A little bit of everything at Gaston flea market

The Charlotte ObserverJuly 13, 2014 

— The sprawl of bargains and humanity known officially as The Barnyard Flea Market doesn't much feel like a barnyard, unless you find yourself beside a caged chicken in the livestock section or next to Hot Rod the bull, who poses for photos on Sundays.

No matter. You could call it Land of Everything. People are going to come, whatever the name.

In fact, this 30-acre market on Old N.C. 321 often morphs on busy weekends into the largest gathering in Gaston County. Thousands arrive to score three pairs of socks for $2, or discounted makeup or a collectible sword. They come to get their tires replaced and shop for a daughter's quincenera dress. They buy Confederate flag belts, recliners upholstered in camouflage fabric, new refrigerators. The refrigerators are on sale outside, next to the pony ride.

I learned about The Barnyard in Dallas from a fan, a colleague who shops there for used tools. Then I discovered an essay about the place with an interest-piquing title: "Goats, Swords & Fried Oreos: The Old 321 Flea Market as a Landscape of Globalization."

The piece was co-written by Alex Sayf Cummings, 32, a Georgia State University history professor who has shopped the market since he was a kid in Dallas. As an adolescent, Cummings found the farm animals exotic. As an adult, he's intrigued by the diversity of both the inventory and people. Because where else are you going to find an overall-clad farmer selling animals to Hispanic and Pakistani immigrants? Or an Asian customer sporting a Duck Dynasty T-shirt that says "Redneck of the Year"?

After making a couple of my own trips to the market, I became as obsessed as Cummings. So I called him, and we decided to rendezvous there when he was in town. We'd explore shifting demographics and contemplate 21st-century capitalism. Also, I was hoping to buy fresh garbanzo beans.

The basic premise of a flea market - people gathering to buy and sell every sort of commodity - has been around almost as long as commerce itself. The term's origin is debated, but an oft-told story claims the name was born at a Paris venue that sold used furniture infested with fleas. In modern America, a flea market connotes a place, indoor or outside, where vendors rent space. The goods can be upscale: antiques, collectibles, artisan products. Or they might be more humble wares: used pants suits, old radio equipment, pregnancy tests nearing their expiration date.

The Dallas flea market has existed in various forms at least since the early 1980s. It began as the I-85 Flea Market, off the Bessemer City exit. A few years later, it moved to its current location on Old 321, also known as Dallas-High Shoals Highway. It got its current name in 2010 after a Columbia-based company, Barnyard Flea Markets, bought it from local owners.

Nothing is fancy here. There's no logical organization of merchandise. And if buying second-hand stuff turns you off, it would probably be best, as one customer cautioned in an online review, to "keep your shiney white elitest butts at the mall."

But there are bargains galore, on everything from shampoo to lawnmowers. Most customers I interviewed said the bargains are what keep them coming. There are also shoppers, like me and Cummings, who love the glorious spectacle - the Elvis impersonator who sells socks, the pork rind that's bigger than your head, the small dog who wears a hat and lounges in a baby stroller beside the woman who sells luggage.

Cummings and I chose to meet on a Sunday, because Hot Rod the bull only comes on Sundays. Our first stop was the livestock section. Though livestock is a small part of the market, the animals give the place a rural feel that you don't find at most markets.

Some animal vendors get their critters - chickens, ducks, the occasional turkey - at small-animal auctions. It's a lot of work and Ronnie Abernathy of Spencer Mountain says he makes zero profit, but it doesn't matter because at age 72 he's got nothing better to do, and besides, the work helps him keep track of when Saturday and Sunday roll around.

Other sellers, such as Tommy Roberts of Stanley, raise their own animals. We arrive as Roberts is transferring four squealing pot-bellied pigs into a display cage.

He sells them as pets. "You can housebreak them," Roberts says. He also sells them as meat. "They make good sausage."

Market find: Ashlee Simpson's "I Am Me" CD, on sale beside a caged chicken.

Entrepreneurship for $8 a day

A nice thing about fleas markets: They make entrepreneurship accessible. You don't need capital. You don't need investors. "It's capitalism in its most unassuming, workaday form," Cummings says. "The market working in its magical way."

In Dallas, as little as $8 a day gets you an outdoor table, where you can can display everything you've cleaned out of your basement and be guaranteed that hundreds of people will walk by.

Basically, that's what Jeffery Stevens did. "I couldn't find a job, so I made one," he tells us. Stevens, a large man with flowing gray hair and a white beard, stands behind a glass display case in one of the market's buildings. A customer points into the case. Stevens pulls out a 22-carat gold-plated belt buckle, places it on the counter. He's asking $75. They haggle and settle on $40.

After Stevens lost his job as a video store manager, he says took what he had - hundreds of buckles his late father had collected - and began selling them. He also sells knives and incense, which he tells us he makes from herbs he gathers himself. Soon, he hopes to sell armor. He has detected demand.

Another good thing about flea markets: They help our nation get rid of everything that didn't move the first time. Lots of vendors, including Bobbi Johnston, owner of Bobbi's Store, home of $1 make-up, get their merchandise from wholesale liquidators - companies that buy unsold, out-of-season stock from retailers.

Johnston has no say over what she gets when she buys pallets of liquidated drug-store merchandise. Some things are broken, leaking or expired. "We take it, wipe it down, clean it up, price it." By taking the leaking with the good, she can sell brand-name items at a fraction of retail. Her store is crowded with shoppers. When she needs change, she pulls a wallet fat with bills from under her bra strap. She's very efficient.

Market find: Callous remover foot treatment set, $3.

Stars, bars and soccer shirts

After we leave Bobbi's Store, we begin looking for Hot Rod. How hard could it be, finding a Brahma bull in a flea market? We call off our search temporarily because we spot Sandra's, a concession stand that specializes in the deep-fried - funnel cake, pickles, Honey Buns, Twinkies, cherry danish.

"Can you imagine a fried cherry danish?" Cummings asks me.

"I know!" I say. Crazy stuff.

We opt instead for something more traditional - fried Oreos. They arrive on a paper plate, hot and topped with a squiggle of chocolate sauce.

Market find: Six fried Oreos for $3. Let cool before consuming.

We eat standing up, people-watching, eavesdropping and enjoying the market's mix of races, ethnicities and ideologies, a stew that produces hip-hop CDs and Confederate flags and shirts from South American soccer teams. It's a mix, Cummings notes, that most of us don't encounter unless we end up some place like, say, a flea market.

Not everyone at the market views the region's diversifying demographics as a positive, however. One elderly white man who makes custom T-shirts tells us he'll put anything on a shirt - "Will Trade Wife for Good Used Harley," for instance - as long as it's not Muslim or anti-Christian.

Another white vendor confides: "Between me and you, the Mexicans have taken over."

Do such attitudes cause problems? Not that Gaston County Police Sgt. Talmadge McInnis can see. "They all get along," he says. "I cannot tell you a time ever we had conflict." Maybe the good deals trump animosity.

McInnis says the market has improved tremendously since Barnyard bought it a few years ago. The company, which owns four other markets, in South Carolina, Georgia and Pineville, has renovated buildings, cracked down on sales of counterfeit and stolen merchandise and centralized the livestock in one covered area. The market actually looks less like a barnyard since it's been renamed The Barnyard.

"Before, it was a headache to us," McInnis says. "Then when The Barnyard took it over, it has transformed, even cosmetically."

Where's the bull?

McInnis' favorite place at the market is the tire store. Pull your vehicle to the north end of K Building, and Carlos Fuentes will mount and balance.

"Who would have ever thought you can sell tires at a flea market?" McInnis says. "I just scratch my head. That's like the American kind of dream."

Tire replacement is one of many services at the market. You can also have your photo taken, replace your watch battery, duplicate a key, get a body piercing, remove a tattoo. You can get your computer repaired and have your fortune told.

While people wait for new tires, they usually keep browsing, often finding Rose Ocana of Belmont, who runs her sewing machine nearby. Her merchandise includes decorative hanging towels and hillbilly wind chimes. The chimes are made from beer cans.

Cummings chooses a needlepoint tissue-box cover decorated with teddy bears. It's only $5, and that's with a box of tissues.

Meanwhile, I strike up a conversation with Jerry Porter, who sells cleaning products. Porter wows me by demonstrating how his cleaner can remove diesel oil from a carpet square. It comes right off. I buy a $10 bottle.

We still haven't found the bull. I ask a man wearing a "Coed Naked Hunting" shirt if he might know where the bull is located. He doesn't. But the guy beside him points and says to look for the blue tarp.

The blue tarp is there. Hot Rod is not.

That's when we conclude that our search is futile: There is no bull at this market. We agree we've seen enough for one day. We shake hands and say goodbye. Before leaving, I make a final stop at a Hispanic produce market. There, I find the lovely light green pods that contain fresh garbanzo beans.

Market find: About a half pound of bright green garbanzo beans, $1.80. Shell, cook in boiling water until soft. Drain, toss with olive oil and salt.

Days after my visit, I finally connect with Hot Rod's owner, T.J. Johnson of Vale, who tells me Hot Rod was absent when we visited because she was ill. But on most Sundays, she and her husband display Hot Rod under an open shed. People sit on him and get their photo taken. He's 2,200 pounds, and you use a step stool to climb up, and he can seat three children or two adults. Photos are $8 to $12, depending on size.

Johnson has trained Hot Rod since he was a little guy. He loves kids. He loves Honey Buns. Also, he does tricks. When Johnson says, "You've been a bad boy. You need to say your prayers." he drops his front legs, falling to his knees.

I try to picture it: A 2,200-pound bull saying his prayers. But it's not the same as seeing him in person. Obviously, I need to make another trip to the flea market.

Information from: The Charlotte Observer, http://www.charlotteobserver.com

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