There isn't a city I've been to that didn't have a flea market of one kind or another. The typology and the term supposedly date back a couple of hundred years to the marché aux puces in Paris, and, indeed, the markets of Europe are some of the largest and most diverse in the world. But I suspect the tradition predates even the agora of ancient Greece, reverting to the very beginnings of trade between people who had too much or too little of some commodity, whether food, clothing or other necessity of human existence.
Many of us reflexively think of eBay or craigslist as the contemporary vehicle for trade. Virtual marketplaces facilitate communication between people who have goods and services to buy and sell, but physical objects need a source, as possession obviously can't be transferred digitally. New objects, of course, are usually sold in "brick and mortar" retail shops, but the used stuff, the good stuff, is found in garage, estate and church sales, in thrift and junk stores, and at places we call flea markets.
The latter come in all sizes and shapes, from sole vendors operating out of their front yards to small groups of vendors setting up on empty lots, and to big, weekend-only extravaganzas that offer space at minimal cost to hundreds of vendors. Two decades ago, Knoxville had three of these venues, the Powell market at the intersection of I-75 and Emory Road (now commercial development), the River Breeze market on Asheville Highway at the site of a defunct drive-in movie, and Green Acres market on Alcoa Highway just north of the airport. A compact but growing market is located in Burlington, spanning Asheville Highway and Martin Luther King Boulevard just behind the Amvets Thrift Store. Merchants set up daily, but the market expands on Saturdays and a setup fee of $5 is charged by the property owners.
Of the big local markets, only Green Acres survives. Under new management, it's as exuberant as ever, occupying about 15 acres on a gently sloping site (the slope is important because it allows the clay-surfaced field to drain after a rain). An adjacent 90,000 square-foot building is partitioned into booths of new, bargain-priced goods, used collectibles, the Rancho Grande restaurant, and a raised wood floor once used for weekend country dancing but now rented out for weddings.
It's outside, though, where the serious action is on Saturdays and Sundays. Setup begins at 5 am and for a fee of $15-$20 you'll get a 100 square foot piece of turf to sell your merchandise. While much of the "good stuff" is already gone by the time the sun rises at 7 am, I've found some great buys as late as noon. Most vendors display their wares on blankets or tarps that cover their assigned area, but some of the stuff can be seen piled high in the beds of pickups or on roofs of vehicles parked next to each selling space. Some simply keep their stuff in cartons, offering a challenge and occasional reward to those willing to stoop and rummage through them.
This frenzy of primitive economic activity is supported by an architecture of simple clarity, rough booths or huts precariously built of two-by-fours, clad with thin layers of plywood, composition board or galvanized steel panels. Notably devoid of decoration, these structures provide shelter from wind, rain and sun. Some serve as storage for merchandise that is moved outdoors in good weather, while others house a variety of family-owned Mexican restaurants that serve what can be safely described as the most authentic Mexican and Central American food in the area.
The layout is a regular grid with parallel "streets" running north-south, and two main access roads running east-west. Buyers have favorite ways of traversing the premises. Some start at the bottom of the hill, near the huge parking lot that reminds us once again we're living in an area defined by sprawl. Passing the Vietnamese breakfast stand and heading down the first dusty lane, the density and variety of goods displayed on the ground is staggering. Others start at the top near the chickens, ducks and domestic pets and trace their way downward by winding through the north-south streets.
Like all flea markets of its kind in the world, Green Acres provides a refreshing alternative to the boring, expensive, impersonal world of corporate retail shopping. You never know what you will find for sale. Recently, one vendor had an entire lot of woolen clothing culled over years of thrift-store shopping. Another had cartons of classical records, gathered as the result of sharp-eyed searching and dealing at estate sales. The array of goods for sale is always changing in response to trends in the formal economy. Produce stands, for example, are seeing a surge in popularity, as the fruits and vegetables are fresher, cheaper and more diverse than what's found in the average grocery.
There are the people to watch, of course, the same folks seen in flea markets in London or Berlin or Peoria, bazaars in Istanbul or Cairo: vendors trying to make some money while cleaning house, buyers hunting for curios or bargains, outdoor types seeking exercise, fresh air and human contact.
While we talk about global markets, buy and sell online, trade paper in stock exchanges we've never seen, and busy ourselves driving to and from shopping malls, the flea market continues to flourish as one of the most enduring institutions in human cultural history. It provides the opportunity to see, touch and haggle, to connect in a real and personal way to other places and times, and to people who, in the end, are much like us.
©2008 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.
Photo: Green Acres flea market on Alcoa Highway