The Wichita Eagle
July 23, 2015
Transitory by nature, most flea markets pop up in parking lots and church basements and then disappear just as quickly.
Then there’s the Village Flea Market, which has been operating every weekend since 1975 at the corner of Pawnee and Meridian in south Wichita. The market – Kansas’ largest with 100,000 square feet under the roof – will celebrate its 40th anniversary Friday through Sunday.
“The most common thing I hear is ‘Oh, my gosh, I haven’t been here forever,’ ” general manager Jael Van Boening said. “We’ve been here so long that people forget we’re here.”
Well, not everybody, as can be seen during the peak hours of about 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The booths and spaces among the 100 or so vendors fill up with people looking for bargains, looking for the unusual or just looking for something to do.
“It’s always been an affordable place to go to find a little of everything,” Van Boening said. “It’s just a matter of looking. There’s a lady who does, like, three bras for $10.” There’s a category of goods for practically every letter in the alphabet, from action figures, baby items and candles to toys, vapor cigarettes and Western wear. Not to mention books, cellphones, computers (and computer repair), cookware, flowers, furniture, rugs, sunglasses, wigs and more clothing than the wing of a mall. Some is new; much is used.
Village Flea Market is in the old G.E.M. store, a sort of Sam’s Club for government employees. It’s owned by Builders Inc., the real estate development company owned by the Garvey family.
“The story that I know is that when the G.E.M. store closed down, Dale Cooper and a few others convinced the Garveys to let them use it as a flea market,” Van Boening said, explaining that Cooper was the market’s manager from its beginning to the late 1990s.
It went by Traders Village until a Texas operation by the same name objected, when it took its current moniker.
The market rents space to vendors ranging from $35 a week for an 8-by-10-foot space to $75 for a 10-by-15-foot spot. About 85 vendors are long-term occupants; the rest vary from week to week.
Van Boening said finding new vendors, which she does through social media and word of mouth, is one of the most important parts of her job.
“It keeps people coming back to see what’s new this week,” she said.
A comic book store, a custom leather goods maker and The Man Cave – which sells everything from fishing poles to mounted animal heads – are popular vendors.
Vendors come Wednesdays and Thursdays to set up or restock their booths.
“People are pretty much about keeping their booths neat,” Van Boening said. “Some folks use repurposed furniture, some have actual display cases. It sort of depends on what they can afford.”
Van Boening said many of the vendors are people who want to run their own business but “don’t have time to quit their full-time jobs.”
One new vendor is Toni Burks.
“I grew up in Wichita, the south side, and had been there quite a few times,” Burks said. “I was wondering if they’d let me braid hair out there. I called Jael, and she said, ‘I think that’s a great idea.’ ”
Burks’ hair-braiding station is called Neataylycana, a combination of her five daughters’ names. She’s been doing “eight or nine heads” a day at the market.
The income from that made it possible for Burks and her husband, Lee, to take over the market’s snack bar as well. Called Sumthing Different, it offers a mix of Southern food and cuisine from Lee’s native Australia, including a dish that Burks describes as a kind of curry egg roll, and a burger topped with a hot link, Pepper Jack cheese and more.
“We did almost $400 this weekend with the food part,” Burks said.
Van Boening said vendors will be offering discounts this weekend to mark the 40th anniversary. From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, there will be a scavenger hunt around the building for photographs from the 1975 grand opening.
Van Boening, who took over as manager about a year ago, also grew up going to the flea market. “It was a kind of dream job,” she said. With one drawback, she admits.
“Probably about half my paycheck goes back to the flea market.”