The vendors of the Randallstown Flea Market hawked their used computers, cut-rate jewelry and oversize bras for the last time yesterday -- ending a brief run of capitalism at its most chaotic.
More than 23,000 people packed the giant, warehouse-style room when the flea market opened on Liberty Road in September 1994. And no wonder -- with 210 tables of merchandise, 140 booths, a buffet and video games.
But the crowds steadily dwindled to fewer than a thousand a day. Yesterday, vendors were offering merchandise for half-price or free so they wouldn't have to cart it away to homes or storage areas.
"Plenty of vendors, not enough customers," said manager Wayne Cosgrove as he watched the building empty. "We had probably three customers for every vendor. You can't function that way."
Cosgrove blamed national chains such as Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot for invading the discount end of the retail market. He also suggested that the Randallstown-area community didn't do enough to support the flea market.
But many vendors -- who said they got notice of a week or less of the market closing -- weren't buying the management line yesterday.
"We don't even get a chance to relocate. And the bad part of it is, they don't care," said vendor Michael Squirrel Sr., who said he learned about the closing through the grapevine last week.
Cosgrove said the management tried to give all vendors a week's notice of the closing.
Squirrel's booth, M & E Sports, had mostly sports clothing. But instead of the Chicago Bulls or New York Yankees, his T-shirts featured the Kansas City Monarchs, Atlanta Black Crackers and Philadelphia Stars from baseball's Negro Leagues.
A pencil sketch showed pitcher Leon Day of Baltimore's Elite Giants.
As is the case with many vendors, Squirrel hopes to move into a store -- and the closing of the Randallstown Flea Market might give an extra shove in that direction.
But the jump from a flea market to a store is a long one. In its final months, table rental for vendors was just $10 per weekend. Booths were $80.
That encouraged an eclectic mix of new and used discount merchandise: televisions, tables, candy, cough drops, shoes, shirts, slacks, paintings, printers, incense sticks and ice cream makers.
'Going to miss this place'
At her tables, vendor Shirley Banks sold dresses, watches and earrings, not to mention baseball caps, dinner plates and used 45s -- including a worn copy of Aretha Franklin singing "I've Been Loving You Too Long."
"I'd like to open up a shop, but it's more expensive than I can afford," said Banks, who plans to move her business to another flea market. "I am going to miss this place."
Among the vendors, many theories were offered for why the flea market failed. Many blamed the management for at first charging vendors high rents and opening with a flawed interior design.
Even after fixing those problems, the owners didn't advertised enough to bring in customers, vendors said.
"So many people said, 'We didn't even know this existed,' " said Pat Johnson-Plato, a nurse. Her shop, BriJeans, sold custom-fit body shapers and bras up to cup size S.
A few deals left
For the shoppers who showed up yesterday, deals were available: Three 2-liter bottles of soda went for 99 cents. Baseball caps were $3.
Shopper Barbara Stewart, who recently spent $75 for tennis shoes for a grandson, found the same pair for $50 at the flea market yesterday.
"Every community needs a nice flea market," said her daughter, also named Barbara Stewart, as she walked out with several bags.
"It's like they say," added the elder Stewart, "one person's junk is another person's treasure."
Pub Date: 12/30/96