a blogumn by Ryan Dixon


Flea Markets

The middle of August is almost here and — if today’s release of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra wasn’t enough of a hint – that means we have officially entered the dreary days of dog.


For those attending or teaching school in the fall, I’m sure the familiar tinglings of stomach angst – a visceral warning of soon-to-come early mornings and exhausting afternoons trapped in overheated classrooms– have once again reared their ugly head. However, since I’m no longer in school (although that end-of-summer scholastic dread still occasionally slivers up my spine like a phantom tentacle), I now mostly equate August with bad movies, Country Time Lemonade ads (“The Official Sponsor of Summer”), and flea markets.

Flea Market Photo Credit: looseends
Flea Market Photo Credit: looseends

Yes, flea markets. Perhaps it was the fear of having to return their inventory into the bowels of their garage when the green leaves turned autumn brown only to have the swelling unsold piles confront them again the following spring, but August always seemed to be the month when flea market vendors were especially desperate to sell their haute ordures. As a child, my grandfather and I spent countless August hours walking through Pittsburgh’s Woodlands Flea Market (located on the site of a former drive-in movie theater) and I managed to  haggle, barter and beg my way into purchasing a cornucopia of merchandise ranging from musty Pittsburgh Steelers golf club headcovers to a bootleg VHS copy of Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge recorded in the very un-HD glory of SLP.

And, for my money, there remains no better exploration of the anthropological rules and rituals that were followed by the denizens who dwelt within these almost certainly rusty gates than The “Flea Mart” Adventure, an essay written by my aforementioned grandfather, James Libbey.

Originally published in Collector’s News and Antique Reporter, The “Flea Mart” Adventure was written at the height of the American Flea Market renaissance that began in the early 1980’s and ended when the anti-social weirdos who often populated these gatherings discovered the means to sell items on computers and thus never again had to leave their basement dwellings. (Just kidding. Kinda.) And while the rise of the eBay Empire has caused many of these once glorious second-hand bazaars to shutter, I still feel that this essay provides a fun look back at an era when the second-hand collectible was king.

Note: After the essay, you’ll find my own e-vendor’s table of some priceless YouTube clips to go along with the introduction above.

The “Flea Mart” Adventure by James Libbey

There is a phenomenon going on, throughout this country, that is unique in the field of merchandising. Would you believe it is so popular that its customers simply can’t wait to start shopping, even before the lights are turned on (flash lights are in evidence everywhere). They literally shop in the “dark”.

In fact the entire relationship between buyers and sellers stretches the imagination. There are no window displays, little or no advertising, no trained salespeople or department managers. You will find no security guards hiding behind counters, in fact there are no counters.

Their merchandise is more often than not, displayed on a piece of four by eight wall board stretched across a couple of saw horses and covered with a sheet or perhaps you may find that item you have been looking for, draped across the hood of a 1975 Chevy pick-up.

This phenomenon is known as a Flea Mart. Here in Pittsburgh, for example on any give weekend you will find more than a half- dozen marts throughout the suburbs. From as far south as a race track in Washington County, to a firehouse annex in Heidelberg, over to the Northside and probably the best known is one that was formerly and outdoor theater.

In spite of the seemingly casual air it’s very professionally run. Not because there are people giving orders or directing activities, but because both buyers and sellers seem to know instinctively what needs to be done.

You may find a prospective buyer helping a seller guide his car into a parking space. A small crowd may collect to help an older man or woman unload their vehicle and then even help them set up their stand. There is an atmosphere surrounding these places that can only be called “country like”.

It reminds this writer of his early youth when with his family, he visited places like East Charleston, Vermont, Kittery, Maine just two of the hundreds of small towns with its general stores and meeting houses that once covered this land.

I was introduced into the world of the “Flea Mart” by a neighbor. I must admit I was not very excited at first, the idea of spending a Saturday or Sunday morning simply walking around, looking at someone else’s junk, did seem like a real waste of time. However, it didn’t take long to find I was “hooked”. For me it happened just as I strolled (no one hurries) down the isle between stand after stand filled with everything from ancient hand drill or wooden planes, to a Zippo lighters, scarred and still carrying the insignia of some outfit from World War II.

I know “doubters” at first will not understand why anyone in his right mind would get out of a warm bed, throw down a cup of coffee and fight the traffic (it forms early) all the way into some “Mart”.

What I said earlier about the flashlights wasn’t a joke. The sun doesn’t come up early enough for those hardy souls who just can’t wait for the days activities to begin. One clever entrepreneur put up flood lights to catch the “early birds.” But for those who are willing to wait for the sun to fight for its rightful place over some Fleamart, there will be a world of wonders to see.

What did they use to say, something about a “million stories in the Naked City”? Well I can relate a few of those myself.How about that crowd standing around a beat up old van on whose hood was a miniature replica of the once famous “Twenty Mule Team Borax Wagon”. You may even remember the title of the early TV program, “Death Valley Days” or its narrator? He later became the President of the United States.

But hold on, it’s now time for that second cup of coffee and if your will power is low, one of those delicious, home-made pastries. As you look around you can feel yourself becoming the member of a family. As you wander down the Isles, faces start to look familiar, for instance there is that lady you purchased your granddaughters doll from. The man that just nodded to you? Of course, he had that Zippo lighter you now prize so much.

But back to the stories and one that will always stay with me. A group was starting to collect up ahead, this is always a sure sign that an important transaction is going on. When you reach the crowd and looked through, you can see the reason. On the tailgate of an old pick-up sat two of the most beautiful Water Spaniel pups I’d ever seen. The boys said he was going into the service and was unable to keep them. Being an animal lover, I couldn’t take it, I had to leave the vicinity at once. Later, I went by the pick-up, the boy was still there, but his dogs were gone. I can only hope that whoever had bought them would love them as much as he obviously did.

But to a story with a more pleasant setting. The more important stands are those that offer the professional type of tools. Large drills, generators and the like. One fellow obviously was known to have such items, for his area was always crowded. The only problem was that he had so much stuff that it could not be displayed in the normal manner on tables or benches. However he had devised a unique way to display his merchandise. He lined both sides of his area and across the back with big items the smaller, less bulky items down the center. This meant that you had to walk single file, down one isle and up the other and there was no way you could turn around because you’d meet other customers coming up behind you.

I joined the ranks and started through with the others. Taking your time is the key word. I was about half way through when a panicky voice broke the stillness. “Dad, I have to go to the bathroom.”

Good-natured laughter bounced off the walls as the crowd moved into high gear to let him out. As he rushed away, they merely reformed and started through again, a typical gesture for a Sunday morning.

One of the really fascinating features of these marts is how the price one will charge is arrived at. I saw this being put to the test, one Sunday, not long ago.

On a table among a lot of bric-a-brac was a safe-deposit box, (the kind you rent at your local bank). The “lines were drawn”, the seller asking fifteen, the buyer offering eight. Words like “one of a kind, never before” came from the seller, the buyer merely nodding and upping his bid to ten. As time went on the fifteen came down to fourteen then thirteen, on the other hand the eight moved up to ten and finally reached twelve. That seemed to be the magic number. Both parties were satisfied, the man walked away with his prize, the seller pocketing the money. It didn’t occur to me until afterwards, “where do you suppose he’d gotten hold of a safe-deposit box in the first place?

I should explain that in addition to the stands that the average person sets up on a Saturday or Sunday there are also thepermanent locations. They are built like a series of attached garages, the occupants rent these for the season (which usually runs from March to December). These people are what might be called ‘professionals’.

They are, in many cases retires or persons who are “moonlighting” on weekends to earn additional income. Usually theyare very sharp, they know the market and what is selling. So, often they are your earliest customers (I, like most of the”sellers” set up a few time during the season). They too may be part of the early morning “flashlight” brigade and it is funny to later take a stroll around the mart and find an item you just sold someone for $3.00 now being displayed for $5.00 or $6.00. But that is the name of the game!

Note that I said take a stroll around the mart. What about your stand? Is it safe? Being ‘ripped off’ is never a problem, “it just doesn’t happen.”

If this were fiction I’d try to close with a strong “wrap-up” line, but as it’s not I’ll close by relating and incident that happened the very first time I’d set-up. I had arrived about 5 a.m., parked the car and started putting up my tables, not an easy task when it is pitch black and your only assistant is a “battered Boy Scout flashlight (“nope, that’s not for sale”).

I’d carefully packed the car so that the items I thought would sell first came out in that order. It was a number of ‘cheeseboxes’ containing cassette tapes, followed by a set of V.W. wheel covers and thirdly a pair of hiking boots. What I didn’t realize was that I’d already collected a small crowd that were not only interested in buying, but were asking the prices.

Perhaps because it was so early in the morning (one cup of coffee doesn’t exactly make me ready to do “battle”) or the surprise at finding customers at my tables, I don’t know. But the first transactions of the day were almost a disaster.Offering a man holding the wheel covers a price of fifty cents a piece while explaining that I was asking $12.00 for each cassette tape and that the ‘hiking’ boots had “only been played a few times” caused a moment of confusion, until one of the customers turned on his flash light and the day went from there into high gear, but I noticed more than once a couple would walk by point at my stand and break out in a broad grin.

I could only guess what they must be saying, especially when I saw one of them was carrying my set of ‘V.W.’ wheel covers…



Country Time Old Fashioned Lemonade Drink Mix

Writing this column has made me very nostalgic for the “better than real” food era of the mid-70’s through late 80’s when companies flaunted the artificial ingredients of their products in marketing campaigns. And never has the end result of culinary chemistry looked more appealing than in the iconic Country Time “Grandpa” ad from 1978:


And, like a Japanese soldier stationed on an obscure island unaware that WWII has ended, I find it both frightening and inspiring that, in our organic “aughts”, Country Time remains unafraid to slap CONTAINS NO JUICE on its nutritional label:



Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge

Watching the trailer for Puppet Master III while researching this column has made me realize two important things:

1. There were at least 2,500,798 more interesting items I could have purchased during that flea market trip than a bootleg copy of Puppet Master III: Toulin’s Revenge. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for not buying that bootleg copy of Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College when I had the chance.

2. We need some concrete rules of what NOT to do when making B-horror films. Here are my candidates for the top three rules:


  • The villains of the previous movies in a series should not suddenly become the good guys, especially if those villains are demonic puppets. Demonic puppets are demonic for a reason and, even if they’re killing Nazis, we should never, ever root for them.
  • If you have a protagonist in the film who’s supposed to be tragic, please make sure that he’s played by an actor good enough to at least get cast as Murray the Cop in a community theater production of The Odd Couple. (And speaking of B-movie tragic protagonists, I’m convinced that at some point in the last ten years,  a cabal of B-movie producers kidnapped and  brainwashed Nicholas Cage, turning him into a B-movie Manchurian Candidate in an effort to ensure that they would always have a good actor at their disposal for the tragic protagonist lead.)
  • Teenage boys want their horror films to feature naked girls, not Nazis. (The lack of any real nudity in Puppet Master III was an especially devastating discovery for my younger self since Puppet Master II’s white undie, topless scene— featuring 80’s B-Goddess Charlie Spradling— had already cemented itself as one of the iconic movie moments of my pre-pubescent years)

Of course, I should  note that Charles Band, the Full Moon Entertainment impresario who produced Puppet Master III as well as dozens of other B-films, lives in a castle in Italy while I rent an apartment in Burbank. So I’m really not sure how closely you really want to follow my rules.