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One Man's Junk

For the vendors at Richmond's biggest flea market, the search is as good as the find.


Maroon Buddhas. Matchbox cars. A pickup truck full of Pepcid. Playboys from 1987. A Furby, asleep or clinically dead. Thousands of nails in a bin labled "Box + contents $10." Deepak Chopra books. A T-shirt that skipped the proofreader: "Jesus is the key to eternal lief." Fishing poles and dollar wrenches. Masks of Reagan and Clinton, side by side. Knockoff perfumes and bobble-head animals.

A pistol-cleaning kit and naked Barbies. Locked locks and lonely keys.

A good find means something different to everyone.

This is the bedrock principle of the Bellwood Flea Market, Virginia's largest outdoor bazaar, now in its 32nd year.

It is a city that springs up every weekend from a paint-marked plot in South Side Richmond, at Jefferson Davis Highway and Willis Road. And it is everything.

Somewhere here, you'll find someone who's looking for just what you have. And on someone's junk-crammed table, you'll find what you've coveted for years. The trick is in the trading. Nowhere else in Virginia are there more masters of the art of the deal.

It's a Saturday in late November, 6 a.m. The horizon is turning gold, chasing away a haloed moon. Orion the hunter hangs low, half hidden by pines.

In the dark it's hard to see the entrance to Bellwood, which is marked with thin railings, bent from crashes, and orange flags. The biting cold doesn't discourage the vendors, who are already setting up their tables.

"You get here early, you get a place to park, see? Early birds. We ain't got good sense, so we get here early." This comes from Big Al, a tall, grizzled man bundled in a camouflage hat and jacket. He stands with a handful of vendors in the market's cinderblock concession stand, waiting for warmth and breakfast. A dollar will buy you a scrambled egg flopped on a hamburger bun. A Styrofoam cup of foamy hot chocolate costs 75 cents.

"What time'd you get here?" a man asks him.

"Just a few minutes ago," says Big Al.

"That ain't early," the first scoffs good-naturedly.

Early enough. Big Al has secured a spot near the stand, on a well-traveled edge of Bellwood's paved lot, to park his white truck ("It's a diesel truck. 6.9 diesel.") and set up his knives, flags and toys. His assistant is Rick, a man with dark brown hair and a gentle smile who daydreams of deep-sea fishing. "I sell knives," Big Al announces. "Good knives. Cheap prices."

He has a few tricks for acquiring extra items to sell. "You know, you can find some really good stuff in a landfill." Once, he "found this TV sitting there. Zenith console. 25 inches." He brought it to his shop, plugged it in and got clear sound but no picture. The set sat for a year, until the day he turned it over, saw the "reset" button and pushed it. "Zinnngg! Watched that TV for seven years."

Another moneymaker is to go to the slaughterhouse and get some steer heads, he says. Then, you bury them in the backyard for a few months, he says, and dig them up clean to sell. "You're always looking for new ideas," he explains.

On the table lies Big Al's green vendor's permit, which all sellers must display in their windshields to show they've paid the $14 entrance fee.

"If I don't have a ticket, Belinda's going to jump me," Big Al says, grinning at Belinda Riddle, who makes sure every vendor is authorized. "We love her."

"I'm their worst enemy," Riddle corrects. It's 6:30 a.m. Time to begin her morning rounds. The sky is turning gold and blue.

"I weighed 89 pounds when I came here," Riddle says. "I was young." Bundled in a black sweater and leather jacket, Riddle is perpetually, cheerfully talkative despite the cold. About 200 sellers come on an average day, Riddle says. Sometimes you'll see 400. She has to keep track of every car.

She passes dozens of vendors, waving and wishing them all a good morning.

"Haven't bought a thing today," Riddle says to a vendor in a Jeep camouflage cap as she passes. "Can you believe that? It's such a disgrace."

It is 7 a.m. "There's nothin' to buy yet," the Jeep man observes.

You'd think that Riddle, who has worked the market since it opened, would be immune to the lure of a deal. But, she says, "I have a reputation for being a fool who'll buy anything."

She pulls back her sleeve to display what she bought from Big Al last week: a watch with four Mickey Mice rotating around the center to mark the seconds. It plays the Mouseketeers' famous anthem while a red light flashes in time. In a store, you'd pay $60 for it, Big Al says. "I sell 'em for $10 and I make money."

In turn, Riddle boasts, "Where most people pay $20 for it, I pay two." She has seven Christmas trees at home, she says, each one of them standing in a mountain of gifts. Yet Riddle shudders at malls. "I don't go to the real store if I can help it," she says.

Wending her way through the maze of steel canopy frames and tables, Riddle pauses by a man with two small trampolines balanced on his Ford truck. "I want $20, but I'll let you have both for $25," he says, sensing the possibility of early trading. "What am I going to do with two?" Riddle asks him.

A few minutes later, she makes her first buy of the day. Pruning shears, new in package, $4. It's around 7:15. The tops of the pines are colored yellow and red.

You could say there are two types of Bellwood vendors: those who deal in old things and those who sell new, like Big Al with his illustrated knives. But there are also the fruit and vegetable vendors, and the artisans, the keen-eyed veterans and the first-timers with attics-worth of junk.

Some travel all year, connecting the dots of flea markets across the country, like Massachusetts natives Duke Dewitte and John Ramsey. The pair is on a "circuit run," Dewitte explains, hitting big flea markets and bazaars from New England to Florida.

Many other vendors live nearby and return to Bellwood every weekend. Regulars recognize each other, but real names are elusive.

"They call me Peanut Man," says William Moore, standing in sunglasses and a green apron behind his table. "I sell mostly nuts. And honey. Local honey. And a little bit of junk." Many vendors have nicknames, carnival-style, he says, like "Tool Man," waving toward another vendor. "Picture Man — that's the guy with tattoos. Cigarette Man."

Technically, Moore is Peanut Man Jr. He took over the nut stand from Walter Norman, a co-worker at Honeywell who started selling nuts at Bellwood two decades ago and is still a well-known figure: "We could be 20 miles away from here, and people will see him and say, 'Peanut Man!'"

The older vendors who've come out to Bellwood for years are tough as a $10 crate of nails. They endure beating summer sun and the biting November chill. But they refuse to leave.

Stani Stantos, 77, wears a fur hat to keep warm, 'coon tail cut off to accommodate her own long white hair, while she unpacks her blue Oldsmobile. A native of Czechoslovakia, Stantos sells clothes, shoes and baskets of silk flowers displayed on the roof and hood of her car. Stantos uses the money she raises at Bellwood to buy gently used plush animals, which she washes and gives as bingo prizes to the residents of John Randolph Nursing Home. ("She makes a mean lemon cake, too," Riddle interjects.) They call her the "Teddy Bear Lady."

A new yellow and black "Army of One" sticker is slapped on the bumper — her grandson joined the Army Tuesday. Stantos says she's glad: "He watch TV all night long. And all day long sleep. And the mess he leave me in the bedroom!"

Stantos has been coming to Bellwood for 11 years. "Some people tell me, go get you boyfriend," she says. She winces and says "Nawwww." She likes her life just the way it is.

Evelyn Barbour is another veteran Bellwood vendor who gave up selling a few years back. "When my husband passed away I got rid of the van," she says. "I knew if I kept the van, I'd keep it loaded all the time." She's out here today, though, a purple-and-blue plaid scarf covering her white hair. Her skin seems almost translucent, traced with a net of fine lines. Her eyes shine clear blue.

Barbour is helping run the stand of a colleague — a woman with a long furry coat and many-ringed ears who has a bit of a "shortcut" disposition, Barbour confides. Insult her wares and she'll slam them on the table.

The woman brings over a naked pinkish baby doll, a bit smudged, and Barbour cradles it with care. "How much is he? I guess it's a he," she says. Its bland face offers no clues. "I dress 'em," she explains. In one day, with a ball of yarn and her knitting needles, she can clothe this plastic orphan so it looks like the one for sale at her feet: swathed in a finely made, ruffled blue-and-white dress. This is her hobby. "I'm a person that cannot sit idle," Barbour declares.

An Asian man nearby sells colored prints of a variety of Christian themes: Jesus with sheep, Madonna with child, the holy family, all in fancy burgundy plastic frames. Two dollars, says the seller. With weather-beaten hands he pops two "SUPERDEER" batteries (also for sale, $1 a pack) into a frame. Tiny red lights appear in an outline of Jesus as shepherd. Instead of gently twinkling, though, they flash on and off as insistently as a warning beacon — first those in the top half of the picture, then those in the bottom. Halo! Robes! Halo! Robes!

The religious pictures share a table with a dozen cages of tiny, feathered birds. One by one, as the vendor inserts batteries in the bottom, they emit a relentless cacophony of chirps via "China Technology," as the packages advertise.

At a neighboring stand, a chalkboard advertises psychic readings in pink letters. Lou Thomas has possessed psychic abilities "all my life," she says, and studied it for 37 years. "Couldn't make a living at it. But it's a sideline," she says. "They spend their few dollars, and I give them prescient answers." But the offer tempts best in warm weather, she says, when people are willing to sit down for a while. "On a day like this, you really got to have a problem."

The electronic caged birds are tweeting nonstop. "Soon, instead of being a psychic I'll be a psycho," Thomas says dryly.

At 8 a.m., Christmas begins in the concession stand. Riddle is here warming her hands. "I bought the trampoline for $10," she says with a grin. And she tried it out: "It was right much fun. … I did it in my office where no one would laugh."

Her daughter, Lulu, just acquired two white button-down shirts for $4. Three dollars each was the asking rate, Riddle says, "but she didn't buy it for that outlandish price."

Bargain hunting runs in their blood. A week ago, "my daughter was so sick she can't even shop good," Riddle says — a serious affliction. When Lulu got married, Riddle told the husband-to-be, "Don't let her find out about Penneys and Sears. Because the flea market's all she knows."

Julie Campbell, the flea market's manager, looks over the cardboard boxes of purple, gold and silver ornaments stacked haphazardly in the small flea market office. One rests atop Riddle's new trampoline.

Campbell's father, Alvin Kline, founded Bellwood in 1970. "When they started the flea market, way back when, there weren't any flea markets around here." Yard sales and antique shows, sure, but nowhere near Richmond was there a large, outdoor assembly of sellers, she says. After a trip to Florida, Mecca of flea markets, Campbell's father decided to set up one at Bellwood.

"You might have had five people show," she recalls of the early days. Now 400 to 500 sellers may appear on a balmy Sunday. It's a popular place, she says, because "We're established, for one. People are friendly, for another." (They are. After a customer buys six blue tumblers for $8 from one seller, he wraps them carefully and says with utmost sincerity, "I hope y'all drink real nice out of these glasses.")

"People know that we're a clean family market. Don't have any problems here." In the early days, some vendors say, you could buy guns and drug paraphernalia right up at the back fence. But now, such things are forbidden. No prepared foods, no livestock, no snakes, no fireworks, no alcohol. Aside from that, anything goes.

Huston Sieburth leans back against a van on a warm Sunday afternoon, presiding over an array of artifacts more curious than most. An 8-inch obelisk of fossil-embedded stone. Confederate 60-cent notes issued in Richmond. A large scallop Sieburth identified as Chesapecten Jeffersonius, Virginia's state fossil. A stereograph image of a black family in the 1890s titled "The Parson's Visit." A chipped whale's tooth unearthed on the bank of the James.

"That's what I really specialize in. The odd," says Sieburth, a wiry man with long dark hair, a turquoise belt buckle and an armadillo medal on his straw hat. All the experienced sellers at Bellwood Flea Market specialize, he says: in vintage jewelry, Native American artifacts, early books.

No matter one's interest, veteran sellers keep an eye out all the time for a profitable deal, Sieburth says. Knowledge is power. "The smart ones out here, we know certain things," says Sieburth: history, fossil names, china patterns, watermarks, legends, battle lore. But, he warns, don't let anyone know you know. "Just run around and act stupid."

Sieburth has dozens of tales of flea market triumph. A rare mystery novel: paid a dollar, got $110 the next day. A stuffed beaver: paid $3, then "I was carrying it to my car and I sold it for $50." An 1812 blanket chest: paid $17.50, sold for $175.

Once he spotted a bundle of Civil War fuses, a coveted item, on sale for $10. Sieburth, knowing they'd be worth $30 to $40 apiece, ran to buy them, but another dealer snatched them from under his hand. "He thinks I would've done the same thing to him," Sieburth says. "That's debatable."

In Bellwood's 32 years, there have been disputes over deals gone wrong, or Confederate flags displayed, or radios played too loud. But Bellwood is, by and large, a peaceable kingdom, despite the presence of the state's fiercest bargain hunters.

Sieburth's latest acquisition is a clear glass paperweight, a sphere the size of a pool ball with a glass trail spiraling in the center. The bottom is scratched and bears no lettering. Sieburth spotted it on a fellow vendor's table and bought it for $3, after trying to talk him down to $2. "I'm terrible like that."

He'd guessed it was American-made during the Civil War era, but some research revealed that it was English and more valuable than he'd thought: at least $100, maybe more.

"I was wrong as to what it was," Sieburth says. "But I was right that it was good." S

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