Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Deluge a blessing in disguise

Downpour prompted Thirsty's Flea Market to make changes

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Thirsty's Flea Market at 1111 Ellice Ave. has eclectic vintage goods, including various vintage tin cans.

It's only fitting we kick off a piece about a place named Thirsty's with a story involving water. Lots and lots of water.

On May 29, 2010, Winnipeg was hit with what weather gurus described as a "one-in-50-year-rain." Over the course of a few hours, two separate thunderstorms swept through the city, dumping more than 110 millimetres of precipitation on certain parts of town.

One of the biggest casualties of the freak downpour was Thirsty's Flea Market, a bargain-hunter's emporium on the lower level of a former tire garage at 1111 Ellice Ave.

"See that ramp over there?" Thirsty's owner Richard Copet says, pointing to a wooden incline that serves as the market's primary entrance. "That day, the rain was running down the ramp so fast it looked like a river. And it all ended up down here."

By the time the skies cleared, the market's entire floor was covered by a layer of water 25 millimetres deep -- a turn of events Copet refers to as "the best thing that ever happened to the place."

Pardon?

"We were closed for three months, and it forced me to switch things up," he explains. "I improved the sightlines and got rid of some of the vendors that hadn't been doing so hot. It really turned out to be a blessing in disguise."

A few months ago, Thirsty's became the first flea market in town to open five days a week -- Wednesday to Sunday -- instead of the customary weekends and holidays. In light of the market's new schedule, we decided to spend some time at Thirsty's and meet a few of the people who make it tick.

 

-- -- --

 

Thirsty's Flea Market borrows its handle from owner Richard "Thirsty" Copet.

Copet began collecting soda-pop memorabilia in the 1980s. In a bid to turn his hobby into a career, he opened a second-hand store called Thirsty for Collectibles on Sherbrook Street in 1998.

'That day, the rain

was running down

the ramp so fast

it looked like

a river.

And it all ended up

down here'

From the get-go, patrons there referred to the man behind the cash register as Thirsty. The tag stuck. So when Copet decided to expand in 2001 and establish a flea market a few kilometres west of his original location, he didn't have to think twice about what to call it.

At any one time, Thirsty's has close to 40 different vendors on-site. Those sellers, who range in age from 30 to 80, can rent booths or tables by the day, week or month.

"My wife and I travel to flea markets in Canada and the States all the time, and most of the ones we've seen have a lot of junk," Copet says. "Here, however, we've always been more geared toward antiques and collectibles. If somebody rents a table from me and shows up with a bunch of crap, I tell him he's probably going to be wasting his time. I don't want him to give me $20 for the day and not sell a thing."

Prices on the day we visited ranged from $1 for VHS copies of Rocky and Jaws to $1,600 for a bottle cap-shaped Coke sign that measured almost two metres across. Not that any of those prices were set in stone.

"Haggling is expected -- and definitely takes place," Copet says. "This is Winnipeg, after all, so even if something is only a couple of bucks, people will try to get it for half of that."

Copet doesn't man a booth of his own anymore. The only things he sells nowadays are hotdogs, burgers and fries at his retro-looking lunch counter.

"I built the whole thing myself, after the flood," he says, offering a visitor a seat on one of eight reupholstered stools. "I was a carpenter before I was a collector, so it was nice to be able to use those skills again."

 

-- -- --

 

Ed Boyechko used to be a familiar face at the Mandalay Flea Market on Mandalay Drive. After that venue closed four years ago, he was left with two choices: pack up his hockey cards and die-cast cars and head home or find another location. He went with option No. 2.

"I approached Richard, he told me he had lots of room, and I've been here ever since. In fact, a lot of the other vendors from Mandalay ended up following me here," Boyechko says.

Boyechko still sells a few hockey cards, but his bread and butter these days are die-cast cars -- some Hot Wheels, but mainly larger-sized replicas produced on a 1:18 scale.

"I still have a few (cars) at home, but my wife doesn't like them displayed all over the house. I can't really blame her, so I bring the ones I don't have room for over here."

Although business during the summer months tails off somewhat, Boyechko wouldn't dream of giving up his location, kitty corner to the lunch counter, to save a few bucks on rent.

"As soon as the garage-sale season is over, people are back here in droves," he says. "And it's not like Richard can afford to save people's spots; if you decide not to show up for a couple of months, it's almost a guarantee you won't get your place back."

 

-- -- --

 

Bill Marce is a relative newcomer at Thirsty's. He began renting a booth there in April after deciding his collecting days were over.

"I was a pretty avid collector of rare coins and old tin signs for a few years, but it kind of got to a point where I began to ask myself, 'Why am I keeping all this stuff?' It was kind of edging on hoarding," he says.

The switch from buyer to seller was a lot easier than Marce expected.

"I sold my coins off first, and that felt good," he says. "Then I started selling a few signs and that felt really, really good. After that, the floodgates just opened."

Marce says he recently told his sister how rewarding the last few months have been -- how pleased he's been with people who come to Thirsty's to admire his "old treasures."

"It might sound weird, but selling one of my favourite signs to somebody who really appreciates it has become more gratifying than collecting ever was."

 

-- -- --

 

John McGowan and Gio Perrelli opened Vinyl Villains in September 2012. The business, which specializes in hard-to-find LPs from the 1970s and '80s, was 35 years in the making.

"Gio and I met in high school," McGowan says, reaching over to turn his stereo down a notch. "I was walking down the hall with a Traffic album under my arm and Gio stopped me and asked, 'What's that?' "

Before long, the two were catching the bus together every Saturday to head downtown and shop at their favourite store, the Stereo Swap Shop.

McGowan and Perrelli stayed in touch through the years. When McGowan floated the idea of selling records at Thirsty's two summers ago, Perrelli said he wanted in, too.

"We have a variety of different styles, but our main sellers are punk and metal," McGowan says, noting the rarest LP he currently has for sale is a Canadian pressing of Jimi Hendrix's Get That Feeling ($50).

"And if you ask me what my demographic is, I'd say 13 to 24 years old. Every weekend we get tons of teenagers coming in asking for the usual suspects -- the Beatles, the Stones and (Black) Sabbath."

McGowan and Perrelli hope to open their own store one day. For the time being, Thirsty's offers the guys a chance to establish a clientele without worrying about falling behind on mortgage payments.

"A lot of small businesses fail because they take that big leap too soon," McGowan says. "We didn't have the capital to justify a move like that right off the bat, so the idea of setting up at a flea market seemed perfect.

"Heck, there are days when I sit back and say, 'You know, I could retire in a place like this.' "

Thirsty's Flea Market is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 10, 2014 A1

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