TAMPA — Many people go to church on Sunday; Mary Schrader goes to the flea market.
It's a tradition, religious even. The dirt, the stench, the sweaty crowds — none of it bothers her. She is on a mission, and on this particular Sunday, the Gunn Highway Flea Market is her shrine.
The 70-year-old, redheaded collector scoots through wobbly shelves and overstacked tables, scouring them for one thing only as her husband, Dennis, mirrors her. Two sets of eyes dart back and forth, hands race through scattered junk, until finally, they find what they came for.
It could be round or square, short or tall. Sometimes even chipped, faded, dusty or still containing stale cookies inside. But success for Mary usually looks about the same. If she goes home with a new cookie jar to add to her collection of nearly 800, it's a good day.
The Schraders collect a lot of things, but there is just something about cookie jars that has them hooked. They have clocked countless miles, spent about $20,000 and even built their new house with some extra display space, all in the name of cookie jars.
Although the pair will go just about anywhere to pick up a jar, they say the flea market on Gunn Highway is a good local spot. Vendors know them there, and they know vendors — or at least, their sales tactics.
"Some people you can talk down," said Dennis, retired president of a local manufactured home company and now a manufactured housing expert witness for the state. "But the lady in the back almost never lowers her prices, only because they are already so low."
Married in 1965, the Schraders also have tactics. Their strategy for finding and buying cookie jars is well-practiced. They are here for serious business.
"You're going to give me the best, lowest, bald-headed-senior-citizen price you've got," Dennis says to Joanne Alberti, owner of the Bling and Things booth, after Mary pointed out a jar. "All I have is a few bucks, so I hope you can make me a deal."
Mary hangs back and watches it all unfold. And like most vendors, Alberti meets the spiel with an exaggerated eye roll and a quick chuckle. It's familiar, and she knows the drill. The Schraders are regulars.
"You're always looking for a deal," she replies, clad in a tank top and shorts to compensate for the summer heat. "What is it today?"
Dennis leads the way to the other side of the shop without a word and starts scooting a glass display case away from the wall. Crowded in the cubicle-sized setup, all three stand staring at the same thing: a tan, 8-inch- tall, house-shaped cookie jar. Something overlooked a million times, but to the Schraders it's a prize.
"Fifteen dollars," Alberti says, immediately ready for Dennis' reply. But almost mechanically, he shakes his head no. Rule No. 1, he says, is to never pay the asking price.
Mary beams, unworried, and watches with her hands neatly tucked into the pockets of her denim shorts, another rule of their strategy. Sparkly with chunky diamonds, her fingers can't give the wrong impression about how much she and her husband have to spend.
"C'mon, I'm already giving you my life savings here," Dennis says, slowly thumbing out dollar bills with no intention of going past 10, usually the maximum he will fork over for a jar.
Alberti caves. "Okay, 10," she says, stuffing the dollars into her pocket. No need to break the Schrader bank; they are sure to be back again.
For a jar to be loaded into the Mercedes G550 and go home with the Schraders, it has to meet some requirements. Mary says it should be a perfect storm of cheap, unique and quality. Whichever ones make the cut get a full deep-cleaning before joining the others scattered throughout the couple's new $825,000 home.
The Schraders — collectors of all sorts of figurines, antiques, snow globes, Disney memorabilia and key chains, and claiming the world's largest collection of autographed baseballs — moved into the house in November. Dennis says at 5,400 square feet, "it's big enough to hold all our crap."
Mary says they spent seven months and used about 350 boxes to carefully pack up their collections, which now fill three of four guest bedrooms as well as shelves, cabinets and corners throughout the house. Cookie jars don't stop at the kitchen — they greet you at the edge of the foyer, sit atop tables and frame the living room television. Most find a home on wire shelving lining the second story of the house.
"Everybody thinks we're crazy when they come here because it looks more like a museum than a home," Dennis said. "They ask us when enough will be enough, but we just enjoy all this stuff, so why would we stop?"
Mary said people ask her who in their right mind would want hundreds of cookie jars, to which she politely replies, "Well, me."
"I guess it's fair to say it's gotten to be an obsession and maybe gone overboard, but we have the room for it and we don't spend a lot on them," she said. "We're both collectors, and this is what we like to do."
Mary and Dennis both say they started collecting when they were children, but didn't find out about each other's love for the hobby until after they married. Since then, their love has grown together.
"We eventually realized that we both knew what it felt like to want things, and it grew from there," Mary said. "If each of us didn't like it so much we probably wouldn't do it. ... Luckily, we both do."
They say the cookie jar fascination began after their marriage, when Mary bought a jar to match their new dishes.
"The more I would see them the more I would buy them, and I just kept buying more and more," she said. "They just drew me to them, I don't know why, and my love for them just bloomed. Even with the extra dusting, they make me happy."
Mary says she will stop collecting eventually, when she runs out of room, but hopes that day is far off. And she is sure, no matter how many more cookie jars she buys, she won't fill any of them with cookies.
"I can't remember the last time I baked a cookie, " she said. "And besides, Dennis is a diabetic, so he can't have them anyway."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.