With jobs disappearing out of workplaces faster than a Guinness on St. Patrick's Day, some people are fleeing the economic doldrums and heading to the flea markets.
Celebrating its 30th season, the flea market at Tour-Ed Mine in Tarentum broke records last month.
"We had 224 vendors and over 1,300 vehicles enter the grounds, the biggest market yet," said Dolly Mistrik.
She is a board president of the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society, which operates the all volunteer-run Flea-Tique. Last month she volunteered at the gate collecting a $3 entrance fee per car. The money supports the historical society and Tour-Ed Mine (an underground coal mining museum).
"When people complain about the entrance fee, I tell them, 'You are supporting two museums.' "
Allegheny-Kiski Historical Society Flea-Tique is the official name of the market, which is open officially on the third Sunday of every month (some vendors are selling there on Saturday) from May through October. But most people just call it the Tour-Ed Mine flea market because the society uses the mine's land.
From grenades to grannies' castaways, this flea market offers an abundance of booty for browsers and buyers. Working from the conceit that one man's clutter is another's cache, the board members of the historical society have turned treasure hunting into funding for the heritage museum in Tarentum.
"It is our main source of income, and without the Flea-Tique we would probably have to close the museum," she noted.
Vendors come from all over the area and out of state.
"We have one couple from Florida who plan their vacation around our schedule," said Ms. Mistrik.
"I have been retired for the past five years and for me, flea marketing is basically a pastime and hobby," explained vendor Stephen Razdik, a former art teacher and advertising executive from Pittsburgh.
He sells vintage Hawaiian shirts among other things. He also collects and enjoys mid-century modern items.
"With luck, I find them at flea markets. They just make me feel good," he said.
Shopping between vendors is very common, especially as they are setting up. Mr. Razdik said he started selling as a way to clean out his garage.
Joni Zivic and her fireman husband, David, got into flea markets the same way.
"I like old things, and I would be buying at the markets. It got out of hand, and I started selling 15 years ago," she confessed with a laugh. "I think all dealers are really collectors," she added. She and her husband sell vintage dolls, rag dolls, toys and some comics as well as interesting odds and ends.
A baby boomer, Mr. Razdik grew up with the things he now collects and sells. Blond Heywood-Wakefield furniture, tall stretch Viking glass vases, rotary phones, shag area rugs, acrylic grapes and lamps his parents had in the '50s were all part of his stash at one time -- all very "Mad Men" and very collectible. He does not think people shop thrift stores and flea markets because the economy has hurt their buying power.
"I don't think the economy has much to do with flea markets, since most people come out with a set amount of cash and when it's gone, they are done," he observed. "But everyone likes a bargain and to be able to say, 'I found this and paid only this much!' There have always been flea markets, and part of the fun is haggling for a better price."
The vendors are charged $25 for space, and many begin setting up the day before. Others are up at the crack of dawn preparing their booths.
The flea market at Tour-Ed went international last month.
"We had a fellow from England who said he had heard so much about it from letters from friends that he had to see it when he came over," laughed Ms. Mistrik. "Our vendors seem to be happy. People are coming out."
"Flea markets are different. It is a social event, entertainment," said Mr. Razdik. "There is no sitting in front of your laptop scrolling the eBay website."
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com or 412-263-2613.