RALEIGH — Top Hat Jack got his start as a Raleigh Flea Market staple after bringing a truckload of antique furniture that didnt fit into his new home.
I brought a pickup truckload out here 25 years ago and sold every piece, said Jack Phillips, 69, owner of Phillips Antiques. Then I was hooked.
Over the years, Phillips has established patterns in putting together his makeshift retail outlet that can be found most Saturdays and Sundays in two outside lots at the market on the N.C. State Fairgrounds.
His setup includes an American flag, a radio playing 1950s, 60s, and 70s music, and used furniture and antiques arranged with a certain flea market fung shui.
It has to look just right, Phillips said.
About 15 years ago, he incorporated a black top hat into his market attire after finding it at an estate sale.
I said, That would be a great trademark, he said.
Phillips is one of about 1,000 entrepreneurs in rotation hocking a variety of wares each weekend at the Raleigh Flea Market thats been on Blue Ridge Road since 1971.
From new socks, tuxedos and belts to soups, custom paintings of dogs and yard art made out of forks and spoons, the products and services at the flea market are as diverse as the characters who sell them.
Where else in America can you start a business for $50, and expose your wares to over 40,000 people for a weekend, said Marshall Stewart III, manager of the market. The beauty of the flea market is easy entrance, easy exit. We do not tie your hands here.
Advantages of selling at the flea market include the casual atmosphere, the sometimes high traffic and the low barrier to entry. Disadvantages include a sparse crowd tied to poor weather, inventory lost or broken in transition and the limitation to the two-day weekend.
Phillips and others said that the flea market crowd is looking for a deal, so expensive, high-end items wont necessarily sell. However, some small-business owners treat the opportunity to connect with their customers and market their services, just like they would at a consumer trade show.
Know how to sell
Stewarts office serves as the Raleigh Flea Markets nucleus, where employees, security officers and vendors come for information, to convert change, talk college sports, or hear Stewart tell one of his many stories, including one that explains steps vendors can take to put circumstances in their favor.
In the 1970s, Stewart said, a woman dressed in her Sunday best set up a flea market booth that included tables covered in starched white linens and a tiered display for about 60 dolls.
Sunday night she left with not one doll, he said.
Soon after, another woman dressed in raggedy clothes sold similar dolls that were just scattered on a table. She left with about 90 percent of her dolls.
So its not what you sell, he said. Its how you sell it.
Vendors have to be nimble, outgoing and ready to hustle. They should use the flea market to test their market and adjust their model based on the results.
Its raw individualism and capitalism at its best, he said.
About 75 percent of the Raleigh Flea Market vendors use the opportunity to make supplemental income, Stewart said.
When Becky Jaber first set up at the Raleigh Flea Market as Winstons Nursery in 1971, she sold live plants, in part, to keep her retired father busy.
I attribute a lot of our success to getting a good start here at the flea market, she said about the business that transformed into Country Heritage Nursery, which eventually included 12 large greenhouses and a storefront in Wake Forest.
Jaber, 74, retired from the plant business but returned to the flea market about five years ago to sell farm-fresh eggs and honey in an outside lot.
She eventually moved inside the Education Building, where she could leave her inventory during the week. Over the years, Jaber expanded her inventory to include glorified junk, or junque, as she calls it, that she sells under a company named Country Heritage.
Jabers business specializes in Pyrex dishes but also sells other kitchen wares, vintage hats and other collectibles, such as miniature plastic Smurfs, salt and pepper shakers, and shot glasses. Her customers range from the curious to collectors, including Paul Slovensky, who stopped by her booth recently to see if she had anything to add to his collection of about 9,000 shot glasses.
The weekend business helps Jaber and her 94-year-old husband supplement their income and pay expenses for her grandson, whom they adopted, she said. She pays $107 a week for her booth.
For about three years, John Wilkerson has had a booth inside the Education Building for his Durham-based business, Clear Choice Water Solutions, which offers everything from $35 filters to a $12,000 reverse osmosis purification system.
He uses his Raleigh Flea Market booth as one of the companys marketing tools. The booth includes a sink nozzle that appears to be held up by water, which aims to get peoples attention. He gives potential clients a free water-testing kit that can be mailed to the company to analyze and propose solutions.
Almost every Friday morning, Phillips, of Phillips Antiques, drives a trailer from Knightdale to the flea market and sets out his wares. Phillips, who is retired, uses the income from his booth to pay for vacations, including recent trips to Niagara Falls and Alaska.
Phillips said working at the flea market, however, isnt just about making money. Its also about the camaraderie.
Sometimes you make money. Sometimes you break even, he said. But it is also about hanging around with your flea market buddies.
Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges