Flea Market Master Class
Visiting Canton Market with Pableaux Johnson.
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 Neighbors band together to purge their closets of outdated clothing and old records.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 four different answers to this practical question: “How much would I pay for this shirt?”
(alternately called yard sales, estate sales, rummage sales and on the East coast, tag sales)
The Objective: Clean out the house—RIGHT NOW.
Prices: Ungodly cheap.
Driving Motive: Impulse (for both buyer and seller).
Haggling Potential: Low to Middlin’.
What you Pay: 25 cents (“Just take it away, please.”)
(Goodwill, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul)
The Objective: Warehouse alternative to garage sales.
Prices: A little more expensive than yard sales.
Driving Motive: Support local charities with quick turnover.
Haggling Potential: Low.
What you Pay: $1.00 (“Pay up or put it back on the rack.”)
The Objective: Putting everyday rummage through the hipster/collector filter.
Prices: Way high (with corresponding jump in attitude).
Driving Motive: To turn recycled culture into the “retro high fashion,” and make a good buck in the process.
Haggling Potential: Medium (depending on the store’s rent situation)
What you Pay: $30 (“It’s all the rage in L.A.”)
The Objective: Varies with the table. Flea markets contain small versions of all the other types of second hand sales listed above. If you’re lucky, you’ll hit a garage sale stall.
Prices: Generally low (though certain specialized tables can approach vintage store prices).
Driving Motive: casino psychology, where “beating the dealer” can be at least half the fun.
Haggling Potential: It don’t get no higher. Everything has its price.
What you Pay: Depends. “How low can you go?”
The Hard Bargain
In most of the secondhand world, the term “fair market price” doesn’t actually refer to a set amount of money, but rather one person’s opinion of what this particular flower pot is worth. When it gets right down to it, a “fair price” is the purchaser’s opinion against the seller’s, and is determined on a case-by-case basis.
And that’s where the haggle comes in.
The classic haggle recognizes this flexibility and gives the buyer a chance to undercut the price posted—providing that they: A) have the nerve to ask for a lower price, and B) can convince the seller that their sticker price is “just too damn high.” Haggling turns every flea market stall into a miniature auction house, pitting seller versus buyer in a test of will and a game of wits.
But hard bargaining as an art form, first perfected in the open-air bazaars of Marrakech and Istanbul, has fallen on hard times since the golden days of America’s frontier horse traders. Most contemporary shoppers, raised on retail and the occasional inventory reduction sale, wouldn’t even dream of haggling, and are more than happy to pay the sticker price at a yard sale.
After all, isn’t it so much less than they’d actually pay down at the outlet mall? Two bucks for a working bike pump? Five for the video game sensation of Christmas ‘96? To the untrained eye, these finds are not only good buys, but great bargains.
Hagglers, trained professionals in the art of the bargain, look at the same purchases and see missed opportunities. They approach every second-hand transaction as a high-stakes auction—a rummage sale showdown where only one participant walks away. Each trip to the cash box is another chance to turn a simple business deal—whether it be for a toy tractor or a pair of mustache scissors—into a free-form exchange of offers and counteroffers. Within the boundaries of the Lone Star state, there’s no better place to hone your basic hagglin’ skills than the fairgrounds of Canton’s First Monday and no better teacher of the bargain than the lovely and talented Elaine Johnson, my dear sister.
Elaine Lorelle Johnson, a seasoned bargainer currently residing in Lafayette, Louisiana, acted as guide and tutor through the wonderful world of Canton. She volunteered to share her experience and trade secrets as we tailed her through the acres and acres of First Monday merchants.
Ms. Johnson was selected because of her no-holds-barred negotiating style, years of national flea market experience, and recent nomination into the Second-Hand Haggler Hall of Fame (located in scenic Fon du Lac, Wisconsin). By happy coincidence, she also happens to be my younger sister. She seems sweet at first, but you really don’t want to cross her. Trust me. Combining equal parts Holly Golightly and Iron Mike Tyson, Elaine (a.k.a. NeeNa, Haggler Princess) routinely strikes fear into the hearts of flea marketeers throughout the country. Professional antique dealers cower before her, lest they be crushed beneath her mighty heels. Within seconds of her first offer, NeeNa reduces even the most seasoned traders to tears. (It’s actually pretty fun to watch.)
In addition to possessing perfect basic bargaining skills, Ms. Johnson also uses more, shall we say, supernatural powers in her haggling enterprises. After a short stint with the Amazing Johnathan (during his critically-acclaimed “You are getting verrrrry sssslllleeeeepppyyy” tour), she spent several summers as a cocktail lounge hypnotist in the convenience store casinos of Elko, Nevada. These skills will become more evident in our discussion ofmore advanced haggling techniques. So great is her faith in the magic of second-hand markets that Elaine has perfected a Zenlike practice of ‘non-shopping.’ “A few years ago, I got to the point where I just stopped actively looking for things. I don’t shop for things, I walk around and let them shop for me.”
How to Haggle
Like the jitterbug or Freudian psychology, haggling is best learned by mastering a few basic steps that can be applied to a wide variety of individual situations.
The foundation of good bargaining is the auction mentality, a mindset that sets up every purchase as a string of bids and counteroffers that can last anywhere from a few seconds to several hours. (Don’t worry, the latter usually only occurs with Kurdish rug merchants working their home turf.) Hagglers apply the auction metaphor to the secondhand markets, where EVERYTHING comes up for bid. All you need to do is step up and make your first offer. Nothing could be simpler.
The only problem is that market vendors have the final say over your newly revised price, and they’re working their own agenda. Should they take your lower price, or should they gamble that another sucker (umm… customer) will come along five minutes later with a more agreeable temperament and more disposable income? There’s no way to tell, and so they’ll usually play along for at least part of a well-executed haggle.
So haggling is essentially an economic staring contest, with each participant hoping the other blinks first. When it gets right down to it, the shopper has nothing to lose and bragging rights to gain. (“See that leather couch? Got it for thirty-five bucks.”) And what’s a good story worth these days?
Step 1: Get over your guilt.
Choosing your own low low price may seem un-American, but in fact it’s no different from rummage professionals buying a twenty-dollar truckload of sand dollars and selling them for a buck a piece. In the land of unknown markup, actual value is anybody’s guess, so it’s in your best interest to guess LOW.
Should an overactive conscience get to you, remember, it’s not quite the same as beating Goodwill out of a little pocket change. Flea marketeers are professionals that make a living selling inventory at their own arbitrary markup.
Step 2: Develop shamelessness.
Chutzpah. Cojones. Whatever you call it, you’re going to have to acquire a sense of shamelessness to be a successful haggler. To do this, simply tell yourself that the marked price on said merchandise was applied in error, and it’s your responsibility to call attention to the mistake. Besides, you’re doing them a favor by taking this thing off their hands. Once you can say this with a perfectly straight face, the market is your oyster.
Step 3: Work for long volleys.
Your job as the buyer is to prolong the bidding process in order to steer the price closer to your original bid. This slow whittling can take a while and may involve a bit of creative and/or aggressive yarn spinning. Offers and counteroffers fly back and forth, with both parties giving a little each time. The longer you can keep the haggle going, the better off you’ll be in the end.
Step 4: Know when to quit.
As any tequila drinker will tell you, half of any good time is knowing when to quit. Even the most persistent bargain hounds know when it’s time to just give up and pay the man his asking price—and hopefully that’s sometime before a fistfight starts. Keep in mind that even for the professionals, haggling’s just a sport, so know when to pick up your gear and go home.
The Sale Face
According to Johnson, the primary skill in the haggler’s art is developing the sale face—a studied look of perfect indifference and nonchalance that holds no matter how stellar the find. The sale face shows no emotion, yet radiates just enough friendliness to catch the vendor off guard. The sale face sits on the front of your head like an amiable kabuki mask, hiding emotions when the slightest show of interest can effectively double the price on that reversible Flip Wilson/Geraldine talking doll.
A good sale face requires both mental discipline and well-toned facial muscles, mostly required to conceal any outward signs of excitement. “Animals can smell fear,” says Johnson, picking through a pile of Depression-era glassware, “but dealers can smell interest. Once they know you’re hooked, the haggle’s over before it starts.”
Owing to years of practice, Elaine’s sale face exudes… well, nothing. At first glance, she seems to be just another shopper looking to pass the time. With all facial muscles relaxed, her overall expression falls somewhere between apathy and bemusement—which she could maintain even after discovering the Hope Diamond in a tangled pile of Mardi Gras beads.
“A relaxed face can change almost instantly from accepting to stern and back again, which is very important once the negotiations start. If you can keep your sale face for the first couple of bids, you’ll stand a much better chance of winning.” Just don’t concentrate on your countenance to the exclusion of all else, she reminds.” Always keep an eye on the dealer’s face, since you can be damn sure that they’ll be watching yours.”
You Barg’nin’ With Me? Since the sale face is all about indifference, it’s best to practice your bored looks in a mirror before hitting the sales. Subtle yet telltale facial tics can make all the difference, so familiarize yourself with several classic moves: The Mini Shrug, The Head Fake, and The Brush Off. You’ll know you’re ready when you can execute these moves in quick succession without busting out laughing. “Three dollars? For this?”
Talk Slow. The easiest way to spot a novice haggler is by his/her rapid-fire delivery—a sure sign of nervous energy. If the vendor gets the feeling that a buyer wants to end a haggle, they’re much more likely to stick to their posted price.
But if you approach with a handful of stuff and speak… real… slow-like, then they’re on the defensive. Long, dramatic pauses—especially after their counterhaggles—can give your enemy time to think too much and turn the tables in your direction.
Remember your barnyard sounds. The best sounds for outright dismissal come directly from the Fisher Price See N’ Say: Trigger’s forceful Bronx cheer (Pffftttt), a cow’s grunt of bovine frustration (Hurrrrmmmf), and the pig’s perfect quasi-nasal snort (Rrrrggrrrtt). As usual, the animals get all the best lines.
These are the sounds you want to perfect as part of your routine. Done right, they disarm even the most seasoned rummage dealer. Just remember that these are the Big Guns—sounds that run a good chance of angering your adversary—so use them only as last resorts, preferably right before walking away.
Timing is Everything
Flea market vendors experience an entire business cycle—from full-blown holiday rush to last chance desperation closeout—in a single weekend session, so savvy hagglers can clean up by simply keeping one eye on the ever-ticking clock.
In Canton, for example, Friday tends to be the most relaxed trading day, since the marketplace clogs up with day-trippers on Saturday and Sunday. Serious traders hit the fairgrounds early on Friday, when haggling tends to be a bit tighter, but the bargaining opportunities increase as the weekend progresses. By Sunday noon, the hawkers are more likely to entertain aggressive haggles, since every missed sale means more inventory to schlep home.
The down side for Sunday shoppers is that inventory dwindles with every passing hour, and some booths tend to be picked clean of the prime stuff early on. A shrewd preacher from Weatherford shopping on a Saturday may have already copped the Estes Keifauver commemorative fish fork that you’ve been saving up for. But as the philosopher once said, you roll the dice and take your chances.
Don’t bite too quick. If you’re in the market for relatively common items (used kitchen gadgets, hand tools, or vintage Happy Meal prizes), it pays to look at a few tables before starting a haggle. Duplication gives you a little leverage in the bargaining process. (“One of a kind? Tell it to the guy over there. He’s got five just like it.”)
Return for Round Two. Sometimes even a failed haggle can lead to victory, if you time it right. If the object of your affection hasn’t sold late in the session, there’s a perfect chance for you—former adversary and worthy competitor—to reopen negotiations with a friendly ‘Hey! Remember me?’ Last visit, it was a haggle to the death, but now you just want to do the seller (your old friend) a favor by taking this particular fireproof filing cabinet off his/her hands. When it gets down to it, the choice is simple: would they rather carry the cabinet or a handful of small bills to the U-Haul?
Since free-form bargaining is an acquired skill, you’re pretty likely to walk away from your first attempts paying full pop for your assorted treasures. There will be times in those early days when you crack a smile at precisely the wrong moment or get just a bit too nervous to hold the whole deal together. But with practice, you’ll develop the eyes and reflexes of a hardcore haggler.
When you get to this next level and are ready for some real competition, here are a few upper division tips for when things start to get nasty. Bid WAY Low. One hallmark of the novice haggler is playing timid—for example, opening up with a $2 bid on a $3 baseball—which gives the seller unfair advantage from the outset.
The initial bid speaks volumes about a haggler, because it reflects your level of inner confidence. Anyone who starts off with a twelve dollar bid on an early American armoire better have the negotiating skills to back it up. A low opening offer lets a vendor know that their bluff is being called and you need them to help “clear up a little misunderstanding.” But maintain a charming, stoic game face to keep a fight from breaking out.
Inspect Each Item Carefully. Before taking your selection up to the nice lady, examine the object of your affection for any surface flaws or other imperfections that can be used to bolster your low bid. “Oh, see? This teapot doesn’t even have a lid. How can you ask that much for it?”
Look for Duplicates. It always helps your case for a lower price if you’ve seen a similar Spirograph set at the table down the way. It cuts down on the effectiveness of the old “collector’s item” story.
Up the Ante. A classic distraction technique: Before going into a bargaining session, choose a couple of “spoiler” items that you can throw into your side of the deal. (“Okay, if you won’t take $4 for this cast iron skillet, then how about $4.50 for the skillet and this steak knife?”) The strategy here is to force the vendor into doing quick math based on the number of items in your pile. (Often they’ll just calculate the average and close the sale. Math does that to people.)
Bonus points: Add items to your pile and then CUT your offer by a buck.
Water Torture. This approach, based on simple everyday hypnotic techniques, should be reserved for the toughest deals. If you get stonewalled mid-haggle, choose a comfortable price and rephrase it as many times as you can in the course of the discussion.
Buyer: “So, how about nine dollars for the whole toolbox?”
Vendor: “No, I really need to get fifteen. I paid thirteen for it.”
Buyer: “Well … would you take nine then?
Vendor: I’m pretty set on fifteen.”
Buyer: “Hmmmmm. . . . (dramatic pause) What say you throw in this hand sledge and I’ll give you . . . oh . . . nine bucks for the whole thing?”
Vendor: “Can’t really do that. Fifteen.”
Buyer: “OK, here’s my final offer. You throw in the sledge, I give you the nine dollars, you get very sleepy and when I snap my fingers, you’ll bark like a dog whenever you hear a car horn. Whaddaya say?”
Vendor: “Zzzzz … Zzzzzz. … Hunh? What? Nine dollars? SOLD!”
Buyer: “Pleasure doing business with you.”
Disclaimer: If you get REALLY good at this, make sure to only use your powers for good.
Know Thine Enemy
Composite sketches of characters you’re likely to find running Canton’s many merchandise tables:
The Generalist runs the traveling equivalent of your Aunt Sadie’s once-a-decade garage sale. As a rule, generalists usually have the best selection of items and the best browsing as well. You’re likely to find anything from well-worn suede ropers to a full set of bubble-top milk bottles mixed in with miscellaneous 8-tracks and mismatched flatware. They’re also great places to brush up on your haggling skills.
Typical Response to Hagglers: Hot or Cold (Immediate acceptance or deep grandmotherly disappointment).
Your Best Comeback: Have exact change in hand.
Your Cue to Leave: “I’m not sure. I’m just watching this stall for my friend Goober. He just left for lunch.”
Specialists usually stock a narrow range of items (Coca-Cola memorabilia, amethyst doorknobs, baseball cards) and model themselves after museum curators rather than actual business folk. As a result, they have lower traffic but a more interested customer base. Every item in their stall has generally been earmarked as a “collector’s item” and priced accordingly. If you try to bargain on the price of an item, they’re likely to whip out fifteen appraisal books to bolster their argument. If that fails, they claim it has rare magical powers and double the posted price.
Typical Response to Hagglers: They can’t believe you’d even suggest it.
Your Best Response: Roll your eyes. Call their bluff.
Your Cue to Leave: “You don’t understand. This is the original Red Man cap—a one of a kind original. It’d sell for $5000 in New York. Sez so right here in this book.”
Handicraft hawkers obviously have direct pipelines to the Cracker Barrel Factory Warehouse, and they buy in bulk. Usually found in the fancier pavilions, handicraft people traffic in anything “homespun” and/or “cute”—the usual variations on country goose patterns, garden signs, macrame, quilted everything, and anything related to grandkids, retirement or golf.
Typical Response to Hagglers: Vacant, almost zombie-like stare.
Your Best Comeback: Run like hell, unless you really need a big butt lawn ornament.
Your Cue to Leave: The sudden, queasy onset of potpourri poisoning.
Infomercial people are the least fun to haggle with, since their inventory can be found at just about any strip mall dollar store. How excited can you get about a Swiss Army Wrench or Industrial Strength Hair Remover? In flea market format, these stalls resemble multimedia snake oil shows, with words like “wonder” and “miracle” describing every single product for sale. These folks are generally good for free demonstration of the latest miracle cure for athlete’s foot, but don’t let them draw you into actual conversation, since they can find ways to suck you into the action. After that, you’re in for a world of latenight hurtin’.
Typical Response to Hagglers: Well-scripted series of product-specific questions and answers.
Your Best Comeback: Faking a mild seizure.
You Cue to Leave: “Now, these go for $39.99 on TV, but I’ll make you a deal.”
There are three million tall tales in the naked city, and just about twice that many in your average rummage sale. The better the story behind an object, the more you’ll pay for it, right? And it doesn’t help that anything over 5 years old can be officially described as “antique.” Here’s a partial list of danger signs to help you spot overpriced merchandise.
Anything described as “authentic,” “collectible,” “antique,” or “a real collector’s item.”
The brush with greatness: “This putter belonged to LBJ before he was president.”
When a seller says something like: “People from (insert name of faraway place here) are just snatching these things up and selling them for 300 dollars apiece. You’re lucky I have any left.”
Any sales pitch that ends in “Swear to God.”
Excessive markdowns—such as marking a Zippo lighter down from $3000 to $27.50. (“Look at all the money you’re saving!”)
Steins of the world, –>
During our two-day jaunt through the wilds of Canton, the author and our expert, Ms. Johnson, amassed an impressive collection of random items that would otherwise clutter up the garages of grandmothers across the state of Texas. All told, we managed to blow a pocketful of cash—but not nearly as much as we would have had we not been practicin’ good hagglin’. Our outing ran the gamut of hits and misses, lost chances and well-timed deals, and in the end there was enough junk to fill a pickup. (We missed out on the regulation issue Piggly Wiggly sign, but it wouldn’t have fit in the truck anyway.) Here’s some of what we got.
Our Expert’s Finds
A very worn wicker chair that had obviously spent some time under water. This particular item was partially rotted, except for the decorative back piece, which Ms. Johnson wanted for a wall hanging.
Original price: $10
Strategy: Inspect Closely
Ms. Johnson: “Hmmmm … look on the leg right here. Is that an old mildew stain or some termite damage? Either way, that’s gonna take some fixing.”
Final Price: $3
Three table-sized picture frames that contained art prints from the early 70s (miscellaneous sunset pictures, big-eyed children, etc).
Original price: $5 for the big one, $4 for each of the smaller ones.
Strategy: Up the Ante
Ms. Johnson: “Well, I don’t really want the picture in the big one, so how about half price for that? And while we’re at it, will you add these other ones for a dollar?Sound good?”
Final Price: $4 for everything
An old enamel roasting pan looked good, but the handle had rusted through at the base, hanging on like a loose tooth.
Original price: $8
Strategy: Barnyard Sounds
Pableaux: “Pfffft . . . Eight bucks? It’s got a broken handle, fer godsakes! It’ll take ten more to get it spot welded! That’s it, I’m calling the Better Business Bureau. Security!”
Final Price: $4.50 (with old enamel serving bowl thrown in to shut me up) along with a promise never to darken his table again. Ever.
Mail Sorting Grid
This old mail sorting grid came from the U.S. Post Office in Van Buren, Arkansas before they remodeled a few years back. Originally designed to route mail to regional offices, the grid is perfect for organizing old mail, bills that should have been paid months ago, and IRS subpoenas.
Original price: $12
Strategy: Watch the Clock, Return for Round 2
Pableaux: (On Sunday, after an unsuccessful Saturday attempt.) “So . . . How’s business treatin’ you? Yeah, it’s a long ride home . . . You take five for this now?”
Final Price: $5
Finding The Fairgrounds
In a town the size of Canton, you’d be pretty hard pressed to miss the Trade Days Park, which starts a few blocks from the town square. Keep an eye out for signs advertising the event or follow the aroma of freshly fried funnel cakes.
Canton’s First Monday Trade Days runs the three-day weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) before the first Monday of every month. (It’s a moveable feast. Take out your calendar and do the math.)
Operating hours usually follow the sun, with stalls opening a few hours after dawn (let’s say 8:00 a.m.) and shutting down about sundown.
The key word here is GRIDLOCK. Once you get off Interstate 20, expect to spend a lot of time waiting for Canton’s few traffic lights to change. The primary traffic arteries (mostly two-lane) block up pretty quickly, especially during the peak traffic hours of mid-morning and dusk. When a small town swells to 20 times its usual size, the resulting logjam makes the Dallas rush hour look like the flag drop at Talledega. Since you’ll probably be spending some good time watching tail-lights, you might want to revisit some of those old childhood highway games to minimize the damage of mind-crushing boredom. (“I spy with my little eye. …”)
During Trade Days, vehicle storage becomes the town’s second biggest industry, and every piece of land in metropolitan Van Zandt County becomes a makeshift parking lot. You can expect to pay about $3 per day for parking (without in-and-out privileges). The prime lots are situated right opposite the main fairground gates, especially if you’re shopping for heavy and/or bulky items. Midway through a half-mile walk, a 25-cent anvil doesn’t seem nearly as good a deal as when you bought it.
Shoppers interested in making First Monday a multi-day project will probably find neon NO VACANCY signs lit up all over East Texas. If it’s possible to do a little advanced planning, try to book a room in nearby Terrell or Tyler, since the rooms in Canton are pretty much occupied until the next Ice Age. If you actually do find a room at the inn, expect to pay full pop for the privilege, since canny moteliers generally suspend discounts during First Monday Weekend. What good is a captive audience if you can’t milk ‘em for all they’re worth?
Weather: A quick spring shower can instantly turn dusty aisles into mud pits, so it’s best to keep an eye trained on the five-day forecasts and plan accordingly. There’s only so much room in the handicraft pavilions, and it fills mighty quick in a thunderstorm. If you’re caught flat-footed by a frontal system, you can usually find an enterprising concessionaire hollering “Plastic ponchos! Getcher ponchos! Two for twenty!”
Carriages: Several vendors rent two-wheeled metal laundry carts for your carting and hauling pleasure—carts just like the ones you’ll see professionals pulling around the grounds. Daily rental usually runs about $5 plus deposit, or $20 will buy you one outright.
Maps: Pick up a Trade Days map (usually available around the fairgrounds) and use it to keep track of where you’ve been. These handy charts can keep you from crossing your own tracks—pretty damn important if you want to see everything at least once.
Still More Shops: If you manage to exhaust the possibilities of all thousands of acres of fairgrounds, check out some of Canton’s alternate market areas—cavernous aluminum buildings packed with additional rummage that you won’t find at that other market. Actually, it’s pretty close to the same stuff you’d find at Market Days, but in a different place. Will the opportunities never cease?