Meanderings: Flea Markets

Pete Korsching

Its spring, the time of year when a young man’s fancy turns to…flea markets? Yes!

I have been a big fan of flea markets since first discovering them when we lived in Lexington, Ky., in the early 1970s. Lexington had two large outdoor flea markets, one north and one south of town. With the warmer climate of the Mid-South, they were usually open every weekend from March through October. The dealers offered almost anything one could desire, from antiques, furniture and small appliances to tools, car parts and garage sale leftovers. Trash to treasures is an apt description as anyone who has watched the TV show “Flea Market Flip” knows.

Because of the potential for surprising and amazing discoveries and the sometimes quirky personalities of dealers, going to flea markets was an entertaining Saturday or Sunday afternoon outing. I became addicted to these outings when I discovered flea markets were fertile ground for finding old toy trains. Almost any weekend I could find one or two boxes of toy trains, and usually at a price that a graduate student could afford. To help ensure finding and claiming the proffered prizes, the trick was arriving early before other collectors had a chance to make the rounds! It always depressed me to hear a dealer say “I had a train, but it sold.”

Linda also enjoyed flea markets, but was not quite as enthusiastic. She was not keen on rising early to be among the first at the market, and often burned out while I was pushing on, hoping to find another treasure. I must admit I was a bit overzealous in my collecting. Our kids sometimes claim that being dragged through countless flea markets beginning almost from birth caused irreparable psychological damage.

When we moved to Gainesville, Fla., we quickly located a flea market nearby. The warm Florida climate allowed it to operate year-round. Moving to Iowa we were not sure what we would find, but were pleasantly surprised. Just a few miles away near Colo was a decent-sized flea market at the Twin Anchors Campground. Marshalltown Fairgrounds also had a year-round flea market that moved inside during the cold months. And, of course, the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines featured a monthly flea market.

I have rummaged through several large flea markets across the U.S., but none compare to what is recognized as the world’s largest, the Paris flea market. Linda and I, along with my sister Ursula and Linda’s mother, explored the Paris flea market on our 1999 trip to France, Germany and The Netherlands. The four or five hours spent there allowed us to cover only a small part of the grounds.

I hoped to find an old European toy train to bring back. I looked, time and booths passed, and Linda, her mother, and my sister all found unique items they could not live without, but I began to wonder if I was out of luck. I was about to give up when I spied it! It was a JEP train set (the French equivalent of Lionel), all metal, colorfully lithographed and in excellent condition. The dealer gave me a reasonable price, and I went to the flea market office building to exchange dollars for euros. When the woman at the exchange counter quoted the exchange rate I ran the numbers through my mind, then told her it was a poor exchange rate. Indignant, she insisted it was an excellent exchange rate. After some additional discourse I told her I did not like the rate, I could do better elsewhere, and I left.

My companions were having a refreshment break, so I bought a soft drink, sat down with them and told them what occurred at the exchange. I was feeling glum because I knew our schedule was tight and I could not leave to acquire euros and return for the train. I mulled the figures over in my mind again when suddenly the light popped on. The exchange rate quoted to me was indeed very good! Now the question: How much do I want the train and am I willing to eat crow to get it?

The answer was never in doubt! I returned to the exchange counter, sheepishly apologized to the woman, told her she was right about the exchange rate, and I was ready to exchange dollars for euros. Somewhat belligerently she replied that because of my earlier disrespectful comments she now refused to make the exchange. I was momentarily devastated, but I was not ready to give up. After considerably more apologizing and pleading, she finally conceded. I took the euros to the dealer and claimed my prize. Was it worth all the abasement? You bet! I probably owed her an apology anyway.

Sadly, the Twin Anchors and Marshalltown flea markets disappeared long ago. It was depressing to see the continuing decline in the number of dealers at Twin Anchors. The end came when Twin Anchors Recreational Vehicles appropriated the flea market space.

Odds today of finding old toy trains at flea markets are remote, whereas eBay and online markets specializing in toy and model trains are sure bets. But I enjoy flea markets as much as ever. Nothing beats the thrill of finding that special piece at a flea market booth, hidden among a jumble of bric-a-brac, dishes and VHS movies.

Pete Korsching is a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.