When Silver Spring resident Joan Henn was mulling getting into the antique business 12 years ago, experts in the field gave her these words of advice: "Columbia Antiques Market."
Ms. Henn followed the advice for a place to test out her venture and hasn't regretted it since.
These days, she's one of the regular antique vendors who flock to the market, conducted on Sundays from April through October at the parking garage area of the Columbia Mall.
The market, which draws as many as 11,000 people each day, attracts an average of 130 to 200 dealers from the mid-Atlantic region, says Hubert Bellman, president of Bellman Corp., which runs the market.
The market will close for the season Sunday and will reopen on the third Sunday in April. Next year, the Bellman company plans to extend the popular market by two weeks, to Halloween weekend.
Bellman, based in Bradshaw in Baltimore County, has operated the market since 1969. It began with 35 dealers and now draws up to 300 dealers on the first Sunday of each month -- what Mr. Bellman dubs "special Sundays."
On "special Sundays," Bellman offers dealers spaces for $30 on the uncovered top parking lot of the mall's parking garage. Dealers taking spaces on the covered ground level of the garage are charged $65 for a space.
The Bellman company organizes and promotes various memorabilia, collector and antique shows in the area, from old-book fairs to baseball shows.
The company takes care of issuing and recording temporary sales tax licenses for dealers participating in the Columbia Antiques Market.
"I know a lot of antique dealers who travel six to eight hours just to be part of this market," says Ms. Henn, who specializes in selling antique jewelry, silver flatware and furniture.
Mr. Bellman says Ms. Henn, whose business operates under the name Cameo Antiques, is a good example of the many antiques dealers who have used the market as an inexpensive way to launch themselves in the competitive business.
"Many of the dealers who start out with us eventually go on to open their own shops," Mr. Bellman says.
Ms. Henn did just that, later opening a store at a multidealer indoor antiques market in Petersburg, Va. She closed that store last year and is looking for a new site.
"All the dealers I talked to before I started out said the Columbia market was a good place to see if you liked the business and could do well in it," Ms. Henn recalls.
The market provided her with an inexpensive place to showcase her collection, and it didn't require getting a long-term lease for space.
Not just anyone with a whim to make a buck from the antiques business can sign up for market space, says Bob Borowy, who manages the Columbia Antiques Market for Bellman.
"We don't allow people selling tube socks and T-shirts. We're not a flea market," he says.
The Bellman company says it screens potential dealers to ensure that the inventory they plan to offer meets certain quality standards and won't vie directly with the inventory of mall stores.
Only genuine antiques are allowed to be sold in the market. Dealers selling reproductions are turned down.
Vendors selling their own hand-made craft items are allowed to participate in the market. But that aspect of the market hasn't attracted many vendors, Mr. Borowy says.
In addition, the company decided this year to set aside an area for local farmers to offer their produce for sale. That addition to the market has been successful, he says.
Mr. Borowy estimates that the market attracts 8,500 to 11,000 people each Sunday. Several large outdoor antiques markets in the region charge an entrance fee, but Bellman has refrained.
Mr. Bellman thinks the lack of an entrance fee is one of the reasons the market attracts so many people. The company widely advertises the market as "The World's Most Famous Free Antiques Market."
The Bellman company backs up customers' purchases with a pledge to resolve any disputes about authenticity, Mr. Bellman says.
In the 24 years the company has been operating the market, it has had only a handful of disputes to resolve and has taken only one dealer to court for fraud, he says.
Mr. Bellman encourages customers purchasing items at the market to request that dealers give them sales receipt describing the items purchased and the prices.
"That way we have something in writing to work with if there's a dispute," Mr. Bellman says.
Many people are "lookers," as dealers call those who come to browse and not buy, but the market also attracts collectors and other dealers, Ms. Henn says.
"Serious collectors and other dealers know this as a market where they are likely to spot some good deals," she says.
Dealers at the market tend to keep prices reasonable because they don't have to mark up items to cover overhead costs of a shop, such as utility, rent, insurance and other bills, Mr. Borowy says.
"What the dealer can make really depends as much on their prices as it does on the desirability of what they have on hand," he says.
"The highest amount we've ever had a dealer make in one day was $15,000. He had some very desirable paintings, fine glassware and jewelry. He was, of course, back for business the very next Sunday."