A day in the life of a local flea market

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There are stores and strip malls and shopping centres.

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And then there are flea markets, tucked away into the various corners of the GTA. They are a world onto their own, a shopper’s guilty weekend pleasure, and crammed with vendors selling everything from the eclectic to the unusual, the mundane to the mainstream.

They can be shabby or chic, upscale or humble, but there’s no doubt that flea markets are home to the independent business person, who, at the end of the day, call themselves the boss.

A flea market’s success can be seen in location, pedestrian traffic, free parking, and just the carnival atmosphere that follows it around. Some places have a loyal clientele, others depend on weekend warriors, looking for something unique to discover.

The GTA is home to a variety of famous flea markets, some recently closed because of the pandemic — or to make room for another Amazon building – and some who have successfully weathered the COVID-19 storm, to come out stronger than ever.

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The Bargain Man products at Dr. Fleas
The Bargain Man products at Dr. Fleas Photo by Rita DeMontis photograph /SUN MEDIA/Division of Postmedia Network

One such place is Dr. Flea’s Flea Market (www.drfleas.com), near Albion Rd. and Hwy. 27. It’s been a landmark since first opening its doors in 1987, with hundreds of booths selling everything from clothing, jewelry, food, shoes, socks, furniture, cellphone repair, even clothing mending while you wait.

It’s character-driven, with a cast of personalities that roll out the shopping red carpet every weekend, only shuttering its doors when the pandemic hit town.

sweet treats at Dr. Flea’s
sweet treats at Dr. Flea’s Photo by Rita DeMontis photograph /SUN MEDIA/Division of Postmedia Network

And yes, there is a Dr. Flea — Allen Koffman, president of the market — who can be seen meandering around the various stalls, wearing a doctor’s lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck.

He is the face and personality behind the market, and it shows in the loyal shoppers who are constantly flocking him (well, he’s giving away Dr. Flea paper dollars to be spent in the market).

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The noisy market is busy during my visit, clean and tidy. And it’s a given Koffman runs a tight ship.

“A flea market is a trade show with a theme,” Koffman said recently, sitting behind a desk crammed with memorabilia, his walls filled with witty posters, signed photos and a mish-mash of kitschy art. “Flea markets are home to entrepreneurs who have hopes and dreams of setting up their own company.”

Koffman rents space to potential clients, making sure everyone adheres to his strict code of conduct — like opening on time. Mask and sanitizers everywhere.

Everything in the market is “based on the fine art of bargaining,” said Koffman, who stumbled into the biz while doing consulting work. This was after he closed his Yorkville-based “Nuttery” company, where he sold hand-dipped fruit, nuts and chocolate, and where he’d occasionally run into comedian Howie Mandel.

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Koffman’s business savvy first as a flea market vendor, later as an owner, saw him build his business from the ground up, expand and grow, working the room, so to speak, first in Florida, later in the GTA, in places like Oshawa, Newmarket and later on, in Etobicoke.

He spoke of the vendors he’s known for years: “There’s a vendor here who only sells socks — and has been selling socks for decades. I remember a couple of brothers who used to bring their pots and pans to sell in big bags, travelling on the TTC to get here. Now — they own their own company.”

The Bargain Man at Dr. Flea’s flea market
The Bargain Man at Dr. Flea’s flea market Photo by Rita DeMontis photograph /SUN MEDIA/Division of Postmedia Network

Later, while wandering around talking to the various vendors, I came upon the legendary Bargain Man — a gentleman named Michael who has been working the flea market business for decades. Throughout the years he sold the most amazing variety of goods — his last spot was the 747 Flea before it shut its doors recently.

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“So I’m here now,” said Michael, in front of a colourful display of merchandise that included toiletries, household items, stationary, and the most amazing selection of Halloween items. “I’m excited for this new venue, and for the future of this industry.”

Jesselene Shears at Wing Flingz booth
Jesselene Shears at Wing Flingz booth Photo by Rita DeMontis photograph /SUN MEDIA/Division of Postmedia Network

One vendor was a young woman named Jesselene Shears, who was selling chicken wings from her Wing Flingz booth, based on her family’s personal recipe.

“There’s a variety to choose from to take home,” she said with a smile.

Her business card reads: “Thank you for supporting my small business.”

Looking around, the market was steady with the air full of music and a multitude of different languages and dialects. Outdoors, there was a separate farmer’s market full of fresh fruit and produce.

A DJ was rocking the airwaves and people were milling about. The aroma of mouth-watering jerk was in the air.

“Confidence in the flea market is coming back,” said Koffman. “As for the people who live and breathe a flea market life … well, everyone has a dream here. And that’s to be their own boss.”

rdemontis@postmedia.com

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