Bitter battle brews beneath bargains

Competition: Two businesses struggle to take the flea market title along U.S. 1.

January 19, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

In the world of flea markets, shoppers and vendors relish wrestling over the price of imitation designer sunglasses and chipped dishes, but few have ever seen a scuffle as bitter as the one raging between two of the region's largest flea markets.

A lawsuit and a restraining order have failed to resolve the dispute being waged across a mile of U. S. 1 in Elkridge.

At Flea Market World, where plastic lawn ornaments, used videos and tattoos were waiting for hagglers one recent Saturday, the usually packed aisles were half-filled with customers.

About a mile down the road, a similar scene unfolded at rival U. S. 1 Flea Market.

"Both won't survive this," said Patrick Kelly, a vendor selling compact discs and videos who has been selling goods at flea markets for 15 years. "There is not enough market for both. One will go under."

The battle started last year. Flea Market World, a family-owned business, had been running a prosperous weekend market on U. S. 1 in Howard County for nine years. It grew from a few tables to 300 vendors inside and outside a large warehouse.

But its prosperity at a prime location in Elkridge ended when the family began fighting with the landlord, Morris Weinman Co. of Baltimore, while looking for more space, said John Rosenberger, Flea Market World's president.

They also began looking to move last March, Rosenberger said, because the increasingly congested road was getting too dangerous and the family wanted to leave behind its strained relationship with the Weinman Co. By October, the Weinman Co. had opened a flea market in neighboring stores, Rosenberger said. In December, after Flea Market World left for good, U. S. 1 Flea Market began leasing space outside to vendors, he said.

A few weeks ago, only one vendor had taken residence inside the large U. S. 1 Flea Market warehouse.

Officers with the Weinman Co. did not return repeated calls for an interview.

Before leaving in December, Flea Market World workers blanketed the area with fliers announcing its move. But when it opened shop last month on Amberton Drive, it struggled for customers. Some were accustomed to shopping for years at the U. S. 1 location and couldn't find the market. So Rosenberger, his wife, two sisters and brother-in-law went over to their old haunt with megaphones and fliers.

They were run off the property, and the Weinman Co. filed suit, seeking a restraining order to protect its new business, U. S. 1 Flea Market. A judge granted the order last month.

Flea Market World's owners accused U. S. 1 Flea Market of stealing their customers, of trying to run them out of town and of causing undisclosed trouble with zoning officials.

"They were telling customers that we no longer existed," said Lori Dawson, 37, Rosenberger's sister and the market's director of marketing. "Customers told us that."

Indeed, the new market was worried about losing business to Flea Market World, whose sign, though scraped off the warehouse wall, is still visible. "It is further clear that [Flea Market World] intends to use its last days on the premises to lure customers from the U. S. 1 Center" to its new location, the suit says.

Both sides have a chance to win the battle.

Flea Market World occupies a cavernous warehouse filled with vendors at tables and in large rooms resembling stores. The vendors peddle fax machines, televisions, sunglasses, videos, compact discs, Native American goods, lawn ornaments, soap and produce. One can even buy candy from John Rosenberger Sr., the father of Flea Market's president, who is known as the "Candy Man." Don't like the merchandise? Then get a tattoo or visit a psychic.

But its new quarters are in an industrial park. Several customers said they had trouble finding the place, despite road signs.

Down the street, U. S. 1 Flea Market has location -- and the history of a previous market. Most vendors set up shop outside, hawking goods ranging from vacuum cleaners to a used electric toothbrush.

But it's not as clean as Flea Market World, vendors and customers say, and its warehouse space was occupied by a sole produce stand about two Saturdays ago.

Vendors at both places say they made the right choice, whether they stayed or followed Flea Market World. But some aren't so sure.

David Belt and his wife, Kim, sell and repair jewelry in their small shop. They say their sales are off 50 percent since moving to Flea Market World.

"There's less traffic," Belt says. "But we'll give it another few months."

Shoppers said they were excited by two flea markets: more fun, more goods, better prices.

Sharon Snyder, her son and father spent the morning shopping at U. S. 1 Flea Market, buying some jeans and a toy robot.

"I spend $100 to $200 a week here," she said.

An hour later, Snyder popped up at the tattoo parlor at Flea Market World and haggled until she got a good deal on a tattoo for her thigh. Snyder said, "I didn't even come to get a tattoo. But I couldn't refuse a good deal. I got this for $60. They were asking for $75."

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