John Edwards walked to his vendor space at Bonnie Lou’s Flea Market in Mount Airy — a simple utility shed with its contents concealed by tarpaulins — which at first glance offered little to capture a visitor’s attention.
Then Edwards untied a tarp at one corner and peeled it back to reveal a virtual treasure trove of glassware, books and other items he proudly displayed, which no one would have ever guessed were there.
Bonnie Lou’s is typical of outdoor flea markets — rows of stalls filled with no-telling-what and you-name-it which are hallowed ground to antique lovers, collectors of every item under the sun and those simply seeking bargains among cut-rate merchandise.
People tend to flock to such venues on weekends, perhaps driven by the curiosity and excitement of finding a coveted piece of Americana they never expected to encounter. It is a scene repeated around the nation at flea markets, which have become ingrained in the culture.
“It’s part of the American way,” Dean Brown, a member of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, said at a meeting of the board last week when the role of such businesses was discussed. “I think it’s a good thing.”
Yet all is not well in Flea Market Land locally, due to a movement under way to increase regulation of those types of operations. These include Bonnie Lou’s on Carter Street and another well-known enterprise, Mayberry Flea Market, located on North Andy Griffith Parkway.
At the same meeting in which Commissioner Brown made his comments, another board member, Jim Armbrister, asked that the city government begin exploring new rules for outdoor flea markets in Mount Airy, and obtained a consensus to green-light that process.
“I’ve had a significant number of citizen comments…(asking) to bring attention to flea markets,” Armbrister explained.
“We’ve got a lot of people visiting them,” he said.
Armbrister expressed concerns about the variety of buildings on the grounds of flea markets, such as canopy- and camper-type structures, suggesting that there needs to be uniformity.
“We have issues of sanitation for public restrooms,” he said of another concern.
However, Armbrister was quick to add that his intention in seeking more regulation is not to discourage the presence of outdoor flea markets in the city limits. “We want to enhance it,” he said of his intent to have the municipal planning staff identify increased regulation for the businesses.
Those involved with flea markets aren’t so sure about Armbrister’s goals, and are wary of the regulatory movement now under way.
“There was a rumor they were going to try to shut it down,” Edwards said of Bonnie Lou’s Flea Market.
Roger Tyree, an operator of Bonnie Lou’s whose father Roy is an owner of the site, on Wednesday questioned the timing of the recent regulatory push. “We’ve been there all these years,” Tyree said in wondering why there is an effort to “change things up” at this point.
“Everything needs regulating — the thing is, why now?”
There is some speculation that the recent construction of a greenway connector, which runs right by Bonnie Lou’s and is in clear view of trail users, is somehow a catalyst for the increased scrutiny of flea market operations from an appearance standpoint.
Edwards, an Ararat resident who mows and cleans up at Bonnie Lou’s in addition to being a vendor there, agrees that regulations are a way of life. But he fears the flea market is being unfairly targeted and might be subject to increased enforcement that could hamper its existence.
“They were talking about trash,” said Edwards, who was among local flea market personnel attending last week’s council meeting.
“And it was blowing from up here,” he said Wednesday while pointing to an adjoining area that includes a small shopping center.
Edwards also pointed to a port-a-john on the grounds, another apparent focus of the regulatory effort.
“They have the same thing in downtown Mount Airy during the Autumn Leaves Festival,” he said.
Edwards does admit that some of the flea market’s vendors — the total number of which was unavailable — could do a better job with their stalls appearance-wise.
But he said efforts are constantly under way to keep the area looking nice, especially now that more rules are being considered. “We’re working on it — I’m working on it as best I can.”
Edwards and others say outdoor flea markets are filling a niche on the local business landscape.
“People like me, I’m on a fixed income and you can find things cheaper,” he said in listing items ranging from wrenches to lawn mowers. “People buy glass and different things — everybody’s got a hobby.”
Commissioner Brown also lauded the benefits of flea markets during last week’s meeting, saying he goes to those sites occasionally and has been able to buy items at one-tenth the normal cost.
“I think you meet some good people,” Brown said of the local flea market industry that also injects money into the community from purchases, including by those venturing here from out of town. “I think it brings business — it brings visitors.”
The effort to increase regulation of flea markets is apparently the latest in a series of appearance-related moves tackled by Mount Airy officials. This also has included rundown properties, and new sign rules stemming from another commissioner’s concerns about billboards.
“Here we go again,” Armbrister said last week when seeking to put a now-familiar process into motion with the planning board studying an issue and returning with proposed regulations.
Yet he and Brown stressed that the city government does not want to harm local flea market operations.
“We just want them to look a little prettier,” Brown said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.