Yesterday, part of the beauty of largely self-scheduled work, I took a trip to the massive, annual Labor Day weekend flea market in Hillsville, VA.
The number of people and vendors is astounding, and a few minutes calculating the profit earned by the lemonade stands resulted in another “astounding.” The only thing that could improve the crowd would be if the event took place in Flatsville instead.
It was early, damp, foggy, and cool when we arrived. The day before, it had rained all day. Walking through the parking areas was like tramping over a water mattress, except with more mud. The smarter sellers had tarps and straw spread around their tables to soak up some of the wet.
During the course of the eight-hour day, I walked probably seven to ten miles. The sun came out mid-morning and by noon the mud was turning into half-baked clay.
The booths are laden with dusty glassware in green, red, and blue. Boxes of assorted, yellowed papers are shoved under the display cases of old coins, Pez dispensers, and antique fishing lures. Enormous shelves hold reusable window etchings, hand-crafted jewelry, stacks of LIFE magazines, and dilapidated old books. Canvas is the decor of choice, followed closely by plastic.
The people mirror the goods. Fanny packs are back in style. So are grocery-style carts and hand carts with milk crates and a bungee cord. Baseball caps and sunglasses are sold on every table, but most people bring their own. Some are members of the old crowd, darting from table to table at 7 a.m. with eyes squinted to find a particular item before their competitors do.
Teenagers tend to stroll among the streetside vendors, looking at puppies, cheap perfume, and the college boy running the Funnel Cakes booth or the scantily dressed girl beside the Nascar display. Parents roam the aisles to find second-hand furniture and bulk lots of picture books while their two year old strains at the furry brown harness and leash fastened around her waist.
The true collectors know what they’re looking for. They have to scrounge through four dozen dust and grime-coated boxes of miscellany to find one postcard from the 1950s. They have to scour ten different lots to locate an original Don Knotts autographed photo. Sometimes the search seems endless and pointless. But if it were easy, it wouldn’t be so satisfying.
Me? I like people-watching. I also like hand-painted glass and old books. My prize find was an 1819 edition of collected works by Alexander Pope, in good condition. I found it in the midst of a big, has-never-seen-the-light-of-day-or-a-dustcloth box full of 1860s Algebra books and 1990s comics.
Hunting through all the rubbish to find the treasure is kind of like dealing with life and people. All of us have a lot of mildew and broken glass inside – remnants of our pasts, our families, our mistakes, our choices. And yet we’re made in the likeness of God. So somewhere, underneath all the mess, there is something worth noticing, worth honoring, and worth seeking out.
Too often, I forget to notice. To honor. To seek out. I am so grateful that God never does (see Luke 15:8-10).
At the flea market, I watched a man find the one coin he was seeking. He lifted it from among the rest, polished it on his sleeve, and immediately tucked it into the vendor’s plastic baggie with all the care of a museum curator. To him, the grunge no longer mattered, because he had found the treasure underneath.
Pretty powerful image, right?