ONE STEAMY SATURDAY IN MAY, I DROVE 194 MILES ROUND-TRIP to Castroville to buy a cotton-canvas work glove. The end of each finger was decorated with felt ears, a tiny pom-pom nose, and plastic roll-around eyeballs—five dogs’ heads. When I got home, I stared at the $5 puppy glove. Had I lost my mind? Was the government drugging my drinking water? No, it was something far more frightening: trade days fever, an infectious belief that no matter what someone is selling, you should buy it.
The Texas tradition of trade days began simply enough. In the 1800’s residents of rural areas would gather at their county courthouse once a month to trade, buy, and sell animals, farm and ranch implements, and produce. Later, trade days became outlets for junk cleaned out of attics and barns: Old hubcaps were traded for teacups, say, or a neighbor would sell his wife’s sewing machine after she ran off. Nowadays, little actual trading goes on at trade days, except between vendors. This straightforward exchange has mutated into mammoth assemblages of stuff: plywood cartoon characters, cases of reading glasses, rusty iron patio furniture, old golf trophies, and enough jams, jellies, and oddball chutneys to make you want to buy stock in the Ball jar company.
So much of the unique junk in America has been removed from circulation and permanently nailed to the walls of theme restaurants that a commercial void has been created, one that has been filled with retirees’ band-saw projects and an array of cheap merchandise—flimsy tools made in Taiwan, greasy-looking patchwork-leather purses with huge, heart-shaped chrome buckles. Some crafts-filled events are little more than tiny Sami shows. (I had no idea people still crocheted covers for toilet-paper rolls.) Where one booth will sell nothing but vitamins and miracle cures, another might specialize in gallon jugs of shampoo, cartons of cotton swabs, and—incongruously—big metal ladles called fish dippers.
Starting to sound suspiciously like a flea market? The influx of new merchandise has certainly blurred the line between trade days and their lesser cousin. And then there are the antiques fairs, arts-and-crafts shows, computer swap meets, and semi-permanent garage sales that dot the landscape. So what is it exactly that sets trade days (or market days, as they’re sometimes called) apart? While other markets can set up shop as often as every weekend, trade days generally operate for only one weekend a month, if that often. And unlike flea markets, especially those that are held every weekend in big cities, at all but the scrawniest of trade days you’re guaranteed to find at least one vendor with a boundless zest for his merchandise, whether it’s birdhouses made from gourds or collectibles like old pop bottles. Take Perry Pearce, a regular at First Monday Trade Days in Canton, who has carved a niche for himself handcrafting knives from discarded railroad spikes. “As long as my name is still stamped on the blade,” he says, “I’ll either fix it or replace it.”
Trade days are rich with Mom-Pop-and-Pomeranian atmosphere. For some vendors, these markets are more about community than commerce: They load their RVs, they meet up with old friends, and they seem nonchalant about presentation or sales technique. “I don’t have a name for my company,” said one fellow who offers a sizable collection of choice cowboy boots, old suitcases, and dusty fedoras at First Monday. “I don’t have a telephone. That’s why I like this business. Just tell people they can find me on row forty-six every month no matter what the weather.” Richard Hill, a retiree at the Tyler Trade Days who makes handsome, built-to-last wagons and wheelbarrows from scrap hardwood, wouldn’t give me his phone number. “These are my own designs,” he said of his sturdy carts. “I just do this as a hobby. I don’t want people to start calling me and placing orders. I only want to do it when I want to do it.” But what starts as a supplemental sideline can evolve into a bona fide business. Jack Silver, for instance, sells so many of his decorative herbal vinegars at First Monday—sometimes several thousand dollars’ worth a weekend—that he was able to quit his regular job to devote more time to stacking baby carrots like Lincoln Logs inside his bottles of Silver Mountain Vinegars.
All you really need to know before setting out to one of the state’s trade days is that you should go early, wear sensible shoes, take cash—and bargain. (While some vendors will accept credit cards, cash can often get you a better deal.) In Texas Flea Markets, Ann Ruff’s 1991 guide to flea markets and trade days, the late author offered one hard and fast rule: “If you see something and want it, get it.” By the time you go back to fetch your treasure, it may be gone, and you may never find it again. This threat of permanent loss, I suppose, is what drove me to buy a porcelain rubber-glove mold made in 1959, the year I was born, for $35. But if you’re looking for a particular item—a set of weathered green shutters, perhaps, or an orange Fiestaware pitcher—and you want the best price, I’d advise scouting the entire market, pad and pencil in hand, making notes on where you saw what and how much it cost. Be warned: This technique may be met with suspicion. One dealer in Warrenton demanded to know why I was writing down the price of his antique Fleetwood Coaster Wagon ($600)—he thought I was another wagon dealer gathering information to undercut his price (which I then assumed must be too high).
This past spring and summer I trudged through more than twenty of these freewheeling Texas bazaars. Here are my favorites, starting with the biggest.
First Monday Trade Days, Canton More than a hundred years ago, stray horses and cattle roaming Van Zandt County were caught and then auctioned off when folks from around the county were in Canton for circuit-court sessions, which, as