By Alice Hayes
The Raleigh Market bustles to life well before 9 a.m. when it opens. Almost every Saturday and Sunday since the 1970s, vendors have laid out their goods on folding tables, blankets or permanent booths at the N.C. State Fairgrounds.
Then come the customers, as varied as the goods offered. Wearing everything from a raincoat, bulging with a dog snuggled inside, to a jean jacket emblazoned with an eagle and worn with a cowboy hat. Children rush with the same excitement and energy as their guardians, just a few feet lower. So much to see, so much to smell, so much to buy.
But it doesn’t matter if you’re a college student in hip clothes or an old man leaning resolutely on his walker. The flea market doesn’t judge — there’s no way it could. The vendors are as diverse in attitude and life experiences as the customers. The vendors have been here for months, years or even decades.
For some, the flea market is an addiction. For others, it’s just business. And for some, it’s about putting food on the table.
An American flag flies from a makeshift flagpole behind one of the vendors, Jack. He is 77, and he’s lived in North Carolina his whole life. Those years have made him bitter, like sweet tea left out too long. Wearing an old baseball cap and a thick jacket, he tends his booth, made up of mostly furniture: a grand old mirror, a red set of cast iron patio furniture, a solid wooden dresser.
The flea market has gotten worse with time, he said.
“People don’t spend the money on collectibles like they did 15, 20 years ago —nobody collects anything no more,” he said.
After Jack sold his first truckload at the flea market 28 years ago he became “addicted”. But he’s close to moving on.
“Two more years, then I’m a turn my saddle in,” he said.
In the back of Jack’s booth, there’s a picture of former president Donald Trump in a homemade frame perched on an easel. A cryptic caption declares it art regardless of whether the viewer think it’s good or bad. It’s unclear what Jack thinks of the picture.
Jack has help selling furniture from his “partner in crime,” Ray. Ray looks a little younger than Jack, but still has a worn face and said his last name is “not for sale”. He wears an ushanka, a fur cap with ear coverings, and he sits at a tiny table displayed with jewelry cases. Ray’s been helping Jack “on and off for 20 years”. Ray didn’t originally sell at the market. He started off as a customer — that’s how he met Jack.
Not everyone at the market is as dour as Jack. Boss Barbee, who sells tie-dye at the market, wears all tie-dye clothing, even down to the underpants, he said. He has a scruffy white beard and a jovial demeanor. All sorts of things — weed, crazy clothes — it’s all coming back into fashion, he said. He seems to like it that way.
He’s serious about his business. He keeps tie-dye business cards in a leather case in the pocket of his white jeans. The case isn’t tie-dye, but the jeans are. The jeans are 50 years old, with a few inches worn off the cuffs.
Barbee thinks people should do what makes them happy. Like the woman who bought tie-dye underwear from him. Or his mother and her boyfriend, who he rolled a joint for. He supports marijuana with the passion of a man who was never told the ’70s ended.
Across the market, Debs Barton sits with her hands in her pockets behind a small wooden table. Barton has been selling here for 14 years, ever since she moved to North Carolina.
Every weekend, weather permitting, she drives from her home 70 miles away and unloads “about twenty-thousand pounds” of jewelry and antique hardware. She’s been selling jewelry for about four years and has been in the hardware business for about 25. Before that she worked with mantels and fences in Philadelphia.
Barton smiles sincerely and is excited by what she sells, especially the antique glass doorknobs.
“They made it with manganese, which gives it strength,” she said. “It’s too expensive now to do it, they won’t do it, they can do it, and it’s also the thing that allows a knob that’s clear to turn purple in the sun.”
Her tables are covered with plastic buckets and wood bins, but even that isn’t enough. Each table has another smaller table stacked on top with yet more piled on. On one set of tables each bucket or bin is dedicated to a specific category, such as doorknobs, hinges, drawer pulls, metal handles or another niche form of hardware.
Many of her wares are rusted, beaten down or otherwise look more like junk. Still, people need what she sells, and they know where to find her.
“They’ll try to match things,” she said. “I had a gal who bought a piece of furniture and she bought hardware.”
On the other table sits jewelry and “interesting smalls,” referring to the miscellaneous items found among the jewelry. And as to why she sells jewelry and hardware at the same booth?
“We have jewelry for your home, and jewelry for your body,” she said, with a laugh.
Jack, Boss & Debs
Everyone at the flea market is there looking for something. Doorknobs, furniture, customers, money.
The vendors and the customers all want something. And at first glance, it can be hard to tell them apart. Jack, Barbee or Barton could easily be mistaken for another customer slowly perusing through the piles of treasures.
Sometimes it’s easy, when the vendors sit behind their table or write prices on pieces of tape. Other times it’s harder, when the vendors stand by.
Just as aimless as their customers.
Edited by Maddie Ellis