Franklin Flea rectifies sins of the past, lends hope to Philly bargain-hunting future

    While walking through the new Franklin Flea this past weekend, a thought passed through my mind: When did flea markets get so complicated?

    As someone who spent many hours in his youth traveling to such long-gone dirt malls as the Pennsauken Mart and I-95 Marketplace, I developed early on an appreciation for vendors hawking wares of dubious quality and legality. Now swiftly approaching the age of 40, I still regularly check out our city’s booming flea market scene, from the location-shifting bazaars held weekly during the summer by Phila. Flea Markets to the long-running Quaker City Flea Market and R5 Productions’ twice yearly Punk Rock Flea Market extravaganzas.

    But the trend these days is flea markets that skew towards showcasing high-end antiques and artisan foodstuffs. Why? Maybe it’s because people sold their affordable-to-the-common-man stuff for inflated prices on eBay, or that vendors have become so brainwashed by “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars” that they are convinced every item in their inventory is a potential goldmine.

    Perhaps they are just doing so for the irony, selling things like a $40 Incredible Hulk belt buckle or $6 hot dogs to see if they can transform their local flea into a living, breathing “Portlandia” sketch.

    Learning from mistakes

    After the demise of the misguided Brooklyn Flea at the Piazza in Northern Liberties (a location so unspokenly elitist that it may as well have signs up declaring “Upper Middle Class Only”), event manager Mark Vevle decided to give the event an overhaul and a Phillycentric name and to shift the focus to Philly vendors. Thusly, he decided to make use of Market Street’s old Strawbridges store for the Franklin Flea’s trial period which runs every Saturday through Dec. 21.

    The location change is a brilliant move that subtly comments on the transition from Philly’s shopping past to the future — one that, for better or worse, comes complete with iPad cash registers and endless bottles of artisan hot sauce.

    Yet, whether I was overwhelmed by nostalgia for being back inside a historic department store for the first time in decades, or charmed by the seemingly endless knowledge of McDonald’s collectible glassware the purveyor of The Captain’s Vintage stall possessed, something unexpected happened: I learned to appreciate the retail model that Velve had set up. Given his overhead — it can’t be cheap to rent out the building and hire security — the weekly vendor’s fee of $100 didn’t seem so unreasonable anymore.

    Keeping it local

    There’s still no way that I can afford to throw down two twenties just so I can wear the Hulk around my waist, but at least I can appreciate how Mr. Vevle has learned from the Philly Brooklyn Flea’s mistakes and made a genuine effort to rectify them, giving local folks a chance to peddle their wares and possibly revitalizing a long dormant part of Market Street in the process.

    I’ll continue to check out the Franklin Flea with hopes that as it continues there will be a greater diversity of vendors and price ranges. But if this one doesn’t last, at least I know that our area’s modern day dirt malls will always be there, waiting to welcome me back into their dusty, open arms.

    Chris Cummins is a Philadelphia-based writer who regularly contributes to Geekadelphia, Den of Geek and Topless Robot, as well as his own blog, Hibernation Sickness. He is also one of the event coordinators of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, held monthly at Frankford Hall.

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