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The Flea! Toy Treasures You May Be Missing!

We’re up before the sun, on the highway with the windows down. Mist clings to Lake Milton, which makes the low side of the road vanish into morning. The radio plays something familiar, anonymous as we follow the hand-written directions into the hills. Wordlessly, the driver wipes condensation from the windshield, then lights a cigarette.

We accelerate, speeding between between the 18-wheelers and tanker trucks that obscure the sky. The horizon grows brighter, lightening from blue to pink to blue again. Cows stand perfectly still in the pastures below, bovine bodhisattva thoughtfully chewing their cud. We turn down a country road, noisy foreigners in a community of silence. The short-corn stands ready for harvest, but the fields and barns are empty — idyllic, iconic, but this frozen moment of Americana is oddly devoid of people. A fly-specked horse watches us balefully from between the slats of a fence. We hurry on.

The sporadic roadside gas stations and convenience stores soon blossom into a full-blown town. Fast-food breakfast smells filter into the car, mixing with blasts of diesel smoke and manure. What am I doing deep in the wilds of Ohio, in a town I’ve never even heard of before last night? Go on, have a guess.

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If you love toys, then you owe it to yourself to check out your local flea market. While online stores and auction sites have become to go-to place for collectors, they are often sterile, boring places that know full well what they have and charge accordingly. Odds are, you’re not going to score a Mego Superman or a vintage Playskool Sesame Street play-set for under five bucks, and yet it happens every day at the flea market. Yeah, you have to wake up at the ass-crack of dawn and dig through boxes of stuff that may have been at the bottom of a swamp for 50 years, but if you’re not afraid of a little hard work and getting your hands dirty, then untold treasures await.

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I’m not gonna lie to you. Some testicular fortitude is required. For example, this is what we were confronted with upon our arrival. Was this some sort of fertility ritual gone wrong? A warning not to proceed? Or just someone trying to get us to stop and look at their stuff? If I had to venture a guess, equal parts one and three, but I didn’t stick around to find out. All those people were selling was trouble.

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A positive sign. My confidence restored by Talking Geraldine’s no-nonsense brand of sass, I soldier on. See, it’s easy to get discouraged doing this. I found a 12-inch Batman Forever figure on a pile of dusty dishes and asked the owner how much she wanted for it. She proceeded to lift up the cape and show me the date, telling me about how the figure was old and she was selling it for $10 because it was a collectible. I resisted the urge to point out the figure’s scuff-marks, discolored paint and tattered cape. iInstead, I thanked her and moved on. It’s better to spend your time hunting for good stuff than argue with crazy people over scraps.

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It’s important to remember you’re going to find more trash than treasure. People will try and sell anything, and you may have to do some serious digging to find that blue Snaggletooth under the pile of sticky Hot Wheels cars, broken wrestlers, and unidentifiable crud. Nine out of ten times you’re going to end up with nothing but dirty fingers and disappointment for your troubles, but you’ve gotta play the long game.  Hey, if it were easy, then everybody would be doing it!

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Unfortunately, some finds are simply lost causes, like these Barbies here. Sure, they’re vintage, but the plastic has rotted, making them only slightly more valuable then the cardboard box they sit in. That doesn’t mean the crazy-eyed seller who smells like cat pee can be convinced of that, so tread cautiously and take plenty of Wet Naps. It’s a filthy world out there — prepare yourself accordingly.

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It’s not all funk and stank, though. Here’s the Ultimate Spider-Man 18-inch figure I found last month at the flea market in the next town over. Only $8! This guy usually sells for $50 and up online — now there’s your wow factor, folks. This particular flea has brought me Power Rangers, Food Fighters, and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons figures, as well as newer toys like Marvel Legends and Thomas the Tank Engine (for my daughter, honest!). I try and hit it every weekend and kick myself when I can’t make it. There’s almost always someone with vintage GI Joe or MOTU stuff, and sometimes you can get an entire box for a Jackson — this stuff has just been sitting in basements and garages, and, truthfully, most people are happy to get anything for what they consider junk.

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Not all fleas are equal. Depending on where you are, your local market may be a handful of sellers in a parking lot or a massive affair with several hundred tables. Both have their merits: the smaller fleas are quirkier, drawing locals who tend to have more varied and unique merchandise, while the larger events bring in bigger dealers with a wider variety of stock. I can’t say I have a preference, as I simply never know what I’m going to find. Honestly, it’s the same thrill I used to get hunting for toys in brick-and-mortar stores; it’s just harder to be disappointed when you’re not looking for anything specific!

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Hail to the King, baby! The flea is the place you find things you never knew you needed! Sure, there are toys, but there are also rock star portraits, traffic lights, and movie props. In fact, the toothless old woman who ran one booth assured me this was in fact the actual crow Johnny Depp wore:

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Seems legit to me. Guess I should have bought it, huh? Anyway, she loved the new movie and told me all about it while surreptitiously trying to steal my bag! Y’see, I was carrying a Captain America clicker gun from the mid-1970s in a larger box and the bag accidentally dropped out onto the ground. Without missing a beat she picked it up and put it under her table! What kind of behavior is that for a Lone Ranger fan? If I were Captain America, I would have shot her.

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I’ve sold at my fair share of flea markets as well. I like it — sitting outside and selling toys is a nice way to spend a morning. You get to meet some interesting people, have a few laughs and hopefully walk out of there with money for lunch. That is, if you don’t spend it all on awesome stuff like Billy Carter’s Redneck Power Pickup!

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Ah, the good ol’ days. Surely President Obama has a redneck brother someone can dig up — he’d be the tonic to our troubled nation’s ills. Do I smell a new reality TV show? Nope, sorry, that’s just Billy. Will you hang one of those tree-shaped air fresheners around his neck, please? I’m pretty sure I saw someone selling them three rows over…

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As you can see, the flea market is more than just a place to buy stuff —  it’s a window into the weird and wonderful past current pop culture came from. Though unnoticed by the passing world, in these hot, dusty aisles we still like Ike, still laugh at Mister Magoo, and thrill to the Universal Monsters. All you need to join in is a couple bucks and the patience to dig for treasure worth finding. I’ll see you there.

Jason R Mink is the Man in the Ant Hill! – 08/25/13