Flea Market Master Class

Visiting Canton Market with Pableaux Johnson.
Wed December 31, 1969 6:00 am

Springtime in Texas. The bluebonnets blanket the Hill Country, the Panhandle starts its active growing season, and the sun-baked Valley hunkers down for a long, hot summer. It’s a perfect time for rebirth, renewal, and maybe, just maybe, cleaning out that damn garage once and for all.

The annual house cleaning impulse generally hits right about now, which in turn triggers another important rite of spring: the yard sale.

College students, bleary-eyed and recovering from finals, pull party-stained couches onto the lawn in hopes of netting enough money for one last case of beer. Neighbors band together to purge their closets of outdated clothing and old records. On a larger scale, post-winter flea markets swing into full gear, usually providing entire weekends of opportunity for shoppers in search of new stuff from old places.

Flea markets are the perfect place to partake in the nearly lost art of haggling. The simple haggle can change the way a shopper approaches the spellbinding world of secondhand purchases, where simple transactions become contests of quick wit and persistence.

To get you a head start on the swap meet season, we visited the state’s largest flea market, held monthly in the East Texas town of Canton. The purpose: to learn the art of haggling from a grand master of secondhand shoppers. So come along and learn how to drive your own hard bargain.


Every month, like clockwork, they set up shop. Traders hauling truckloads of treasures and trash, livestock and salvage, heirlooms and handicrafts. Their tables and tents cover over 100 acres just blocks from the Van Zandt County Courthouse, and during the first weekend of each month the small county seat magically transforms into the biggest open-air bazaar in Texas.

Whether you’re looking for handmade boots or wooden fruit boxes from the 20s, you can generally find them under a tarp-covered table here in Canton. Discontinued action figures, vintage blacksmith’s equipment, Alsatian doilies and tarnished women’s golf trophies—it’s all here if you have the time to walk the grounds.

The event is officially called the First Monday Trade Days, and during its monthly three-day run, Canton, Texas (population 2,945) plays host to about 100,000 guests that assemble to roam one of the nation’s largest flea markets.

First Monday usually draws a sizable number of its shoppers from the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex (which lies about forty miles west of Canton), but also lures regulars from neighboring states (Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma), and eager customers from the far-flung nine corners of Texas, and all points beyond.

First held in the 1850s, Canton’s First Monday started as an informal trading session that coincided with the county’s monthly circuit court schedule. Residents of rural Van Zandt County gathered to buy, sell, and trade tools, animals, and just about anything else one could think of in a relaxed atmosphere near the center of town.

In the intervening 140 years, the monthly Trade Days have grown beyond epic proportions—the market’s active stalls now number nearly 6,000—but the relaxed atmosphere of the busy fairgrounds still reigns. Tarp-covered tables can contain just about anything you can think of (and a few items you couldn’t have possibly considered). Turn-of-the-century layer piano rolls? “Heroes of the Cuban Revolution” trading cards? Herbal salves guaranteed to cure stress? Each vendor has his/her own niche.

Enthusiastic customers—from spangly-eyed Dallas socialites to huge families from Texarkana—peruse the acres of secondhand merchandise and strut around carrying their day’s purchases and munching on ever-present festival foods (turkey legs, funnel cakes, and just about every other snack that can be impaled on a stick). Around sundown, the masses begin to file out, usually with a mild sunburn and armloads of unexpected treasures.

After three intense days of shopping, haggling, and innumerable horse trades, Canton resumes its slower pace. At least for another two weeks anyway—until the city gears up for the next First Monday.

The Secondhand Food Chain

As any antique addict can tell you, one person’s trash is another’s “collectible.” The difference between the two? Six letters and about 70 bucks.

The world of secondhand shopping is based on finding unspeakable treasures (full sets of Flintstone jelly jar glasses, old wedding dresses, huge mahogany armoires) for the price of an average takeout fish sandwich. The best bargains hinge on being at the right place at the right time, and one step ahead of the high rollers.

The secondhand food chain varies greatly in both sales tactics and the “going rate” for any given item. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the different types of secondhand sales, dynamics, and

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