Originally created 07/30/01

PBS takes fond look at flea markets



If you think "flea market" - a phrase that originated with the French - automatically translates into wobbly tables piled with tube socks, think again.

In "A Flea Market Documentary," a new PBS show produced by Rick Sebak (it airs Monday in many cities; check local listings), vendors sell antique toys, leather purses from Florence and vintage Hawaiian shirts. You also can spot the odd prosthetic leg, cactus leaves known as "Mexican steaks" and an ancient Maytag washer still in working order. Or, as one regular says, you can find something you tossed out 20 years ago. (That chrome kitchen chair does look familiar.)

A flea market is part treasure hunt, outdoor party, farmer's market, trip down memory lane and antidote to the malling of America. It's also an outlet for the unexpected, as in Seattle, where a vendor sells Utilikilts (utilitarian kilts) for men. An enterprising young man took a pair of shears to commando pants and transformed them into a modern version of the masculine skirt Mel Gibson wore in "Braveheart."

Sebak did not buy a kilt on his journeys. He did, however, pick up a table in Tennessee, wind-up robots in Fort Lauderdale, a small plastic moose head at the Meadows and, in Manhattan, a copy of "The Last Supper" mounted on a slice of tree.

The rest of the road crew purchased equally quirky items, including an Aunt Jemima cookie jar, African masks, cowboy placemats and a bobbing-head dog.

Sebak, who previously explored hot dogs, great old amusement parks, shore things and ice cream for PBS, tackles what he defines as outdoor gatherings, often on weekends, with vendors selling lots of goods and shoppers eager to browse or buy. As always, Sebak brings his cheery disposition, love of history and oddball discoveries and made-for-TV wanderlust to the topic.

"We wanted to celebrate the people and the places and show how all of us can appreciate the desire to find a bargain, to make a buck or simply to walk and talk among old lunch boxes, spinning wheels and outrageously expensive cookie jars," he says. That might be the Little Red Riding Hood one with the $450 pricetag.

The phrase "flea market" originated in Paris, which hosted the first big market with used merchandise. Thus the flea. The term has been in use in the United States since the 1920s, but flea markets began to bloom in the late '60s. Sebak and crew visited flea markets in places such as Pittsburgh, Pa.; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; Costa Mesa, San Jose and Pasadena, Calif.; Canton, Texas; Manhattan; Fort Lauderdale; and a swath of Highway 127 through Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama that HGTV once called "the longest yard sale."

"They're all crowded. They've become some sort of new social gathering spot. On Sunday mornings, dare we say, the flea market is more crowded than some churches," says Sebak.

If you think of flea markets as larger versions of low-rent garage sales, you may be surprised at some of the high-end merchandise, especially in California. If you know nothing about flea markets, you may get some tips - one Pittsburgh regular sounds like she's tackling Disney World. She starts in the back and works her way to the front.

As with hot dogs, Sebak has been a fan of flea markets all his life. "As you get older, flea markets get more interesting."

He tried to resist the nostalgia-flea market connection, but he says, "I realized there was a certain truth to that." Sebak quotes a regular from Pasadena, Calif., who says, "It's a museum where everything is for sale. Some come out not to buy anything but to look around the museum," which may have the sort of toys or appliances that once filled their home.

It's not just the goods that get the people in the front gate. It may be the circus elephants, chain-saw sculptors or food. At First Monday Trade Days in Texas, a 150-year-old tradition that's now a bit of a misnomer since the sales span four days a month, vendors sell enormous turkey legs (turning everyone into Fred Flintstone lookalikes, jokes Sebak) and corn cooked in the husk. Twin brothers, both retired teachers, have 35,000 soda bottles but no one's slurping the contents; they're collectibles, priced as high as $400 to $600 each.

As with his previous shows, Sebak produced, wrote and narrates "A Flea Market Documentary." One usual Sebak signature that's in short supply: old home movies and dog-eared family photos. "Who takes a home movie camera to a flea market?" he asks, knowing the answer. Not many people, it turns out, but I missed that element.

Still, serendipity worked in his favor when he encountered Frank DeCaro, covering the Route 127 corridor sale for The New York Times. DeCaro's unvarnished comments ("This looks ghastly," the city sophisticate says of one stop) balance the bubbly buyers and sellers, who can start to sound alike.

DeCaro and a friend, who did find plenty of stuff to buy, "were so sort of out of place, but that's the beauty of these things," Sebak says. In a sale that stretches for 450 miles, there's a place - and some pork rinds, recycled wedding gifts or a Blenko blown-glass bottle that might fetch $1,000 on eBay - for everyone.

(For news and information about Pittsburgh visit http://www.post-gazette.com/. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)