This article appeared in the July 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
The temperature on the dashboard says 96 degrees. Lying car! It’s 120 at least. In the shade. And there’s hardly any shade. The corner of Barret and Winter avenues — aka, the parking lot of the Monkey Wrench — is a frying pan of baked black asphalt. I think I can feel the rubber soles of my flip-flops sinking into the heat-softened tar.
On this Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the shotgun start of summer, the weather gods are feeling a little too frisky. But on this paved beach, close to a thousand people will turn out anyway to buy stuff. Also barter, trade, visit, eat, drink, network, listen to music and hang out.
I’m at a “pop-up” flea market — an offshoot of the hit-from-the-start Flea Off Market, which began last November at the parking lot of Salvo Collective and is now held the second Saturday of each month near, not on (off, get it?), East Market Street downtown. More precisely, the Flea Off Market is on Shelby Street between Market and Jefferson.
The pop-ups, so far, have been at the Nachbar in Germantown and here. (Future pop-ups are in the works.) Wherever they’ve been, parades of treasure-hunters have followed. Courtenay Kunnecke, who coordinates the markets with Nathan Erickson, estimates that 3,000 people will flow through a typical Flea Off Market, which attract up to 80 vendors. (Some 30 vendors are at the pop-ups.)
“There seems to be a need for this,” says Kunnecke, 36, a native Louisvillian and photographer who has seen the Flea Off Market turn into a full-time job. “There are a lot of makers and collectors and a lot of people who want an alternative to shopping at the big mall.”
I brought 10 bucks, not thinking I’d spend a dime of it. Just get quotes, atmosphere and leave before melting. But wait. Over here. Check it out. Hiding between an old library copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and a celebrity biography. It’s a first-edition hardback of The Dog of the South by Charles Portis, which is only the funniest book ever written in the English language, probably Swahili and Bengali, too. First edition. Portis. Dog. Price: $5.
A steal. Sure, I already have a half-dozen copies of Dog — if you’re new to Portis, he’s the author of True Grit, which is his second- or third-best book behind Dog and maybe Norwood — but not a first edition. I take it up to Harold Maier, the former owner of Twice Told Books who now sells his wares at these Flea Off and pop-up markets, manning his booth (actually, a cluster of tables and shelves) from a lawn chair, and ask him to hold it for me while I browse some more. “You found it!” Maier cries. He turns to the vendor next to him, Brett Ralph, a musician/poet/English professor who’s selling records and books. He holds up the Portis. “It’s already gone!”
This starts a three-person Portis Cult conversation about the author’s under-appreciated oeuvre. It ends with a recommendation from Ralph: Warlock by Oakley Hall. True Grit-esque. I write down the title in my notebook, then hand my $10 bill to Maier, who pulls out a thick brick of folded bills and peels off change. This is the attraction of a good flea market — the buyer-seller experience is more personal than fiscal. Although the money ain’t bad, either. Some vendors may make up to $600.
What’s most popular? “Records sell crazy good,” says Erickson, 40, originally from St. Cloud, Minn. Vinyl, he means. Real records. “As Americans, we have so much accumulated stuff,” Erickson continues. As an example, one vendor unloaded a box of vintage clothing, some of it from the 19th century, he’d bought at an estate sale. There’s also the made-for-market items — from the funky like handmade “diseased hankies” (handkerchiefs featuring silkscreened diseases) to custom jewelry, photographs and paintings.
Musicians are invited to busk, or throw out a hat and play. You also might find the occasional juggler. Or a strongman hammering nails with his bare palm. (Not kidding.)