There are people who wouldn't be caught dead at a flea market. Too grungy, too lowbrow — too flea-y, they think. • Then there are folks who don't consider a weekend well spent without a trip to one of these emporia of the everyman. • Fortunately for us, Tampa Bay has a wealth of flea markets that offer great bargains on everything from books to kids' clothes to microwave ovens, RV chairs and 8-by-10 rugs. • Every now and then you might land a real treasure, like those 18th-century oils or Civil War swords that turn up on Antiques Road Show. • You also should consider the flea market if you're looking to sell rather than buy. You can rent space for just a few bucks a day in a place guaranteed to attract a larger crowd than you'd ever get at a garage sale. Flea markets are also a good place to indulge your fair-food fetish — standard cuisine includes kettle corn and funnel cakes. • And at the larger fleas, which approximate regular malls in size, you can get your daily exercise and walk off some of those calories. • Here's a consumer's guide to seven Tampa Bay flea markets, visited on two recent Sundays.
The Mustang in Pinellas Park is a classic flea where vendors unload their wares on blankets, tarps, even the bare ground. Aficionados know you have to get here early to beat antiques dealers on the prowl for things to resell at a hefty markup in more upscale settings. In the summer, the Mustang also gets swelteringly hot as soon as the sun clears the treetops.
What it might lack in comfort, the Mustang makes up for in its vast array of fresh, inexpensive fruits and vegetables. In addition to the standard items, this ethnic farmer's market has such exotics as Chinese pears, Thai chiles, longan fruits and orange eggplant. I got two pots of beautiful-looking herbs — basil and mint — for $1.50 each.
• 7901 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday starting at 7 a.m. $8.50 per space, bring you own table or rent one for $2.50.
As the temperature started to climb, I wandered next door to the Mustang's enormous cousin, the Wagon Wheel Flea Market. It boasts nearly 2,500 vendors, most of them indoors, nearly all selling cut-rate new stuff like wallets, sunglasses, cellphone accessories, etc. I know people who did all of their Christmas shopping at the Wagon Wheel. When you're too pooped to go on, you can get a beer at the food court and plop down at a picnic table overlooking a pretty little lake.
• 7801 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park. Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Many food vendors, ATM, daily rental space starts at $8.50.
From there it was on to the 49er Flea Market a few miles away. This is the smallest of the bay area fleas and its vendors sell mostly used and old stuff, making it another favorite of antiques dealers. ("Find your treasure at the 49er,'' the slogan goes.)
But one big advantage the 49er has over the Mustang is that all of the outside tables ($5 to rent) are covered so you won't get sunstroke while perusing the vintage jewelry, artwork and historical memorabilia. The 49er also has a nice, homey atmosphere. Many of the vendors have been setting up here for years and are on a first-name basis with their regular customers.
• 10525 49th St. N, Clearwater. Open Saturday and Sunday, though Sunday is the big day, when people start setting up at dawn. Free parking, small cafe, no ATM but the office will cash local checks.
My final stop that Sunday was the Oldsmar Flea Market. With its mix of old and new, this is one of the best all-around markets in the area. I've found some great deals on furniture (including an English Art Deco lighted bar) but it's a good place, too, for bargain-priced toiletries, cosmetics and produce.
You also can drop a lot of money here — vendors sell such relatively high-tickets items as kayaks, Tiki huts and custom-made fold-out wall beds.
• 180 Race Track Road N, Oldsmar. Plant nursery and golf shop open Tuesday through Sunday and some vendors set up on Friday because of free rent. Main days are Saturday and Sunday from about 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with two-day table rentals at $15. Food court, ATM.
Early the next Sunday, my first stop was the Gunn Highway Flea Market just off of State Road 54 near the Hillsborough-Pasco county line.
That was a mistake: There were only a few vendors outside and almost no booths open inside. ("People don't come until after church,'' a woman explained).
I spotted a lovely brass lamp base in a big booth crammed to the rafters with thousands of lamps and shades but, alas, no one answered when I repeatedly bellowed, "Is anyone here?"
But I suspect this would be a good place to look for used furniture and other items a bit later in the morning.
• 2317 Gunn Highway, Odessa. Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Outside space is $6, tables available for $2. Cafe, no ATM.
Then it was westward ho to the USA Flea Market in Port Richey near the corner of U.S. 19 and State Road 52. This is another mall-like behemoth where you can wander for hours among the usual displays of T-shirts, diabetic socks, DVDs and tie-dyed dresses. Somewhat furtively, one vendor offered me what he claimed was a Louis Vuitton satchel for $47. (The real thing costs more than 10 times that much).
But there was a good selection of produce and a nice specialty coffee bar.
Not much used and vintage stuff at the USA except for the monthly swap meets where vendors can set up outside for $5. Next swap is March 10-11.
• 11721 U.S. 19, Port Richey. Many food vendors, ATM. For the kids, $5 pony rides. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, vendors set up at 8 a.m., regular hours 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Final stop: the Big Top Flea Market on Fowler Avenue just east of Interstate 75. I hadn't been to the Big Top in years, and was pleasantly surprised. Despite its enormous size, it's fairly easy to navigate because all of the satellite buildings radiate from a high-ceilinged, main building with a food court (the "Big Top''), a la the design of Tampa International Airport.
The Big Top has everything new you'd expect, along with a few curious services. (How many people, I wondered, visit the "skin tag removal'' booth?) Used and vintage items are mostly confined to Building P, the so-called Yard Sale building, where I snagged my best find in two weekends of flea-marketing — a rare sapphire blue Fostoria pitcher and 20 matching pieces — for $72. That's less than $4 each for lovely vintage glassware that would sell for much more in an antique mall or on eBay.
• 9250 E Fowler Ave. Tampa. Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Food court, ATM. $5 pony rides.
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org