Old-fashioned country trading posts may have given way to big-city chain stores and homogenized retailers, but there is still somewhere in America to haggle over the price of a DVD, new sunglasses, or a Depression-era glass dish. Far from the bright lights of sprawling mall complexes are the remnants of America's long fascination with bargain hunting, dealing, and junk. Some call them "dirt malls," but most know them as flea markets, and in that microcosm of consumerism, the country isn't so far from the city, after all.
Greater Clevelanders have been buying and selling everything from soup tureens to egg cartons filled with used golf balls at the Memphis Drive-In in Brooklyn since the early 1970s, when the theater first opened its flea market to supplement the after-dark flick biz. From April to November, die-hard bargain hunters pound the pavement, scoping out merchandise spread over tables, the ground, and even car hoods.
"I've been shopping here since I was a kid," says Cleveland resident Deanna Phillips as she haggles over the price of a flowered chest of drawers. "There's a nice variety of things. It's like a big garage sale."
Three blank movie screens loom over the bustling market, and in the background the hazy downtown skyline and cars whizzing down Memphis Avenue won't let you forget that you're in the city. On the other hand, shopping at the Hartville Flea Market near Canton is a lot like visiting a country cousin. There's plenty of greenery, fresh air, and the aroma of pies from the Amish bakery across the street.
"There's good stuff at the Memphis, but also a lot of junk to weed through," confides antiques dealer and collector Barb Paul of Strongsville, who frequents both country and city markets. "I prefer Hartville, because it has more collectibles."
Sharyn Beagle, who's been selling china and watches at Hartville for the past three years, agrees with this assessment. "Shoppers here are more after antiques and collectibles, rather than "practical' things."
But if the Memphis Drive-In is a big garage sale, the Hartville Flea Market is like snooping through your great-grandmother's attic. The pottery, quilts, cast iron skillets, and vintage clothes, jewelry, and toys hearken back to America's simpler days -- as do the Amish, with whom you are often rubbing elbows.
Yet while they differ in setting, types of merchandise, and size (on an average day, the Memphis Drive-In only sees a few thousand buyers and around 400 sellers, while Hartville sees over 10,000 shoppers and 800 sellers), both markets do share one important similarity: savvy shoppers who enjoy the thrill of getting a great deal.
"To get the best things, you've got to be one of the first people there," says Paul. "I try to show up at sunrise, because the good things go fast."
Joann Kramer -- the handles of her shopping bag looped around her belt to allow for hands-free shopping -- is a 10-year flea market veteran who collects teapots, teacups, and glassware. She advises against ever paying the marked price: "The sellers always seem to come down if you say something like "What's the lowest you'd take for this?'"
And just as Mom always taught you, it never hurts to ask. You think $20 is too much for a video? Offer $15. "The worst thing they can say is no, but they usually say yes," says Phillips.
The same cannot be said of the upscale-mall employees paid to take the money and smile.