For inspiration, entertainment and even a bit of exercise, nothing beats a day at the flea market—especially if it's Burley Park flea market in Howard City, Michigan, with its 600 dealer spaces spread over a partially pine-shaded park.
The flea market happens five times a year: Memorial Day, July 4, the first Sunday in August, Labor Day and the first Sunday in October. All winter long, Ray and I look forward to the Memorial Day market, which is usually the biggest. Apparently, a lot of other people look forward to it all winter, too. Just look at the crowd that was lined up when we arrived soon after the gates opened at 8 a.m.
I met shoppers Brie and Chelsea as they were lugging an old wooden wheel and a weathered nail keg toward the exit. The barrel will hold strawberry plants, Chelsea said, and the wheel is "just a decorative piece," Brie added.
I didn't think to ask about the baseball bat. But then, sometimes a bat is just a bat.
Marilyn was carting off a handsome baskety-looking thing that was nearly as big as she was. "It's a tobacco basket," she told me, and she pointed in the direction of a vendor selling a large selection of them. She figured it would make a striking wall decoration for her primitive-themed home. Sure would! I've seen pictures of similar ones hung over fireplaces or chests, sometimes with additions of dried flowers, old photographs or mirrors, but just as attractive unadorned.
The wagon-load of stuff Connie was toting caught my eye. She plans to use the old tricycle as a garden decoration. The other odds and ends will find homes as accent pieces on shelves.
Andy and Christy had a wagon-load of intriguing stuff, too. I could imagine plenty of uses for the rusty metal wheels. But what was that other thing that looked like a rickety iron headboard?
"A hay grapple," Andy explained, once used for snagging hay bales and lifting them into a barn loft.
Okaaaaay . . . but what on earth could you do with such a thing if you weren't hauling hay? Andy whipped out his phone and showed me a picture of a very cool-looking wall shelf he made with a similar one. (If he emails me the photo as he said he would, I'll share it with you here.)
Some vendors spur shoppers' imaginations by suggesting new uses for the cast-offs they're peddling: croquet mallets as garden stakes, for example.
Barb and Denny even provided examples of what to do with the rusty bed springs they were selling. The springs came from an old bed in Denny's grandfather's house in Pennsylvania. The couple disposed of the straw mattress and kept the iron bedstead and old springs. For a while, Denny pulled the set of springs behind a tractor to prepare garden soil. Then Barb saw some clever uses of old bed springs on Pinterest and that was the end of their life as garden harrow. She cut out the individual coils,, made a display of springy crafts and offered the rest for sale.
Jodi went a step further, offering recycled crafts themselves for sale. I guess that made sense, given that her starting material was empty half-gallon rum bottles. Not a great demand for those, even at a flea market. With some stones, twine, buttons and Popsicle sticks, she transformed the bottles into decorative birdhouses.
"Kept me busy all winter," she said. If they didn't sell, no big deal – she'll give them as Christmas gifts.
We wandered up and down aisles for more than five hours (that's where the exercise comes in), feeling alternately inspired and overloaded by the sheer quantity of stuff to look at. There truly was something for every taste:
whimsical . . .
goofy . . .
jolly . . .
Another source of amusement is listening to (okay, eavesdropping on) conversations about things people are considering buying. Most run along the lines of "What are you going to do with that?" and you can tell by the inflection who's talking to whom.
If you hear, "What are you going to do with that?" it's likely a conversation between two strangers who are buying similar items. On the other hand, "What are you going to do with that? is usually uttered by a spouse and often followed by "and where are you going to put it?"
Shopping, imagining and eavesdropping get wearying after awhile, and to get through the whole market, a refreshment break is a must. We usually opt for the ice cream offered by Amish vendors who make it in old-fashioned churns powered by a steam engine. The clunky chug of the engine, audible from several aisles away, adds to the anticipation.
Now that we're refreshed, it's your turn to shop. Stroll on and share your creative ideas for the things you discover.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.