Let's face it: Old, weird America is hard to find nowadays. Much of the Triangle is pretty solid suburban U. S. of A. and could be almost anywhere on the map but for the "First in Flight" license plates. Fortunately, in the Raleigh Flea Market, we still have a pocket of weirdness in a vast swath of subdivisions, sports bars and CVS pharmacies.
Every Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday at the N.C. State Fairgrounds, rain or shine, some 600 vendors loiter among an incomprehensible variety of wares. In any 20-foot radius you can browse cast-iron barn ornaments, power tools, 10-packs of bras, hand-knitted hats and scarves, antique jewelry and rocking chairs made entirely of woven saplings. America's treasure and junk is here for the picking—if you've got a little green in your wallet.
Much of the market is strewn across a roughly football field-sized area between the entrance and Dorton Arena. The longest-tenured vendors cluster around the entry, lording over tables of antiques and clusters of furniture. As you move toward the arena, the patinas and wood stains give way to fine woolen weaves and the amber and ruby glows of jarred, sugary delights.
Still farther on, the market decays into rows of cardboard boxes of everything that China molds plastic into, and open piles of secondhand dreck that bring to mind a yard sale dropped from a great height. If Walter Benjamin were alive, he'd be writing his Arcades Project here.
The old guys up front have been manning these tables on these same patches of asphalt for decades and have raised one another's kids and tended one another's wares while engaged with customers. Stepping into that camaraderie, you're never anonymous here.
"The more you buy, the cheaper it gets," one chuckling vendor says. I point out his logical fallacy—that if I were to buy everything, it would therefore be free. He touches his chin in mock consideration, grinning. "It'd be a million down to a half million," he says.
You have to have a sense of humor to stand out here all day. Just ask Bill Herring, who's been selling arrowheads and other artifacts here for 35 years. The Bladen County archeologist remembers where and when he found every one of the hundreds of sharpened flints and cherts on his tables.
He estimates that he's found more than 15,000 arrowheads from all over the state. Sandy ridges close to water, where native peoples would have been inclined to settle, are the best places to look. "I'll pick about 100 spots in a county, find 70 that look about right, and out of that about 40 or 50 will produce primitive items."
Herring's seen the gamut of flea markets in his time, but he thinks Raleigh has them topped. "This is probably the best weekly flea market on the East Coast," he says, "and I used to work them from Maine to Key West." CNN agrees, listing the Raleigh Flea Market among the 10 best in the country, up there with the famed Chicago Antique Market and Brooklyn Flea.
What's the weirdest thing Herring's ever seen at the flea market? He just shakes his head and recounts the day when an unnamed jewelry dealer of some renown plunked down two fat envelopes of $100 bills—all told, $105,000 in cash—for a single piece of diamond-studded, 24-karat gold jewelry.
It's hard to believe this all started as six tables in a parking lot in 1971. The Stewart family founded the market and grew it into almost a thousand vendors in the salad days of the 1980s. Today, Marshall Stewart III still manages around 600 vendors, who tempt 2.4 million shoppers a year. This place cruises through economic ups and downs like a speedboat through chop.
My daughter and I navigate tables of samurai swords, neat displays of organic dog treats and packed racks of dollar T-shirts. She selects a turtle sculpture from a table presided over by a friendly Ukrainian woman who's daubing green stain onto cement cats and skulls of all sizes. From a hurried Filipino woman tending a hundred or so boxes of questionable imports, I nab a lenticular portrait of a crucified Jesus or Mary of the Sacred Heart, depending on the angle you look at it.
Perhaps, thousands of years from now, one of Herring's descendants will rummage through ruins here in search of the plastic artifacts that will define our era. More likely, he or she will slap a few units of currency down onto a table. Everyone needs a lenticular Jesus, and this is the place to get one.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The priceless and the worthless."