would buy it.

Yet, there doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency or desperation among most dealers. Most seem to genuinely enjoy spending their entire Sunday sitting beneath a two-level parking garage on a lawn chair with no cushion.

Ruth Weimer got into the business several years ago when her husband retired and they were looking for something to do.

They spend most of the week going to auctions, antique stores and yard sales doing what Mrs. Weimer likes best -- shopping. What they buy and then sell again are mostly collectibles -- glassware, jewelry, dolls and china.

"That's what sells as far as I'm concerned," Mrs. Weimer said. "Actually, what we buy is anything unusual."

Her strangest commodity is a set of six plastic feet that look as if they'd been yanked from a mannequin.

"This was a bad buy," Mrs. Weimer confessed, explaining that she found them at a Hamburger's going-out-of-business sale where they were used to display men's hosiery.

"I thought some artist would come along and know exactly what to do with them," she said.

Well, for Mrs. Weimer and scores more dealers like her, there'll always be another Sunday at the Columbia Mall parking lot and with it, another opportunity to find that elusive buyer.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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