Keith Silberg could have given up when C-Mart, the popular Harford County retailer his family started more than three decades ago, fell to the depressed economy and went out of business in October.
But Silberg instead returned to his family's previous C-Mart location in Forest Hill to start a new venture. And he's hoping the new company will help regular folks weather the tough economy as well.
In November, Silberg opened the Big TARP, named after the federal stimulus plan that bails out failing banks. On the weekends, the business is a flea market where people sell their goods from tables set up in a cavernous building. Every other Wednesday, the space is a live auction where people bid on goods.
Some of those selling at the flea market have fallen on hard times themselves and are looking for a place to make some extra money. The goods being auctioned sometimes come from companies that have gone out of business. An auction last month included a stainless steel, industrial-size oven that was left over from a restaurant remodeling. This month, the contents of a day care center are to be auctioned off.
"Everybody is downsizing," Silberg said. "Everybody is looking in their basement to get rid of stuff."
Mia and Harold Fugitt sold goods at an outside flea market in Rising Sun before moving to the Big TARP indoor market because it's heated. The couple, who live in Colora in Cecil County, said the flea market is a good way to supplement their income. Harold Fugitt works in car sales, and not many people are buying these days.
"More and more people are coming in as they hear about us and the economy gets worse," Mia Fugitt said.
Silberg saw the Big TARP as an opportunity to get back in business fast.
C-Mart shut its doors in October after Silberg said the bad economy stymied plans to start an Internet operation and expand the business nationally. The retailer had become an institution in Harford County and was known for its cluttered shelves and discounted designer brands. But shoppers stopped spending on fancy duds when the economy turned.
The new business is housed in the building on Rock Spring Road where C-Mart was housed before the Silbergs consolidated operations at their Joppatowne location in 2005. The family still owns the building, so there is no rent to pay.
Overhead for the rest of the business is low, too. For the flea market, people bring in their stuff and pay $36 each weekend to rent a table. Silberg takes home about 20 percent of the profits on items that are auctioned.
He said the business works in tough economic times because consumers on a budget get to decide what they can afford to pay. There's no waiting for clearance sales and markdowns.
"It's the true measure of fair market value," Silberg said.
Silberg said the Big TARP is more like C-Mart was in its beginnings. His uncle, E. Douglas Carton, opened the business as an old five-and-dime store in the 1970s when discount shopping was still a new idea.
"This is how C-Mart really started," Silberg said. "This is back to basics."