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 it happened, took place on the first Monday of every month. Today “Monday” is a misnomer: The name but not the schedule is a holdover from the old days. The town’s population can swell from 3,500 to an estimated 300,000 during trade days weekends in the mild-weather months of April, May, October, and November, when more than 5,000 dealers hawk their wares here. (An additional 1,600 sell at various spin-off markets nearby.)

Vendors set up under the trees along trails that wind through the city-owned grounds or inside one of several huge metal barns. It would be impossible to check out every stall in a day—even ten days—at what is billed as “the largest and oldest trade days in the world.” First Monday is a phenomenon, a black hole of stuff, where matter is concentrated so densely that no avid junker can escape its gravitational pull without carrying something away with him.

Quantity rules the day, and as at the many all-you-can-eat restaurants in town, you have to shuffle through a heap of hush puppies to find the catfish. I lost count of the booths selling lemonade or meat on a stick or some variety of corn product. It’s a hundred acres teeming with Beanie Babies, which must be breeding here like rodents, and Beanie Baby accessories: beds, hammocks, houses. Potpourri that looks like floor sweepings is sold by the pungent pound. Jellies and jams, vests appliquéd with boots and stars, and cloyingly cute wind chimes are everywhere. So why bother going, you ask? Because when you do find the catfish, it’s really good. By my scientific calculations, even if only one percent of the merchandise here is memorable or unique, that’s still about 20 million pounds of great stuff.

On my maiden voyage to the Mother of All Trade Days, who better to accompany me than the Mother of All Shoppers—my mother. Despite a bad foot (don’t ever let a podiatrist operate on a bone spur without a second opinion), Mom, fueled by a funnel cake, braved the miles of uneven paths on the three-hundred-acre site last spring to seek out $62 worth of silk organza gift-wrapping ribbon and a glass-and-cedar display case for $25. I snagged an old Rotor Rocket sprinkler I didn’t even know I needed for $18. For $12 I bought four vintage postcards from the most delightfully anal postcard salesman in the universe; his hundreds and hundreds of cards were filed by location and topic, ranging from dogs to prisons. A goofy, well-worn elephant cookie jar ($115) stood out among dozens displayed on the hood and roof of one vendor’s car. At a nearby cluttered booth a decorator swooped down from nowhere and grabbed two huge silver-plated trophy cups ($60 each) before I could get to them through stacks of wooden oars and old wicker tackle boxes.

After two days in Canton, although still woefully short of a thorough grasp of the place, I’d had enough of everything—even mounted roosters ($99), peacock-pattern chenille bedspreads ($70), and unfinished oak rockers ($80). I looked down at one more pile of rusty garden tools, and my crapometer started smoking. I had to get out of there before I bought something I really didn’t need, like a sign with the wood-burned message “I want to live in the fast lane, but I’m married to a speed bump” ($35). As Mom said when we hobbled past yet another booth crammed with nonfunctional birdhouses made of weathered barn wood and decorated with silk flowers, lace, ducks, and bunnies, “People sure are busy making nothing.”

I returned to Canton in August, this time with my husband, Richard. It was so hot our feet sank into the asphalt parking lot, but at least the crowds had the sense to stay home. The whir of portable fans filled the air, and vendors in the deep shade along the trails tried to stay sane and attract customers by setting up misters around their booths. Oddly enough, the stalls I found most interesting were those set up inside the Canton Civic Center, an area limited to antiques and collectibles—and the only air-conditioned building on the grounds. Estate jewelry and rhinestone brooches twinkled all around. Fragile porcelain doodads beckoned. Despite the fabulous chill, we had the place nearly to ourselves.

The lack of customers didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Lois Smith, a first-time exhibitor at Canton. She showed me her glowing collection of Vaseline glass, educating me about each piece as though she were a museum curator. She held the bowls and dishes up to a black light to reveal their phosphorescence, the result of uranium in the glass, and explained that glassblowers who specialized in these radiant pieces didn’t live very long. (How could $175 possibly be enough to pay for a candy dish that shortened a man’s life?) Around the corner, Howard Hatcher, who specializes in vintage containers like soda bottles and ice-cream cartons, was carefully aligning the food cans in his “country store.” (Don’t worry; there’s no chance that ancient mashed pumpkin will someday explode from the can. All his vintage labels are glued to unused vintage cans.) Hatcher lovingly pointed out his oldest label, one for roasted mutton from the late 1800’s: “Sounds better than one I saw for boiled mutton,” he said. He pulled down a can with a vibrantly colored label for red kidney beans. “Feel the butterflies up around the rim of that one,” he said, still amazed after 29 years of collecting that manufacturers once went to the trouble to emboss the labels on lowly cans of vegetables.

We stumbled around outside for a few more hours in the 108-degree heat, eyeing beautifully restored gasoline pumps, peeling primitive furniture, stacks of cowhides, all manner of doorknobs, and forties waffle irons before deciding to return with the cooler weather . . . and a pickup truck.

Held the Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday preceding the first Monday of every month, from sunrise to sunset. Main entrance on Texas Highway 19, just north of downtown (903-567-6556). Admission free; parking $3.

Warrenton—Round Top I’ve been to this extravaganza three times, and I still don’t feel as if I’ve seen a fraction of the offerings. But you don’t have to eat an entire cheesecake to know it’s rich, right?

As you drive toward Warrenton from La Grange on Texas Highway 159, the flotsam begins washing up on the roadside around Rutersville—a wagon, a cabinet, an old ice chest with a price sign propped against it. But this sparse mishmash is hardly fair warning for what lies ahead: thousands of vendors lining the road, set up in converted German dance halls and private pastures scattered from Warrenton to Round Top and out to Shelby, Carmine, and even Burton.

Emma Lee Turney inadvertently spawned this spectacle when she started the Round Top Antiques Fair 31 years ago. Today 35 or so other shows make up this sprawling event. Warrenton is where I bought my beloved metal glider love seat, with its unusual geometric cutout pattern and perfectly burnished multilayer paint job, for $225. During a visit this past spring, I lusted after a pair of 1850’s carved-stone griffins from France ($7,500 for both) but couldn’t figure out how to fit the 350-pound beasts in my Honda. One booth was filled with fabric from the twenties, thirties, and forties (two and a half yards of a luscious print of banana leaves and tropical fruit was $65). In a giant tent just north of Warrenton, the 22nd/Second Warehouse sold unusual European collectibles: enameled bread boxes from Holland; huge, wavy-glass Russian vinegar jars from the forties. I saw more wooden goat carts ($125—$250) than there are goats in South Texas, and there’s definitely no shortage of rusty enamel pails in this part of the world ($15). One of my favorite vendors, Joel Fitch, was selling metal lunch boxes that stopped me in my tracks. “Hey, I had one of those,” I said, pointing to a tartan-plaid number ($25) tucked in among the Green Hornets and Roy Rogerses. “Everybody says that,” said Joel, rolling his eyes. “And I’ve still got one like this,” I said, picking up a Walt Disney school bus ($65) loaded with characters.

“Is it just like this, with Jiminy Cricket getting off the bus?” he asked, leaning forward excitedly.

Now I was excited: “Yeah, yeah.”

He collapsed in disappointment. “Too bad. If a pig was getting off the bus, you’d really have something.”

Held the first full weekend in April and October (some vendors open as early as the Monday before), from sunrise to sunset, primarily along Texas Highways 159 and 237 between La Grange and Carmine. (Because Easter falls on the first weekend of April next year, the April 1999 show will be held the second weekend.) Admission free; parking ranges from free to $2. Call the Round Top Chamber of Commerce (409-249-4042) for more information.

Boerne Market Days I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with flowerpots made from old tires turned inside out, clipped creatively, and painted with country landscapes, or even with saccharine cement yard art (a family of turtles with toothy grins, anyone?). And I suppose that emu jerky has its devoted fans. But despite the plethora of arts-and-crafts kitsch, Boerne Market Days has an undeniable small-town, lemonade-stand charm. That alone, however, doesn’t warrant a road trip into the Hill Country. I include it in my lineup because it illustrates the serendipitous events that can accompany and sometimes eclipse the more demure trade days. In this case my trip happily coincided with the annual Boerne Optimist Club Antique Show, held every March at the Kendall County Fairgrounds. I spent nearly an hour studying the button cards at various booths, where prices ranged from $3 for a button printed with tiny flowers to $35 for a green metal one with a bas-relief palm tree and hut. My husband, Richard, was similarly taken with a collection of old tools, from which he finally chose a Black Raven hatchet ($40) for its cool logo and curvaceous silhouette.

Nearly every dealer offered something unique: a turn-of-the-century child’s wagon still sporting the original, cheery paint job on its elaborate wooden fretwork, a handmade pine traveling cabinet with hand-wrought hardware and snug-fitting doors to shut out all the dust kicked up when crossing the prairie by horse-drawn wagon, a collection of tiny books about baby animals in perfect condition after 65 years. The Boerne Public Library was holding its annual book sale on the fairgrounds as well. I nabbed some blushingly politically incorrect fifties travel guides for Tonga and Cuba for 25 cents each and two volumes of the 1906 edition of The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia for $3 each.

Another, smaller gathering of dealers had assembled in a parking lot downtown. Once again, Richard rooted through a pile of tools and brought forth two hatchets, an ax, and two cross-peen hammers. I guess some fellows can never have too many whacking tools.

Boerne Market Days: The schedule is irregular, but the market will definitely be held October 10 and 11 and November 7 and 8 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the town plaza on Main Street (Business U.S. 87); contact the Retail Merchants Association (830-249-8095) for more information. Admission and parking free.

Boerne Optimist Club Antique Show: held the first weekend in March from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Kendall County Fairgrounds (one mile east of town on Texas Highway 46). Admission $3; parking free.

First Saturday Computer Carnival and Wholesale Electronics First Saturday, Dallas It’s six on a Saturday morning in a parking lot in downtown Dallas. The early-morning calm is disturbed by the chugging of dozens of portable generators and the chattering of crowds milling around tables and tailgates loaded down with objects unidentifiable to mere mortals. The ratio of men to women is about six thousand to one, but this is a singularly geeky race of men—doughy, unkempt, with sparse, unruly facial hair. Despite the rising sun, some of them—who’ve probably been here since the market opened at midnight—are wearing a miner’s lamp strapped to their forehead. About a fourth of them sport Dilbert T-shirts, and the rest wear Converse hightops. They may not be pretty but, boy, are they focused on the computer guts piled up around them.

Ham radio operators, who began gathering under the nearby Central Expressway overpass forty years ago on the first Saturday of the month to trade transistor tubes, are to blame for this wacky convocation. More recently, cyberswappers have taken over, and the two-pronged event has moved into the Wholesale Electronic Supply parking lot, on the north side of Ross Avenue, and the First Saturday parking lots, on both sides of Ross. Some merchandise is still shrink-wrapped in the box, some is gently worn, and some looks like Godzilla’s teething toys. If I’d known what the hell to do with them, I could have bought network cards for $3 each, the world’s smallest digital camera (new) for $189, 32 megabytes of memory for $24.50, or a plodding Hayes 14.4-baud portable modem for $15. There were naughty compact discs, tons of DOS software, and computer instruction books mixed with errant boomboxes, wiper blades, sunglasses, and tear-gas canisters. According to Dennis Redman, a Wholesale Electronic Supply employee who has overseen its sale for the past ten years, “Things used to be a little weirder.” But I have a hard time imagining that.

Held on the first Saturday of every month on seven acres of asphalt along Ross Avenue just west of the Central Expressway. First Saturday (214-720-9054), Wholesale Electronics (800-880-9400). Vendors begin setting up in the middle of the night. Diehard bargain hunters show up in the wee hours, but there is still plenty of action at the more sensible hour of 6 a.m.; by noon the lots are empty. Admission and parking free for both.

Old Mill Trade Days, Post Unlike North and East Texas, where you can’t swing a Beanie Baby without hitting some sort of weekend bazaar, West Texas has fewer trade days than it does trees. But who needs more than one such market if it’s as well stocked as the one in the rambling buildings at the 1912 Postex Cotton Mill?

Sure, some crafts booths were tarted up with enough froufrou and pastels to make the Easter Bunny gag. There were handmade candles and homemade dog food, chili-flavored pecans, and performing rodeo clowns. But there was also Joni Sanders and Brad Thornhill’s Finderskeepers nook, filled with vintage hats in pristine condition for around $15 each. I was smitten with a confectionery number, a bonbon of swirled lavender netting. At Vintage Accents I joined in the feeding frenzy, elbowing weaker shoppers out of the way for an armload of small, tarnished silver-plated goblets for $3 each. It was a good thing I had flown into Lubbock; otherwise I’d have bought an $895 primitive pine cupboard from Rea’s Relics and Creations that wouldn’t fit in my house.

Held in Post (45 miles southeast of Lubbock on Texas Highway 207, just off U.S. 84) on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after the first Monday of every month from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; look for the big smokestack west of downtown (806-495-3529). Admission $1; parking free.

First Saturday Market Day, Wimberley Corn-dog stands are blessedly absent on these market grounds because the Lions Club has a monopoly on food concessions. (They serve—surprise—barbecue.) There’s some good stuff at this tidy, shady event, but to ferret it out you have to trek past an army of tall, thin rabbits—each fashioned from a single plank of weathered barn wood, of course—and a scattering of $29.95 stepping stones embellished with mosaic collegiate logos. (If you’re going to walk on it, do you buy the logo of your alma mater or its rival?)

Deeper in the labyrinth of booths, some 450 in all, I discovered Kitty Kat’s Kollectables, a trove of old linens and antique kitchenware, where I found the forties white-cotton tablecloth with delicate eyelet embroidery ($4.50) I’d been hunting for months. One regular vendor, Jeff Lehman, is determined to make a dent in the mountains of used tires in the world by transforming them into his nifty pony-shaped Giddy-Up Swings ($35). And I don’t think Bob Carlon lets one scrap of hardwood sneak past him; they’re all laminated together in a huge selection of tough, handsome cutting boards ($8—$100).

Held on the first Saturday of every month April through December from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Lions Field, a quarter mile from Ranch Road 12, on Ranch Road 2325 (512-847-2201). Admission free; parking $2.

Shopping List

FROM ABILENE TO WINNIE, IT SEEMS every community is hosting a trade days weekend. Most of them run from nine to five, more or less, and charge no admission. Don’t limit yourself to the following markets; check with your favorite town’s chamber of commerce to see if it, too, has enlisted in the merchant marines.

Castroville Market Trail Days, held on the second Saturday of every month except January and February on the square in front of the landmark St. Louis Catholic Church (830-931-2331). As few as 30 or as many as 180 vendors—mostly selling arts and crafts, plants, and vegetables—can show up at this market.

Georgetown Market Days, held on the second Saturday of every month except January and February on the courthouse square (512-930-5302). As trade days go, this one is tiny, but the square is too handsome to miss. Plus, you can have your caricature sketched for $10 and pick up a flat pyrite “sun” at Fly’s Rocks and Minerals booth.

Goliad Market Days, held on the second Saturday of every month except January and February (512-645-3563). More than a hundred vendors set up under the oak trees around the courthouse, selling plants, vegetables, animals, and arts and crafts. One even grinds corn into fresh cornmeal.

McKinney Third Monday Trade Days, held on the Saturday and Sunday before the third Monday of every month on U.S. 380 two miles west of U.S. 75 and about two miles from downtown (972-562-5466). More than seven hundred vendors sell everything from ducks and water lilies to eight-millimeter movie projectors. The junker’s dream booth could be found here in July: A mother and daughter had cleaned out a relative’s attic and set up shop for just one day, selling dusty player-piano rolls, a fabulous old schoolhouse thermometer, and 1941 issues of Mechanix Illustrated, and and 1890’s peanut-roasting cart.

Nacogdoches Trade Days, held every third weekend on West Loop (U.S. 59), a quarter mile north of Texas Highway 21 (409-564-2150). Forty acres of vendors sell Confederate flags and camouflage gear, pulleys and chains, chickens and kitchenware, and birdhouses made of corncobs. If you really want to hunt for treasure, look for Walter and Ruth Bruce’s booth, where they sell metal detectors; also, check out the display of coins, jewelry, and Civil War medals they’ve found at abandoned pioneer settlements.

Navasota Trade Days, held on the Saturday and Sunday before the third Monday of every month, one and a half miles north of downtown on Texas Business Highway 6 (409-825-8490). In fair weather, as many as three hundred vendors gather in a pasture to sell antiques, crafts, jewelry, and leather goods.

Tyler Trade Days, held every third weekend on U.S. 69 just south of Interstate 20 (903-595-2223). Up to three hundred vendors sell ceramic tchotchkes, used blue jeans, and huge steel tornado shelters that look like barbecue smokers on steroids. Play your cards right and maybe Richard Hill will be there selling his sturdy handmade wooden carts and wagons or Cliff Taylor will have a new bunch of airbrushed-gourd birdhouses blowing in the wind.

Whitewright Trade Days, held on the Saturday and Sunday before the fourth Monday of every month at the American Legion grounds on Sears Street (903-364-2994). If it hadn’t been 110 degrees, chances are, more than just a cranky writer and a couple of earnest young bottle collectors would have shown up. Actually, quite a few vendors—although not the usual 250—endured the summer furnace to offer real bargains to folks who like to sift through trash looking for treasures like rusty lanterns and salvaged hotel china.

Winnie Old Time Trade Days, held on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday following the first Monday of every month on FM 1663, just north of I-10 (409-892-4000). Hundreds of vendors (when the weather cooperates) selling antiques, arts, crafts, and collectibles.