The Flea Market As Architectural Journey

Sep 23, 2019

Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright may be the Midwest's (and the nation's) most famous architects, but the region has always been a fertile ground for builders master and amateur. 

In Midwest Architecture Journeys, available Oct. 15 from Belt Publishing, readers are taken on a trip to visit some of the region's most inventive buildings by architects such as Bertrand Goldberg, Bruce Goff and Lillian Leenhouts. It also includes stops at less obvious but equally daring and defining sites, such as grain silos, parking lots, abandoned warehouses and flea markets. 

What follows is an excerpt from the book, edited by Zach Mortice, on one such locale near Cincinnati: Traders World Market in Monroe, Ohio. 

If you set out to write a certain kind of story about Monroe, Ohio (population 12,442) you might begin by drawing attention to its city newspaper (online only), Main Street Monroe, and its front page that prominently features a church directory and a post about a Dairy Queen coming to town. Maybe you’d mention the article about the initiative from the lo- cal Carpenters Union meant to address the “skilled labor shortages [that] continue to plague Ohio contractors” and contextualize it within a larger story—maybe the one about the dearth of trade education, or the one about the unforeseen effects of immigration crackdown.

This would be, after all, a story told during what we’ll have no choice but to refer to in coming years as the Trump Years, when newspaper editors from both coasts deservedly caught flak for airdropping reporters into places like Ohio purely for the sound bite poten- tial, before promptly scooping them back up again.

You might note that Monroe, which straddles both sides of Interstate 75 and is nearly equidistant to both Cincinnati and Dayton, sits at the far edge of Butler County, home to author J.D. Vance and the setting for his bestselling Hillbilly Elegy, a fact that will likely elicit either a solemn nod or an exaggerated eye roll, depending on the reader’s politics.

But I’m from the area, too. And stories preoccupied with the past have never sat right with me, largely because that past was rarely as romantic as what- ever present is being unfairly compared to it. The Midwest is as dynamic a place as any other and for as much is made of it being a dying place, its outsiders would be better served by thinking of the place as a massive iterative process; repeating cycles and processes, living with their outcomes, before beginning again, each time maybe moving closer to a kind of perfection. And if that’s not hope, I don’t know what is.

And for all the dismissive terms that speak to the supposed sameness of the culture, or to the empty blandness of the natural and manmade geography of the place (flyover country, land of big box stores, the cloyingly sweet “heartland”), there remains an impulse, as in all places but especially in those where vast land filled with endless acres of geometrically rigid and inhumanly scaled cash crops threatens to swallow you up. That impulse is to gather together. Main Street is on the ropes, but midwesterners have long had another outlet to meet this basic human need for connection: the flea market.

And while it’s true that fleas flank the highways along exurban edges all across the country, there’s something uniquely midwestern about the character of the flea—the industriousness of bringing product to market, the weekend excursion ritual of it, the chance to see and be seen in places where that’s a relative rarity, the angling for a deal, the validation that your nostalgia for knick-knacks means something even if that something remains an undefined feeling.

Any thrifter or flea enthusiast knows the feeling that accompanies a trip. The anxious sensation in the stomach or the impulse to stop by the bathrooms near the entrance so you won’t get distracted later. You are, after all, on a mission, and today could be the day you find something great. In the Midwest, the flea is a ver- nacular expression of longing and hope, nurtured by a common history, spurred by a collective boredom, and all sheltered by a pole barn down by the highway.

Save your entry ticket. There’ll be a raffle later.

Credit Courtesy of Belt / Courtesy of Belt Publishing

Long before the outlet malls came to Monroe, before the truck stops went corporate and got cleaner, and before AK Steel took its jobs and left, there was Traders World Market, a massive indoor flea market my parents would take me to most weekends when I was a kid. To give you an idea of the scale, its website describes it (currently) as “16 buildings, 850 inside vendor spaces, 400 outdoor vendor spaces, a combined area of 11 acres, plenty of paved parking and over two miles of store fronts.” In my memories, it is even bigger.

As a kid, I’d feel the excitement build on the drive there. It took about twenty minutes, which to my kid brain felt just long enough to qualify as a true outing; a step above a trip to the mall, a few rungs below an amusement park. For a while in the early 2000s, if you’d taken the same route, you’d have passed the megachurch that erected a sixty-two-foot statue of Jesus along the eastern edge of I-75. Officially titled “King of Kings,” it was more colloquially known as “Touchdown Jesus” for its outstretched arms raised heavenward, until a lightning strike and resulting fire arrived in 2010.

Still, there’s plenty to look at. The land surrounding Traders World is orderly; rows of soybean and corn, the area’s two largest crops. The methodicalness of it is obvious, even at ground level doing seventy. The environment here is something to be disciplined because so much depends on it.

Visitors approaching the massive complex must drive first through the front gate, underneath two massive statues of horses rearing up on their hind legs. A couple bucks paid to the parking lot attendant earns you access to a massive sea of concrete where you can leave your car behind, making careful note of the number of the building you slip into.

Walking into one of those buildings is like walking into a photo relief of the world outside. Inside is dark, cavernous, and the air conditioning feels crisp and merciful in the summertime. And there are peo- ple, a critical mass of them, everywhere. And they’re walking. I grew up riding my bike to the entrance of our subdivision and back, tethered by my mom’s warnings to not go farther. It was a thrilling but lim- ited kind of freedom. I was separated from any places I might want to walk or bike to on my own by miles of sidewalk-less streets where cars were the only thing you’d expect to see on the road. It made sense, since you weren’t getting anywhere without one.

And the majority of America is car dependent, so to be a kid, navigating the weekend crowds of people at the flea was an unfamiliar but exciting feeling. Inside, the rows of stalls promised potentiality around every corner. And even though most people put out the same things at their booth every week—bins of tube socks, boxes of farm tomatoes, moldering issues of Life

Magazine—I still felt a thrill at what I might find. 

Outside, the vendors were day renters, usually selling produce or seemingly random assortments of everyday items you might find at garage sales: old magazines, collectible plates, that one olive green Pyrex casserole dish with the white daisy pattern that seemed like it followed me everywhere as a kid. Inside, the vendors were there for the long haul. The majority of the booths—the leather Harley gear, the sneaker place, the food stalls—stayed in place all week, only to open for a few hours each weekend. The whole place was built as a series of long wings coming off a central hub, where dozens of picnic-style tables were set up around the few roller-skating-rink-grade food options. In the center of it all, a man in lederhosen played accordion to polka backing tracks with pre-recorded backup vocals so lifelike that when he sang “I don’t want her / You can have her / She’s too fat for me / HEY! She’s too fat for me” it sounded like a dozen men proclaiming it while you sat and ate your roller grill hot dog.

Shopping at a flea was a markedly different feeling than shopping at, say, a mall, that other defining feature of the countryside and the era. A mall felt purposeful; you were there to buy things. A visit to the flea felt more freeform. You were there as much to move through the space and experience the surroundings as you were to pick through the mer- chandise. And in an era before big box bookstores or teenagers hanging out at Starbucks, the flea was a true third place. You didn’t have to buy. You could just be.

It might initially seem odd to consider the flea mar- ket from an architectural perspective. After all, most fleas are the kind of depressing, pre-fab and post- frame construction you usually see in downmarket self-storage facilities. But if vernacular architecture can be said to respond to the needs of its environment and be made with what’s at hand, I can’t think of a kind of building that speaks more to the part of the Midwest where I grew up than the sturdy-if-unsight- ly pole buildings that house many of the fleas I know. These pre-fab buildings are relatively easy to build, economical and the architectural equivalent of meat and potatoes, all utility and short on garnish. While at a distance, they may be nearly indistinguishable from the big box stores and mall husks that flank the highways, they function in a very different way.

In these places, it’s important to consider that archi- tecture is as much about the physical manifestation of our ideals as it is about the materials used. We didn’t have a Main Street where I grew up. Fewer and fewer small towns do now, as big boxes supplant and core out a wider and wider range of small business storefronts, so we made a new Main Street, albeit in the form of a flea, with paid parking and air condi- tioning. And like a Main Street, the fleas function as a space to experience some sort of civic awareness and community as a place to buy something.

It’s no surprise that in an era of online shopping and the heavily curated feeds of Instagram influencers, that the shopping mall, with its cookie-cutter stores and limited selection, is quickly becoming a relic. It’s true that flea markets often have footprints as large if not larger than those of the typical mall, and fleas are rarely planted in the same kind of sought-after land most commercial real estate is after. Further, fleas’ limited hours and distance from cities often require a dedicated consumer—presenting what a retail wonk might call a “barrier to purchase.”

Yet given all that, the mood on the National Flea Market Association website is bullish if not down- right combative; 2.25 million vendors, it trumpets, over $30 billion in sales annually, more than 150 mil- lion customers each year. And the number of fleas? More than 1,100.

We’ve reached a point in American retail history where—if not now, then soon—flea markets will outnumber malls. Given everything we know, this shouldn’t make sense within the context of where re- tail is headed. But it does within the context of where America is headed.

Traders World was founded by a couple named Jay and Helen Frick about thirty years ago (the website is a bit confusing on the official date and requests for inter- views were not answered). And while that only takes us back to the late 1980s, you’d never guess that from the way the Fricks (or whoever authored the website’s History page) talk about it. The Fricks “grew up in the unique era of Americana [sic],” the introductory para- graph explains, handily if accidentally leapfrogging the concept of America-as-a-country in favor of landing right in my sweet spot: Americana-as-culture.

The Traders World site goes on to explain that this was a time “when lives were transitioning from ag- ricultural farm living to industrialized urban living. It was a time that spanned from the depths of the Great Depression to the booming years that followed World War II—a time in American history that some refer to as ‘the greatest generation.’” I’m calling this out not to dunk on the sentimentality of a couple who built a place that brought me so much joy, but to note that by mythologizing their past through the flea’s marketing and decor, the Fricks are following the blueprint of so many fleas that have found suc- cess by commoditizing our collective nostalgia.

Traders World was thick with bric-a-brac. Long be- fore I ever set foot in a Cracker Barrel, I knew what it was like to sit in a dark, wood-paneled room eating fried food underneath a rusty scythe, or a repro tin sign advertising spark plugs. Often, the only way I could remember how to find my way back to the entrance where I came in was to find the particular folksy woodcut hanging from the ceiling I could last recall (“AT QUIZ PA AINT NO WHIZ BUT HE KNOWS HOW TO KEEP MA HIZ.”).

The website also explains that Helen’s earliest memo- ries “included plowing the fields with horses, planting the crops by hand—sometimes one seed at a time; and sleigh bells on a team of horses gliding effortlessly through the snow on a winter’s night.” I suspect I’m not alone in being drawn to fleas because they evoke a world I never knew, but have been told was more authentic, more tangible, better than my own.

But to take that view might not be giving the flea its full credit. The past is compelling, but the present is, too. In fact, flea markets are an awfully good indicator of how our culture and economy are changing—and being changed.

As Rob Sieban, CEO of United Flea Markets, explained recently, “The value proposition [of flea markets] is evolving.” For him, that means opportunity. Where we might see nostalgia, a private equity firm might look at flea markets, often family-run operations, and see motivated sellers (perhaps a second or third gen- eration not as eager to run a flea as their parents may have been), comparatively affordable real estate, and reliable income from vendor space that might be an easier rental than a traditional mall’s lease.

Which is to say: Today’s third places are becoming increasingly commodified. From POPS, or Publicly Owned Private Spaces (think of the blandly inviting plazas outside corporate buildings), where your pres- ence is tolerated as a zoning-mandated means  to  an end, to Edison-bulbed coworking spaces whose spare Scandinavian aesthetic can now be seen from Stockholm to St. Louis and everywhere in between, we’ve begun to passively accept that our presence must generate revenue for someone. And while flea markets may never (fortunately) be top-of-mind to most pri- vate equity groups hoping to make a buck, there is something to be said for the ways in which flea market entrepreneurship offers a real leg up for some vendors who will never be invited to sell their wares at a pop- up celebrating a new boutique hotel opening.

And there’s plenty of evidence fleas are becoming im- portant parts of local economies, serving as de facto business incubators in places as yet untouched by the entrepreneurship-as-spirituality crowd. Not every product makes sense to sell in an online Etsy store, but there’s a decent chance at a flea that you might get a passer-by to impulse-buy some laser cut floor mats for their Silverado.

Fleas are often an ideal place for would-be restaurateurs who aren’t yet food truck-ready to test their concept. When there are some pretty significant steps between you and a brick and mortar location, fleas are a low- stakes place to dream unwieldy, impractical dreams. Or even very practical ones that mainstream culture may be blind to. The last few times I’ve been to Trader’s World, I was heartened to see that it had grown into not just a place where the local Hispanic population was beginning to visit, they were also selling. Fleas that recreate the mercados de pulgas of Latin America have long been a fixture of life in parts of the country with large Hispanic populations, but as the Midwest’s Hispanic population grows, stores inside these fleas (particularly in very rural areas or those where immi- gration is relatively recent) can serve as both lifelines to culture and as a parallel economy in places where goods from home might be hard to come by.

Whether a given item for sale at a flea is a treasure is highly subjective, and maybe my can’t-miss booth is one your eyes might quickly scan past. But I’ll always appreciate the egalitarianism of landing a vendor’s spot at the fleas I remember as a kid. It’s true that urban fleas, while long a fixture in some cities, have started to pop up all over. But their curated sameness depresses me. I hesitate to write about how there’s al- ways a beard oil guy because in a few years, I wonder if I’ll even remember what this was. But he’s there, along with the handmade soap lady and someone selling bird art suitable for framing. I wonder what we’re saying with our current hyper-specific cultural bric-a-brac. Which of it will be picked over, suddenly hip again, at future fleas? Which of it will be some ten-year-old’s inescapable olive green Pyrex twenty years from now?

I don’t live in Ohio anymore. I’m no longer a regular at Trader’s World. But fleas will always serve as a tether to home for me, no matter where I am. And for many people—especially those with perhaps more drive than creditworthiness and more ideas than square feet, fleas are much more than just symbolic, they’re a livelihood. For people who might feel alone during the week, they’re culture. And for people who just want to spend time in a place that’s not work or home, they’re a quirky kind of public sphere. And as the culture changes, the population shifts, and the economy fluctuates, fleas will adapt. In that way, they’ll be a bellwether of the Midwest. One foot in the past, one in the future, but always with ample parking, just off I-75, past Touchdown Jesus. 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Belt Publishing