ST. PETERSBURG — At almost 4 p.m., a line wraps down the steps and spills into the parking lot in front of Vintage Marché. About two dozen shoppers shelled out $5 for early access, armed with portable fans and straw hats. A little upper lip sweat won’t stop them from finding a deal.
On the first Friday of the month, the small but devoted cohort waits outside the warehouse at 2200 Second Ave. S for hours, eager to wade through the antique oasis inside. Each has closely studied a preview video and memorized a shopping list. But they won’t tell you which treasures they’ve come to buy.
On the other side of the door, vendors known as “bees” are lined up in blue T-shirts. After spending weeks purchasing retro delights to fill the market, the bees work in shifts to staff the event. They look forward to seeing which items fly out first.
Vintage Marché’s owner, Paul Donofrio, stands by the register next to a 7-foot stuffed giraffe as he prepares his bees for battle.
“Everyone knows their routine,” he said. “Stay in your places, customer service. Treat everybody’s space like it’s your own.”
Donofrio, 51, has walked around with a pit in his stomach all week, and it’s still there when he moves to the door to count down. Call it stage fright.
Will they come? he wonders.
The bees chant: “Five. Four. Three. Two. One!”
Donofrio whips the door open and the vendors stand back, clapping.
The shoppers sprint inside.
Vintage Marché is a secondhand wonderland, a trove of the old and bizarre. Baskets and chairs dangle from the ceiling above the maze of clothing racks and furniture. Arrows of tape on the floor point out a path through the roughly 12,500-square-foot warehouse. Finds range from the practical (think a modestly priced Danish nightstand or midcentury bookshelf) to the whimsical (a poster of a clown swimming in a forkful of spaghetti).
The event comes on the first weekend of the month, kicking off with the ticketed “First Dibs Friday” early shopping event. It’s free to come shop, or just browse, all day Saturday or Sunday. Every month the market is different. Over 35 bees keep the event running, swooping in to take items from shoppers’ hands to a hold area and keeping fingers free to continue browsing. Guests have to be quick if they like something. If they hesitate or turn away, the next time they see that funky credenza or lamp could be when a vendor slaps on a “SOLD” tag. A space in the back is filled with hundreds of extra items to replenish stock.
“It’s like Disney for adults that love vintage stuff,” Donofrio said.
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August’s market will be the last in the Warehouse Arts District space. Starting in September, the Marché will occupy 2906 34th St. S. Two and a half miles away in the Skyway Marina District, the new space will boast about 350 much-needed parking spots. The back storage area for reserve items is twice as large, the A/C more powerful.
Brocante Vintage Market, a similar concept, started in the current warehouse in 2013. By the time it announced its closure in 2019, the monthly tradition had amassed a cult following in St. Pete.
Donofrio, a Brocante vendor and lifelong trash rummager, decided to take over. The Buffalo native had worked a number of jobs over the years: firefighting, event security, running a record label in New York and then starting an irrigation company in Sarasota. But hunting for curb items and estate sale deals had been his favorite hustle since he was a kid.
He got the keys on Dec. 15, 2019, and spent the next two weeks rushing to prepare the space. Vintage Marché opened the first weekend in January 2020, staffed by most of the same vendors as Brocante. Donofrio named them bees, the symbol of Napoleon’s empire.
“We all buzz around,” he said. “It’s also a hive. Everyone works together for the greater good.”
The pandemic came a few months later, and the market held on. In fact, it thrived.
Four weeks before the market
Just about everything at Vintage Marché is for sale, from the tchotchkes to the shelves they sit on. And at the end of every market, bees must clear out all of their leftover items from the back stock area. Stuff that doesn’t sell gets a second and third chance at future markets. After that, it’s most likely sold elsewhere. Displays are broken down and redone.
Meanwhile, the restocking begins.
Each bee has their own method of picking. Some travel across Florida or out of state. They go to auctions, garage sales and online marketplaces.
Certain items are always slam dunks, like Danish and midcentury modern items. They’ve held up better than today’s mass-produced furnishings, designed to last a few years.
“These pieces are meant to hand down to your kids,” Donofrio said. “They already lasted 60 years. There’s no reason they shouldn’t last another.”
Three days before the market
In the week leading up to the event, the energy inside the warehouse is frenzied. After a month of picking, vendors have until 8 p.m. Tuesday to finalize the items in their spaces, and some will use all of the time they can get.
Several bees have been doing this for years, like Ethan Butler Jr. His father opened the first antique shop on Central Avenue. Butler remembers 22nd Avenue as the booming district that fostered St. Pete’s Black community. He said the building used to be a piano factory.
Butler’s day job for the past 14 years has been working in sanitation for the city. But for over a decade, he’s sold antiques in this building, just like how his dad taught him.
In a corner, Heather Mapstone and her mom, Valerie Ackerman, hang up garments.
“We’re the people driving down alleys in the night and throwing stuff in our cars,” Mapstone said. “We try to save what we can.”
Mapstone prominently displayed a few items she was really excited about: an orange poodle skirt from the 1960s, heart-print hip huggers from the ‘70s and a mod skort from the ‘80s. Each had a tag sharing information about the era and fabric. She’s big on sustainability and keeping old items out of landfills.
Preparing means hours of laundering, dry-cleaning, mending and sometimes altering.
“I’m the cleaner, she’s the fixer,” said Mapstone, 47.
Around the corner, Mike Blenda, a DJ from Temple Terrace, sat surrounded by crumpled wads of newspaper. He had already set up crates of vinyl records and hung stained glass lamps. Next, he moved onto the little items.
“It’s like going to a museum where you can leave with something,” Blenda said. He unwrapped a glittery glass octopus. “Today’s his day.”
In the next stall over, Rebecca Watkins, 82, wrestled to free her mannequin from last month’s outfit, a rainbow crochet top left over from Pride.
“I think it’s easier to take off her arms,” she said.
The mannequin, named Stella, was for sale along with the clothing she wore. Watkins had a Fourth of July outfit planned for her: a denim skirt, red tank top, broad straw hat.
“She has to be really decked,” she said.
Donofrio dragged a cart around, spraying the items in the front display with cleaner and wiping them down. His Boston terrier, Henry, panted behind him. In the warehouse, dust has a way of piling up. Everything inside may be old, but it still needed to sparkle before Donofrio narrated the Facebook Live preview on Wednesday.
One day before the market
The displays were ready. Items had been shown off online.
Some vendors rest up before the big weekend. For others, it wasn’t too late to stock up on reserve items, especially for Saturday night. The bees do a reset before Sunday morning to keep things fresh.
Christopher Ward, 38, likes to hit his thrift store circuit once a day if he can. A law student who works in a local law office, his days get busy. But he loves to sneak out when he can, especially when he can get a student discount.
“Every day is Russian roulette,” he said. “You might find nothing, you might clear out the place.”
Ward grew up in Sarasota, surrounded by circus history and Florida kitsch. As a bee, his style leans toward “anything weird.” His space was already stocked with a stuffed Alf plushie connected to a corded phone ($169), plastic severed hands displaying costume jewelry (various prices) and a Lance Bass action figure. (“Happy Pride, $16,” reads the tag.)
“Even if you don’t buy something, I want you to have fun and giggle,” he said.
Ward started at Pet Pal Thrift Store, which benefits a local no-kill animal shelter. The shop is run by a New Yorker, who always points out stuff Ward might like.
He pondered a midcentury painting of a boat, then a fold-out canoe seat, and ultimately passed on both. A heavy gold frame was an instant win, especially at just $5. Frames always sell.
Ward paused to laugh at an ‘80s-era hairstyle tool, still in the box. (“That’s horrendous,” he said.) He flipped through framed prints, keeping an eye out for anything that seemed cheap. He considered some jewelry, checked out a wooden table and spotted a $1 bag of napkin rings before checking out. His total: $8.03.
Next, he drove to St. Vincent de Paul. The selection is hit or miss and the prices can be high, he said, but he appreciates that proceeds help the homeless. Ward moved briskly, pausing only to assess a deviled egg plate.
As he was about to leave, a brass candlestick holder caught his eye. It was $8 and destined to come home with him.
The last stop was Out of the Closet, where proceeds benefit HIV care and services. Ward has found some kooky stuff here, including a replica of a human spine — which someone from a chiropractor’s office then bought at the Marché.
Here, he hit the jackpot. Peacock feather fans at just $6 a pop. A bag of plastic Halloween toys, including rats and spiders. A dramatic bridal headpiece and veil. A flour sifter. And a brass suit stand.
That last one was actually a treat for himself.
A minute after the mad dash begins, a repeat customer named Jeff S. emerges with the first purchase of the day.
The New Port Richey man came two hours early with a mission: secure the antique pickle crock he’d glimpsed on the Facebook Live. He sprinted down the main room, turning left, right, then left again until he reached Blenda’s corner. Another shopper was hot on his tail, having also spotted the stoneware crock. She wasn’t fast enough.
“The value’s about $1,000,” Jeff S. said. He paid $124.
“He stole it from me,” the defeated customer said.
Blenda had found the crock at an estate sale featuring items from a barn.
“I had no idea. I wish I’d put a higher price,” he said. “That thing’s 110 years old. It’s like, mad antique style.”
After the initial stampede, the mood shifts. The racing slows, then stops. Shoppers walk slowly, eyes scanning and squinting. They crouch and open drawers and knock on wood and assess. It’s quiet and intense, except for the soundtrack of ‘80s hits playing on the loudspeaker.
“Highway to the Danger Zone
Gonna take it right into the Danger Zone”
Still to come are the Saturday morning scavengers who arrive bright and early and the post-brunch crowd that meanders in during the afternoon. Saturdays are crowded and loud, filled with friends hollering and holding up finds.
Sundays can be more relaxed, especially by the afternoon. But that’s when people really come to spend.
Donofrio is excited for the new space, and two new bees who will join the team (including pickle crock winner Jeff S.). He was slow to announce the updated address until recently, lest shoppers accidentally go to the new spot before the move in September.
He wants them coming back here, with friends and full pockets, to shop for treasure.
If you go
Vintage Marché is open the first weekend of every month, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. First Dibs Friday takes place the Friday before market weekends from 4 to 8 p.m. Tickets for Friday cost $5 and include a $5 off coupon redeemable on Sundays. vintagemarche727.com.