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Flea market mainstay Sonny Harris told tales, some of them true

OLDSMAR — His merchandise could be considered eclectic, even for a flea market.

Manly "Sonny" Harris, a frail man with a weathered face, sold circus memorabilia he had collected over several decades as an animal trainer and carny. He stockpiled old clowns, wistful or sad. Old wooden mannequins that look like Herman Melville characters. Wooden carousel horses, each one unique. Chimpanzees playing the piano.

He displayed pocket watches, gilded mirrors and a 5,000-piece model of a circus. Much of it wasn't for sale.

Although the Oldsmar Flea Market opens to the public only on weekends, Mr. Harris was always there.

He lived there, in a trailer behind his flea market space.

Customers wandered by to peruse the dusty books and photos, and a circus calliope, but also to chat with Mr. Harris and sample his homespun wisdom.

Until a few years ago, Mr. Harris rose at 4 a.m. and unlocked scores of gates that secure the flea market. In return, flea market manager Babe Wright didn't charge him rent. It was the same agreement they struck 30 years ago.

Mr. Harris also looked after some Dobermans that Wright had brought in to guard the property. "Of course, he made pets out of them so I couldn't have them as guard dogs anymore," Wright said.

He needed four or five flea market spaces for his inventory. He sold some things, merely displayed others, and held court.

"I've never worked a day in my life," Mr. Harris told a reporter in 2009. "You've got to find something you like. And if you do, you're happy. You can't wait to get up in the morning."

Here is what Mr. Harris' friends and family say he did with his life — accounts that sometimes diverge with the versions he has told over the years.

"He could tell you a lot of tales," Wright said. "Some of them he embellished, and some of them were true."

According to his family, Mr. Harris was born in Union, S.C., in 1924 — not in France, as he sometimes claimed.

His mother was a homemaker married to a grocer, not a bareback circus equestrian.

"That was Sonny for you," said niece Linda Elkin, his only surviving relative. "He'd tell you all kinds of stories. But the truth is, his parents were never in the circus."

But Mr. Harris spent at least 30 years in circuses.

He left home before adulthood and joined a circus, Elkin said. He later served with the Army, participating in the U.S. rebuilding of Japan after World War II.

Over the next three decades, he traveled with circuses, where he trained several kinds of animals. He decorated his trailer with relics from those days, including a bull hook to handle elephants and a pulley to hoist large tents.

He later sold popcorn, cotton candy and souvenirs.

Mr. Harris never married, owned a home or established roots in any one place.

In 1981 he stopped his red pickup truck at the Oldsmar Flea Market, thinking its tent housed a circus. Beside him sat a mutt, Killer, that he had rescued from a West Virginia dump.

He introduced himself to Wright, who put him on the payroll and let him live there. He lived out of his pickup for a while, then a small trailer.

The flea market later upgraded him to an air-conditioned 33-footer.

Killer died after several years. Mr. Harris buried the dog along the banks of a retention pond.

He relaxed by building band organs, the kind that play on merry-go-rounds, and sipping Jim Beam. In a 2001 interview, Mr. Harris said he had everything he needed at the flea market and rarely left.

"You could hardly pry him away," Wright said. Mr. Harris "retired" from his flea market duties five years ago but continued to live in his trailer, nearly every foot of which he had decorated with antique bric-a-brac.

Congestive heart failure sapped his strength in recent years. Two years ago, he decided to sell his beloved merchandise, including turn-of-the-century items he could not bear to part with.

Then he changed his mind and kept most it.

He died Friday at Hospice House Brookside. He was 87.

"I don't want to live 100 years," Mr. Harris said in 2009. "You fall apart. It's better to just take time as it comes. And when the old boy upstairs says, 'I want you,' go."

According to his wishes, there will be no funeral. Wright said she will probably sell his memorabilia, donating the proceeds to animal shelters, as he requested.

Friends from the flea market will scatter his ashes in the retention pond where the gators come and go, near the place he once buried his dog.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com. Douglas R. Clifford can be reached at (727) 445-4177 or dclifford@sptimes.com.

>>Biography

Manly "Sonny" Harris

Born: April 29, 1924

Died: Nov. 11, 2011

Survivors: niece Linda Elkin

On the Web

See a slideshow of Manly "Sonny" Harris at the Oldsmar Flea Market at

links.tampabay.com.

Flea market mainstay Sonny Harris told tales, some of them true 11/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 15, 2011 11:08pm]

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