HILLSVILLE, Va. — Folks in Mount Airy might think of Winston-Salem or Greensboro when talking about the nearest large city, or even Charlotte if looking for a major metropolitan area.
But for the next few days, Hillsville, Virginia, officials say their tiny mountain village will be among the largest communities in the nation.
That’s because the town of 3,000 people will see its ranks swell by the tens of thousands each of the next few days during the annual. Labor Day Gun Show and Flea Market.
Hillsville Mayor Greg Crowder claims an annual attendance of anywhere between 350,000 and 450,000 people. The high end of that estimate would put Hillsville in the top 40 among all U.S. cities from a population standpoint. In other words, for this weekend at least, Hillsville will have more people than such major cities as Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cleveland and Cincinnati (not including their greater metropolitan areas).
“Millions and millions of dollars are spent here during Labor Day weekend. I’d estimate at least $20 million to $30 million in retail business that weekend just for vendors,” Crowder said. “There’s no way to know the exact number, but it really is like having the Super Bowl here in our town. We overlook it and take it for granted, but we need to secure it and protect it for the future. Cities spend millions of dollars to have a Super Bowl and we basically get it for free.”
Those are numbers to which Grover King VFW Post 1115 Commander Marty Rivera and past commander Jack Easter agree wholeheartedly. Preparing for this year’s gun show and flea market, which runs from Sept. 2-5, Rivera recalled his first impression of the massive Hillsville event, which attracts vendors and customers from all over the nation. Originally from Texas, Rivera moved to the area in 2002 after being stationed in California and living in Vermont.
“People kept saying, ‘Are you going to the flea market?’ I anticipated going to a parking lot and having a lot full of small vendors, at the very most maybe 50,” Rivera said. “That September I had to go to Hillsville to get something. As I drove in I was at a dead stop at the intersection of (Interstate 77) and (U.S.) 58 and we couldn’t even move. I asked the deputy sheriff standing in the middle of the road what was going on. He said, ‘This is the world’s largest flea market.’” It was an eye-opener.
For the VFW post, the Labor Day Gun Show and Flea Market is by far the biggest event of the year. As such, preparing is a full-time job that requires lots of time and effort behind the scenes.
“For us, it means giving the community an opportunity to have something that puts Hillsville on the map. This being our 49th-annual gun show and flea market, it is very big and important to us,” Rivera said. “Our flea market manager Andy Bowman has done a phenomenal job in talking to the people and getting them prepared. And it is a year-round job, 24/7, 365 days. People are coming from all over the United States trying to get a space. It is a huge, huge draw to the post and to the community. We want to contribute to the community the most we can.”
Mike Lara, senior vice commander of VFW Post 1115, said the flea market not only offers customers a chance to shop for almost anything, it also provides an opportunity to meet people from across the county. Many vendors at the Hillsville show buy from other flea markets around the country specifically to sell at this event.
“Some of the vendors, this is their grand finale. I met one last year that was from Nevada, and he said this is where he makes the most of his money for the year and gets him through the winter,” Rivera said.
For many local residents, the annual event brings many out-of-town relatives back into the area. And while the show is a like a family reunion for local residents in many ways, its reach goes well beyond those parameters.
“Last year I met a gentleman that was shopping and he was explaining to me that he met a relative that he hadn’t seen in years that he didn’t realize was still alive. This guy was from North Carolina and his cousin was from Pennsylvania, and they happened to meet again here at our flea market,” Rivera said. “A few years back my wife’s cousin and his son were walking through, and we happened to walk right into them and they are from Vermont. So not only is it a shopping experience, but it is almost like a family reunion.”
It’s the same way for the vendors, Easter said, noting several have been coming all 49 years. They look forward to coming back and saying hello to friends they’ve made over the years in Hillsville. It’s one of the many reasons the local VFW post goes out of its way to make sure everybody has a positive experience at the annual event.
“Members of the post look at everybody here as our customers and it is our obligation to treat these people like they are our customers. They make all the funds we spend in the community year round,” Easter said. “An example being our Food Pantry here, the vendors will bring food into it. The last day of the flea market we will have containers set up for donations for the food pantry. They get more money donated in those jars for the food pantry that is designated to help needy veterans than they take for the gates. It all goes back to the community, and that is the key.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on [email protected]