In the flea market's rise, an economic saga

Part hobby mecca, part Five and Dime, flea market takes its place as an 'informal economy' thrives.

Just up the hill from Mt. Airy, N.C. - the original Mayberry - tiny Hillsville, Va., is a remote mountaintop outpost on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There are a few vineyards, a musty shoe shop, a rickety diner, and a bookstore - no green Starbucks awnings or Gap stores visible for a hundred miles in any direction.

But once a year, a more aggressive capitalism comes calling, as tents spring up in front yards and bank parking lots and the Hillsville Flea Market roars to life. Over four days, as many as 200,000 people walk the main strip among merchants selling everything from wagon-wheel chandeliers to rubber-band rifles. In the already quirky world of weekend markets, it's an oddity: the only flea market where an entire town, for a weekend, turns into a giant outdoor mall.

Once a quaint way to spend Saturday afternoon, flea-marketing has found its place in an emerging "social economy" that is supporting those on the lower rungs of the American economy, say experts. These days, 1 in 7 Americans relies on this informal economy to make up for wages lost as manufacturing heads overseas and the tobacco market spirals.

And here in Hillsville - the temporary center of this flea-market nation - lies a simple truth: In an increasingly outsourced economy, Americans are finding in these tents, trunks, and glassed-in cases, not just flea-market bargains, but a vital entrepreneurial outlet.

While the flea market itself is nothing new, "the sheer scale of some of these markets indicates a shift toward what I'd call a social economy," says Bruce Bartlett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Washington. "For shoppers, it's a fun diversion. For [flea-market entrepreneurs], there's a sense of, if there's money lying on the ground, why not pick it up?"

Indeed, many markets are growing by an order of magnitude, often fueled by Internet word-of-mouth or articles - "How to haggle at the flea market," for instance - in homemaker magazines. In Wheaton, Ill., treasure-hunters shop by flashlight at the All-Night Flea Market; between North Covington, Ky., and Gadsden, Ala., there's a 450 mile stretch of goods and eager buyers at the 127 Corridor Flea Market; and last weekend in Brimfield, Mass., May's Antique Market took over two miles of Route 20.

Even eBay, experts say, is basically a digital flea market that taps into broad economic shifts: new ways to make money, remote towns becoming destinations, a hankering for handmade goods in a Wal-Mart world, and, in essence, a national recycling effort that feeds an insatiable hunger for knickknacks, doo-dads, and general consumerist debris.

At this booth: a diversifying economy

The flea markets' growth is part of a burgeoning underground economy - one that has given hope to some laid-off workers turning toward old hobbies, and may have the power to change entire towns.

Some rural areas, getting a glimpse of those possibilities on suddenly crowded streets, ask "whether it has the potential to be transformative," says Deb Markley, the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based codirector of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. And that potential is there, she says. The challenge is figuring out how a town can capitalize on its guests - sometimes in the hundreds of thousands - to forge "a strategy with a broader impact than the self-employment of vendors."

Despite the sheer size of markets like Hillsville's, the IRS has yet to crack down on the collection of sales taxes, as the cost of the effort would outweigh its gain. The growth of that "informal economy" has increased the amount of cash in circulation per American from $1,105 in 1990 to $2,455 in 2004 - and untaxed goods account for some 10 percent of the gross national product. It's a sign that, especially in rural regions, Americans are diversifying: More and more, four or five income streams are flowing into two-wage-earner households, says Elaine Edgecomb, a director at the Aspen Institute, a Washington think tank.

Still, some critics worry that flea markets are a sign more of tragedy than triumph - a symbol of sinking expectations and collapsing economies that can force the liquidation of even the smallest assets. In that reading, the clusters of tents that pop up in towns and on highways are less an homage to resourcefulness than a vision harkening back to Dust Bowl days, when families sometimes sold their most precious belongings to survive.

The truth, say economists, won't be clear for some time, and the picture is muddled for now. Many vendors are "necessity entrepreneurs" who come to supplant lost jobs. But there are also "pull factors," says Ms. Edgecomb - people seeking autonomy, opportunity, and control who are drawn to the markets because they want to cultivate a skill, or simply love doing it.

'The ultimate Americans'

In Hillsville, long rows of merchants hawk Japanese knives and headache powders. Andean pan-flute minstrels compete for soundspace with the Wild Turkeys, a mostly female bluegrass band. There's a visible hierarchy, with antiques dealers on top and, at the bottom, the "sock people" who lay clearanced socks on tarps.

For shoppers like retired truck driver Hugh Burton, poking around can yield bargains on goods he calls "the real McCoy." In Hillsville, he bought five solid-wood guitars with hard cases for $495.

In a sense, Gatlinburg, Tenn., native Fred Gilstorf represents both sides of the table. Traveling 300 days a year across the country, he spends money to make money, buying up old kitchen pots that he transforms - using driftwood from Tennessee's Lake Douglas - into funky garden fountains. Up on his stool, looking out over the sweating crowds, he says he feels a surge of pride as water spills from the spouts of his inventions.

"In a way, these vendors are the ultimate Americans," says Gilstorf. "It's free enterprise, the whole deal."

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