Vendors turn to flea markets to stay busy, raise extra cash and mingle

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The money is helpful, but some folks just ‘like to be around people.’

The way M. Betts sees it, there’s no reason to be short on cash or worry about not having money when you can find things within your home to sell.

“I just thank God, that I know when I get broke, I know what I need to do,” said Betts. “I get something in this house and go sell it.” The 83-year-old has been selling her belongings for 40 years now. Betts is a veteran flea and antiques market vendor who, these days, is a regular at Scott Antique Markets on Jonesboro Road in Atlanta.

She is among a number of vendors who have managed over the years to maintain a livelihood in the flea or antique market arena, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Riverdale resident turned to selling at markets following her husband’s retirement from the military and after a colleague she worked with at the former Frito-Lay manufacturing plant in Chamblee sold her on the idea.

“I just started doing it and it was something that I liked,” said Betts, who handled bagging of products for Frito-Lay, where she worked for around six years. She says she gets “treasures” from different sources, including storage units where people have abandoned their belongings or not kept up their monthly payments. She also goes to estate sales.

Credit: Doug Smith Photography

Credit: Doug Smith Photography

For Becky Yeates, who has been selling — also at Scott — for 22 years, “the pandemic changed my way of selling.” Yeates, who sells unique furniture, art and small trinkets, turned to the internet when the pandemic resulted in mandatory shelter-in-place orders around the nation — largely from March to April 2020. “If I were to survive, I had to go online and I have been able to reach many more people,” she said. “I had to pivot and have continued due to the success,” she added.

Credit: Doug Smith Photography

Credit: Doug Smith Photography

While the pandemic “certainly was a problem and a great concern,” Scott Antique Markets “followed every guideline” provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Don Scott, who owns Scott Antique with his wife Betty. The market — which is open in Atlanta the second week of the month, from Thursday to Sunday — closed from March 2020 to August 2020, he said.

The start of the pandemic made for a “very concerning time” for the owners of Sweetie’s Flea Market in Hampton. “It immediately started affecting all of the businesses,” said Christie Hallman of the vendors who pay to sell with the market she owns with her husband Wesley.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“As the months went on, we were very concerned about losing our business because people were afraid to come out and set up,” she said. Fears and concerns by vendors, along with shelter-in-place orders almost shuttered Sweetie’s, she said. Since Sweetie’s is an outdoor business, Christie Hallman says the business was able to reopen when Georgia lifted restrictions on some businesses, while shelter-in-place orders remained in place for some others such as bars, live performance venues and amusement parks. In all, Sweetie’s was closed for about three weeks in April 2020, with Sweetie’s covering rent for vendors that month. Between March 2020 and December 2020, the number of Sweetie’s vendors had dropped from 59 to 31.

“We had vendors pulling out almost daily,” said Wesley Hallman, including those who’d lost loved ones to COVID-19 and those who were concerned about contracting the virus.

In May, Sweetie’s reopened and “we were surprised to see people coming back out to the flea market. Little by little, the business started to grow again.”

She continued, “People were at home with nothing to do. They started cleaning out their houses and their storage buildings, so we had people that started contacting us toward the end of 2020 about renting monthly buildings because they wanted to come and sell off the items they had been cleaning out.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

It wasn’t items around the home that brought Felicia Flecha-Johnson to Sweetie’s at the top of 2020. Flecha-Johnson returned to the flea market business — after having sold for years at markets in Miami — to offer a solution to the general public as cases of COVID-19 in the United States first began to be reported. She made and sold face masks in addition to selling hats, gloves and trinkets. Over two years, Flecha-Johnson was able to expand to offering a variety of products through a storefront at Sweetie’s — to include shoes, sunglasses, jewelry, hats, some clothing items, movies and candles from the TikiWicki Co. line she owns with her daughter, Tiki Shannon. The collection of custom-blend soy wax prayer candles includes fragrances under the names of Holy Water, God is Good and Amen.

That time, right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, “was slow,” said Flecha-Johnson, “but it wasn’t really, really slow because I had something people needed. Not only that, I had gloves and hats. It was cold, so I made sure I had the necessities.”

Having sold at flea markets in Florida and Georgia, Flecha-Johnson has noticed one particular reason customers are drawn to flea markets: customer service. “People like to be treated good and acknowledged,” she said. Referring to herself as a giver, Flecha-Johnson says making a sale isn’t always a goal for her. “I’m a giver,” she said. “I like to give. If someone needs something and they don’t necessarily have the money, I’ll just give it to them. And they can always come back when they have money.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

For Weyman Elrod, it’s not about the money either. Elrod, who has been selling at Sweetie’s since 1978, says the opportunity makes for a getaway of sorts for him and his partner, Geri. The two sell collectible cars and trucks, toys and more. “We’re retired and we’re home all the time,” he said. “This is something to look forward to every week. I like to be around people. It’s not about the money. If we make enough to pay the rent, that’s fine.”

Now in his 15th year of selling at Sweetie’s, Larry Hinton said the pandemic “didn’t hurt me at all.” He also sells in an open space. Hinton sells appliances such as washers and dryers, both at Sweetie’s and elsewhere through his own business. He’s been doing so since retiring from a managerial position with Kroger.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“If you got what people want, you can do real good down here,” said Hinton. There’s a flip side, too, he pointed out. “You can be out here six and seven hours and don’t make a dime, depending on what you sell.”

The up-and-down nature of the business isn’t enough to push vendors like him away, he’s found. He plans to stick with flea markets “till I can’t go no more,” he said, adding that he loves “making money and meeting people too.”