It’s a few minutes past 10 a.m. at the Mulvey Flea Market, a 12,400-square-foot facility that occupies the ground floor of the three-storey red-and-grey-brick building at 421 Mulvey Ave. that began life over a century ago as a soda and mineral water factory.
Speaking loud enough to be heard over a PA announcement advertising the on-site canteen’s Sunday morning special — $1 for an extra-large cup of joe "but only till 11!" — a woman asks Terri Settle, operator of a catch-all booth called Terri’s Trinkets, if she has any Ken dolls for sale. Every November and December she crafts Barbie dioramas for charity, she explains, and "desperately" needs Barbie’s long-time, plastic paramour to double as Santa Claus in a Christmas display she’s in the process of building for the Winnipeg Humane Society. (Last time we checked, Ken’s six-pack didn’t exactly look like it would shake like a bowl full of jelly, but hey, what do we know?)
Turns out she’s come to the right place. After scratching her head for a few seconds, Settle instructs the woman to accompany her to one end of her tightly-packed area, where she successfully retrieves a Ken figurine from a shelf largely populated by Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.
"Thank you, sweetie pie," the customer says, handing over a crisp $10 bill, not bothering to haggle over the 40-year-old plaything’s asking price. "If my husband wasn’t waiting in the car I’d happily look through the rest of your stuff, but I promise when I get the diorama built, I’ll send you a picture of the finished product."
Obviously, retail meccas such as Polo Park, St. Vital Shopping Centre and Outlet Collection Winnipeg will be prime destinations for gift givers this holiday season. But if you’ve made your list and checked it twice, and it still includes such singular wants as a corn cob pen, Caddyshack movie poster or intact version of the popular 1970s board game Battleship, the Mulvey Flea Market is probably your best bet.
"Just last week, somebody bought a rude-talking, burping Santa from me to share with the other seniors in her apartment building," Settle says, flanked by brightly-coloured buckets of toys individually labelled "My Little Pony," "Teletubbies" and "Lord of the Rings." "Another person dropped by to buy a bunch of dinky cars and dolls, which she intends to hand out to children when she and her husband go to Cuba in a couple weeks. So yes, we definitely get our fair share of Christmas shoppers, just like everywhere else."
Dave Dixon is the market’s owner. Seated in the Double M Café, where a few shoppers are cashing in on the aforementioned coffee deal, he explains why he decided to open a flea market, one of two left in Winnipeg (Thirsty’s Flea Market is at 1111 Ellice Ave.), 17 years ago.
"I was a flea market vendor myself for years, I started at one on Mandalay (Drive) where I sold a lot of clear-out stuff — cookies, candies, that sort of thing — until one day I decided to get a place of my own instead," he says, pausing to say good morning to "Wally the tool man," one of the market’s 40 permanent vendors.
Dixon says the room we’re seated in wasn’t much to "write home about" when he first stepped into it in the spring of 2001; lights and loose wires were dangling from the ceiling and the walls and floor were "all dirty and grungy." But after visiting 34 other sites, he decided the former home of Pelissier’s Brewery suited his needs best. He struck a deal with the building’s proprietor to have the place cleaned up and painted in time to welcome customers by the end of August, when garage sale season draws to a close and hunters and collectors start heading back indoors to search for baubles and doodads.
The Mulvey Flea Market, which operates from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays 12 months of the year, opened Sept. 1, 2001 with 13 vendors, a number that has climbed as high as 62.
"It used to be a much older crowd in here — not just the customers, the sellers, too — but we’ve been working pretty hard the last couple years to attract a younger demographic by advertising on things like Facebook," Dixon says. "One guy at the end carries more than 1,400 different scents of incense — he probably has the largest inventory of incense in Manitoba — and gets kids as young as 12 coming in and heading straight to his booth."
"Where do you want me to start?" he says, running one hand through his silver-grey hair, when asked whether any treasures of note have passed through the market during its 17-year existence. He’s heard tell of $100 Elvis Presley albums, $200 oil cans as well as a Superman chest logo patch from the 1950s that a buyer paid $19 for only to turn around and sell it on eBay for "a few hundred bucks" days later.
"One thing we always make a point of doing is if you’re trying to find a certain something and don’t know where to start is make an announcement over the intercom, asking if anybody has it," Dixon says, mentioning he’s run into shoppers from every corner of the continent, and from as far away as Japan and Australia. "One time a guy who buys props for movie sets came in looking for gooseneck lamps from the ’60s. I told him I’d see what we could do and would you believe it, by the time he left he had close to a dozen under his arm. I told him that was 12 more than I thought he’d walk out with."
Barry Timbury, recognizable for his ever-present nautical captain’s hat, is one of the market’s longest-running vendors. Better known as Rock and Roll Barry, Timbury first set up his station, crammed with used records, cassettes, 8-track tapes and CDs, along the market’s south wall in 2003.
"I grew up in Morris and started collecting LPs when I was 11 or 12," he says, leaning back on a wooden crate marked "new arrivals." "Back then, the guys I was hanging around with were spending all their money on cigarettes and I thought records would be a better investment. Lo and behold, I was right."
Timbury started off selling his "doubles and triples," but these days, he spends two or three days every week sifting through Winnipeggers’ private collections, deciding whether he wants to add their titles to his cache or not.
"It’s interesting what still sells, and how young the people are who are buying it," he says. "My main crowd is between 14 and 24 and they’re all after the same things pretty much: the Beatles, CCR, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. And Abba; anything I bring in by Abba is guaranteed to be gone by the next day."
Timbury, whose wife Carol often lends him a hand when she isn’t assisting Dixon at the canteen, says, "There’s a good reason for that," when asked why a shop dubbed Rock and Roll Barry’s doesn’t have music cranked to 11, for shoppers to enjoy while they’re deciding between the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and the Guess Who’s Share the Land. (What’s to debate? Get ’em both!)
"If I had a turntable in here, it would be nothing but ‘Barry, would you mind playing this for me?’ all weekend long. Then, after a record’s been listened to 100 times, I wouldn’t be able to sell it."
Know how the term army brat refers to a child who has lived in multiple locales as a result of their parents’ frequent military transfers? Well, Elizabeth Faria is what’s known as a flea market brat.
"My mom Trudy, who passed away in March, was a vendor here with my uncle for almost 17 years. Before that, they had booths at different markets all over town including one on Disraeli, which was the one I was dragged along to — not tagged along to — every weekend, starting at age seven," she says with a laugh.
The first thing Faria, 37, asked her uncle after her mother died was "What are we going to do with this thing?" meaning their booth, which, at the time, was fully stocked with Star Wars and Star Trek memorabilia, tens of thousands of trading cards and a whack of ornamental snowmen ("Mom really, really liked snowmen.")
"It’s yours if you want it," her uncle replied, so after a few weeks of reorganizing, Faria reopened as Ice Dragon Collectibles, "Ice Dragon" being the nickname she picked up during her days at Grant Park High School.
"Mom’s number one priority was education — I’m an office administrator during the week and have two degrees — and by taking over her space, it will ensure my son, her only grandson, will be able to go to university, too," she says, noting what you see on her shelves isn’t necessarily what you get. Besides the goods on-hand, her mother kept a storage locker filled to the brim with precious commodities, including close to three million sports cards and some 10,000 Hot Wheels cars, which Faria and her husband Joao will use to restock their inventory.
Faria acknowledges the first Christmas without her mother will be difficult. She’s already teared up a few times breaking the news to customers who only drop by this time of year and weren’t aware her mom had died. That said, she says her fellow vendors’ strong sense of community has helped her immensely.
"It really is like one big family in here," she continues, telling a customer interested in her Easy Bake Oven, the very one she used to make muffins and grilled cheese sandwiches when she was a kid, that she’ll be with him in "two secs."
"There’s kind of an unwritten code in this business (that) if a customer is looking for something you don’t have, you lead them to somebody else who does. Or if somebody has to step away to use the washroom or grab a bite, you watch their stuff, the same way you would your neighbour’s place when they’re gone for the weekend. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life at the flea market and even though I wasn’t always happy to go when I was young, it’s definitely part of my DNA now."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.