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Big bargains abundant at the Big Top

For 10 years, Eppie Phillips has watched the bargainers, antique seekers and discount dealers come and go at the Oldsmar Flea Market. "It's been my escape," said Mrs. Phillips, who spends her weekdays making calico cats, teddy bears and frilly vacuum cleaner covers at home, and her weekends selling them at the market. "This I enjoy."

Today, Mrs. Phillips and more than 600 other vendors will open for business in the area's newest bargain basement, the 160,000-square-foot Big Top Flea Market on Fowler Avenue east of Interstate 75.

Developer Marvin Gill, formerly the owner of an insurance company, said he decided to embark on the $9-million venture because it was the best use for his 35 acres, once home to the Golden Gate Speedway race track.

"And besides, flea markets are neat," he said.

Gill's Big Top becomes the only major flea market in Hillsborough County, offering an alternative for those who usually travel to Oldsmar just across the Pinellas County line.

The location off a major state highway should prove convenient for folks who travel the flea market circuit, he said.

The warehouse-style arrangement, set up in three long sections of booths and still smelling of fresh sawdust, is a far cry from old-time swap meets.

"I had the notion, having not been a dedicated flea market shopper, that flea markets were just a lot of used and recycled merchandise," Gill said. "The truth is, most of the vendors won't have the spring fashions of 1991, but they sell at such deep discounts, you can't ignore them."

A middle hub, built around a food court, will include about 70 vendors who sell used and antique goods, Gill said.

The market, open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends and available for community meetings weekdays, will be expanded to include 280,000 square feet of selling space next year.

This week, vendors set up booths offering cowboy boots, socks, clocks, ceiling fans and everything in between in preparation for the grand opening today.

The sellers, it seems, are as varied as the goods on the tables.

"I built homes for 18 years in Pinellas County," vendor Dan Jones said as he put the finishing touches on his racks of T-shirts. "This is a lot more fun."