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Vintage cameras are some of the spoils that reward treasure hunters at Sparks and White Cloud flea markets in Kansas.
Unique and vintage finds at Sparks Antiques and Collectibles Flea Market last May include pottery, a bear head, decoy.
BY STACY DOWNS
The Kansas City Star
SPARKS, Kan.--The Sparks Antiques and Collectibles Flea Market, in a town with a population of seven, intrigued me. Each of its twice-a-year, four-day events turns this blip on the map into a hustling, bustling center of 500 dealers and more than 75,000 customers.
You can't help but appreciate those uplifting numbers in such a small place during these downtrodden times.
Kansas City-area employees from Hallmark and scrapbook supply company K & Company talked up the heaps of rusty, crusty stuff as inspirational. Interior designers, too, sang Sparks' praises, saying it's a primo source for the interesting and unexpected.
So this year the pirate in my soul decided it was time. Would Sparks mark the spot for buried treasure? I was willing to dig.
Brothers Gary and Tom Winters created the flea in Sparks--24 miles north of Atchison, Kan.--30 years ago because the town was on the route to other antiques shows during spring and Labor Day weekend.
Photographer Tammy Ljungblad and I went in May, arriving on a Thursday. Prepping for "picking"-- the act of searching shelves, boxes, rows and mountains of stuff to find gems--is crucial. Besides toting water and a large market bag or cart, one should wear comfy shoes, sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. Carry cash and hand sanitizer.
"You're gonna get dirty," says Fancy Smith, owner of Cactus Creek home decor store in Weston and a Sparks shopping veteran. Smith is co-host of the radio show "Junk in My Trunk" and was recently a contestant on the History Channel's new reality show "Picked Off."
Smith likes to take her three sons picking. They have fun. Her 9-year-old collects vintage license plates.
"Not only is it a cheap, enjoyable family activity, kids can be awesome help," Smith says. Wyatt found a cowhide purse when he was 3. His mom loved it.
"Being low to the ground has its definite benefits."
JUNK OFFERS HOPE
Right now, junk is hot. For sellers of unwanted figurines and charmingly chipped picture frames, junk offers the golden opportunity of profit. They're usually able to sell an object for at least three times more than they paid at a garage or estate sale.
Buyers might find not just bargains, but an item that makes their homes different from anyone else's. It's a chance to shine a little.
Good junk is getting harder to find. The Internet and shows like "American Pickers" on History Channel have made people savvier about just what they're sitting on.
Because of this challenge and the current state of the economy, sellers are a little less willing to negotiate unless it's a large-ticket item or you're buying lots of junk.
DON'T RAIN ON MY PARADE
It was raining that early morning in May when I got my first taste of Sparks. Much of the merchandise was protected under tarps and hidden under blankets. Still, the wet weather didn't keep away shoppers.
My friend Ljungblad knew the lay of the land. She'd made the trip with her sister, who sells antiques in Colorado. Her sister went home with a full truck.
We walked through a pole barn packed with dozens of vendors selling hurricane lamps, old paperbacks and tableware, the ubiquitous stuff of many antique malls. My treasure wasn't there.
We explored Sparks Hotel, where I picked up but put back a vintage typewriter. I already have a few of the hot hipster collectible.
The junk jackpot was across the street, an old house packed floor to ceiling with architectural remnants. Maybe my treasure was hidden among the rubble? No.
We took an early lunch break. On the menu is typical fair fare, including freshly squeezed lemonade, Italian sausages, funnel cakes. We were lured by the aroma of fruit cobblers.
SNAGGING A TREASURE
Near much of the food is a treehouse-type tower that flea market officials climb to make announcements using a PA system. The seven Sparks residents either help with the flea market or make themselves scarce.
The rain and gearing up for weekend crowds meant a busy time for main organizer Ray Tackett, who lives in Troy, Kan., close to Sparks.
"Year-round I hear from someone about the flea market every day through calls and emails," he says. "Closer to the flea market, they ask what the weather is going to be like. They ask what we're going to have for sale. I never know."
In May, outdoor vendors sold painted wooden footstools from China. New and old typography--letters and numbers from board games and store signs--filled bins and buckets; large pieces leaned against buildings.
"Mantiques" were frequently seen: antlers, a bear's head and wooden tackle boxes with chic, well-worn patina.
And along a sideline of crowded booths, I unearthed my treasure.
A Greenwood, Mo., craftsman fashions farmhouse tables out of salvaged wood. Long ones with custom features. For between $400 and $500. But it wasn't a piece I could cram into Ljungblad's SUV.
So I made the hour-and-a half-long trek home empty-handed except for the contact information for the farmhouse table craftsman. I think of it as a treasure map of hope.