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Harpers Ferry Flea Market faces extinction

July 27, 2009|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- The Harpers Ferry Flea Market is going the way of the Ford Drive-In Theater, the former occupant on the same ground. It's going away.

The theater occupied the 12-acre tract at the intersection of U.S. 340 and Millville Road from 1950 to 1982.

A year later, tables, booths and tents took over the spaces that once held rows of cars facing the big outdoor screen and the Harpers Ferry Flea Market was born, a venture that thrived in the 26 years since.

Now the flea market is about to make way for Alstadts Corner, a proposed 55-unit multifamily subdivision. Earlier this month, the Jefferson County Planning Commission gave permission to Dr. James Gibson, a Berkeley County dentist, to build the project.

The land has been owned by the Gibson family since 1942.   

Gibson said following the commission's unanimous vote that he has no definite starting date for construction of his subdivision.

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The flea market, along with Wilt's Fruit Stand, which fronts Millville Road, will be able to keep running until Gibson decides to move in the bulldozers.

Proponents call the flea market the third-biggest tourist attraction in Jefferson County after Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Charles Town Races & Slots.

Still, the news is leaving a pall of impending doom among the flea market's owners, Ron Nowell and Dan Barnett, the 100-plus dealers, their customers and the Wilt family.

"We don't know if we will still be here," said Kelly Wilt Musgrove, granddaughter of Harold Wilt, who started the stand. "We hope we will."

While a few dealers depend on what they sell off their tables for their livelihood, for many, it's more of a social setting. Some return week after week, while others come in occasionally to get rid of things they don't want. 

"There's not a lot of money in this," said dealer Dave Minnis, who has been working the flea market since it opened.

"This is a social hub," he said. "Flea markets are the oldest form of commerce. You see different people here every week, buyers and sellers."

Michael Wetzel of Martinsburg, W.Va., another regular who has had a table for 15 years, said he "specializes in mostly anything. I do it for the pleasure. It's fun even if I don't make much money."

Frederick, Md., friends Maddie Hicks, 18, and Anna Tringali, 19, paid the $14 daily rent to set up their table for the first time on a recent weekend to sell cast-off clothes and a few other items.

"We heard this place brings a lot of traffic, so we thought we'd try it," Tringali said. "We want to come back and walk around so we can buy stuff."

Co-owner Nowell said he's seen second and third generations of dealers in the nearly three decades since the market opened.

Space is sold first-come, first-served each week, except for about 20 dealers who pay by the month to have the same table.

"There's a real sense of family here," Nowell said. "We're hoping to be here for a while, but it's up to Dr. Gibson. It's his land."

Sue Richardson of Brunswick, Md., has been selling her handmade jewelry, fragrant oils and aromatherapy items for 12 years.

"I spent a lot of time building a relationship with my customers," Richardson said.

It's a gritty, dusty environment knitted together by a network of dirt streets lined with tables hawking all manner of merchandise -- new, old, unusual, whimsical and just plain junk.

One guy sells new Adirondack chairs, another costume jewelry that customers pick through from piles jumbled into two green plastic turtle kiddie pools.

There's a concession stand and restrooms, camaraderie among dealers and their customers, but no pornography.

"It's not allowed," Minnis said. "Neither are bootleg tapes or hot merchandise."

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