Sept. 27--In the last few weeks, two very different flea markets have popped up around town.
While they may seem like an anachronism in the age of eBay, Craigslist and Etsy, flea markets continue to eke out an existence.
The endurance of these markets is a testament to the importance of touching and feeling stuff before you buy it. It perhaps also speaks to the mind-numbing volume of stuff that can be found online that can make some of us feel lost and overwhelmed.
And then there's that thrilling sense of serendipity, when you discover a treasure you weren't necessarily looking for, that's possible only in a physical marketplace.
One of the flea markets new to the area is of the more traditional variety where you can find the sorts of thing associated with flea markets -- Snowman-themed candle holders, cheap purses, sunglasses, baseball cards, new and vintage knives and random old things from people's attics or basements. That one is the I-70 Shoppers Fair in St. Peters, open year-round on the weekends.
The second one offers a more updated, upscale version of the old flea market. Modeled after the Brooklyn Flea, a haven for hipsters in New York, the CWE Flea is a bimonthly experiment that began earlier this month in a small parking lot in the city's Central West End. It has just about a dozen vendors selling stuff like handmade jewelry, bath products and clothing.
But despite these two markets' arrival, it hasn't been easy time for local flea markets. The long-running Pevely Flea Market shuttered a couple of years ago amid financial difficulties.
The flea market in Fairmont City is still up and running and attracts about 60 vendors on the weekends, said manager Bob Crutchley. But times have been tough. One blow came a few years ago when produce vendors stopped selling there amid complaints from local grocers, he said.
The recession didn't help either.
"It's getting better," he said. "But it's nowhere near where it was five or six years ago."
But the economic downturn was a boon for dollar stores, resale stores and outlet stores. So shouldn't it be the same with flea markets?
"That's what I keep on thinking," Crutchley said. "But people aren't coming in and spending money."
He acknowledged that eBay, the online auction and shopping website, was probably a factor.
But Ted Stewart, one of the organizers of the I-70 Shoppers Fair, located at 4894 I-70 North Outer Road near Mid Rivers Mall, isn't too worried about the online competition.
"There's nothing that beats going to a flea market and being able to look at the products," he said. "Besides, not everything is sold on the Internet. Some of the items are too small in dollar amount to make it worth the while."
And in this economy, lots of people are looking for work and for ways to make ends meet, he added.
His market, built on the site of a former foundry, has a 24,000-square-foot shed that can house 170 vendors and protects shoppers from the elements throughout the year. So far, the market has been drawing between 110 and 160 vendors on the weekends and crowds that range from 1,500 to 2,500 people.
Next year, he hopes to erect another building of the same size to double the number vendors.
One of the vendors at that market is Hank Pilliard of Spanish Lake. He started going to auctions a couple of years ago to find stuff to sell on eBay. When he lost his job last year, he decided to see if he could make it into a full-time gig.
He brings to the flea market smaller-ticket items that don't sell as easily online.
"There's always a market for this stuff," he said, referring to his eclectic mix of old postcards, knives, home decor and vintage kitchen devices such as an old cherry picker.
Another vendor I bumped into at the market was Carol Hanschmidt, a retired schoolteacher, who was selling her parents' belongings.
"This is my inheritance," she said, motioning to her booth that looked like an old living room.