Flea markets boom as gas prices spike

Flea markets boom as gas prices spike

Posted: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 9:16 pm
By: AP

By AMY HUNTER Bristol Herald Courier BLUFF CITY (AP) — Debra Keels stood behind a wooden table on which she’d laid out a myriad of personal belongings. Neatly organized in tidy rows were old movies on video tape, outgrown children’s clothes and timeworn china, among other items. To Keels, the goods were palpable memories of bygone days. To others, they were affordable necessities. Keels’ brought the motley assortment to the Tri-City Flea Market in Bluff City after cleaning out her Piney Flats home. She’d brought everything that, after careful consideration, didn’t seem to be worth as much in sentimentality as the dollar or two they could generate if sold, she said. “I went through everything at my house and decided ‘don’t want this, don’t want this,’ “ she said. “Just look at all of this stuff.” Keels’ makeshift kiosk sat amidst a row of similar displays at the flea market. She was one of many first-time vendors who have increasingly turned to the yard-sale conglomerate to make extra cash in hopes of staying afloat in the tightening economy. “People aren’t driving to yard sales like they would. If they’re gonna go shopping, they’re gonna come someplace like this where they can park and walk around,” Keels said. “Even my clothes are selling like crazy.” The reason for flea markets’ popularity is simple: escalating gas prices, she said. These days, it seems everything goes back to the skyrocketing prices at the pump, many people at the market said. The tough times mean many folks are scrimping and scavenging for ways to save or generate more money. And experts agree. “Everybody is looking out to subsidize their income to give them some extra money for gas or whatever they might need,” said Connie Castle, operations manager at the flea market. “You can get a lot of unusual stuff here — stuff (people) wouldn’t normally sell, but do because they need the extra income.” The flea market is a well-known and popular Tri-Cities landmark. Each weekend, between 20,000 and 30,000 people wander through its buildings, which are sprawled across a stretch of otherwise uninhabited land beside U.S. Highway 11E just outside of Bristol, Tenn. In fact, the market seems to be one of the businesses that thrive while others struggle during the current economic downturn. Many experts say flea markets are just one of several businesses that enable regular folks to supplement their income. For example, Craigslist, a free online classifieds Web site, is gaining local popularity since its recent introduction in the Tri-Cities; eBay, the popular online auction site is booming globally; and even spin-off businesses are thriving, said area entrepreneurs. An example is I Sold It On eBay, a Johnson City store where folks can drop off items to be sold on eBay by paying a fee for the service. Such businesses allow folks to buy and sell cheap and often tax-free, said Pam Villarreal, an analyst at the National Center for Policy Analysis. This “informal economy,” as experts call it, amounts to nearly 10 percent of the gross national product, which Villarreal said falls somewhere around $1 trillion in the U.S. “Typically, when the economy is bad, there is an increase in underground economy,” she said. “For consumers this can be a good thing because you can get some pretty good deals from people who are trying to make ends meet, especially now.” Castle said she has not seen an increase in business at the flea market in recent months, but she’s noticed some apparent changes. “I’ve been seeing people that I’ve never seen before, who normally you wouldn’t expect to set up at a flea shop,” she said. “All classes of people.” New faces dotted the market’s vending rows last weekend, and some, like Keels, worked beside seasoned vendors. One such vendor, Kim Melkowski, said, “People aren’t having yard sales any more, so there are new folks coming around. I basically come down here to buy stuff to sell on eBay.” Melkowski, a Bristol, Va., resident whose sole income for 20 years has been from flea market sales, said he has struggled lately as other outlets on the Internet — which don’t require gas consumption to frequent — have become more popular. Melkowski’s makeshift store was stocked with items such as pocket knives, watches and weapons. Melkowski used to travel from flea market to flea market throughout the week, but as more and more of his income is spent at the gas pumps, he has moved his business primarily to eBay, where a global clientele can buy his wares. Melkowski has been successful at using the online auction site, but some folks are turning to a new breed of business. “We sell items for people who either don’t have time or don’t know how to use eBay,” said Laurie Webb, who works at I Sold It On eBay in Johnson City. She said business has steadily increased since it opened three years ago, but spiked a few months ago as fuel costs soared. “People are cleaning out their attics and their basements,” she said. “They bring them here, and we take professional pictures and then post them online.” Not long ago, she said, a local man cleaned out his garage and found a box of toys. Rather than throw it out, he brought them to the Johnson City store to sell online. “He had a real jewel and didn’t even know it,” Webb said with a smile. Among the items was a collector piece — a prime-condition toy microphone marketed for the rock group KISS worth thousands of dollars. The man never would have guessed it was so valuable, she said. “What’s happening is that people are really just trying to sell anything for bills,” Webb said of the service’s customers. “And a lot of times, people say that when they first come in.” ——— Information from: Bristol Herald Courier, http://www.bristolnews.com Published in The Messenger 7.2.08

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