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Flea markets face eBay challenge

Monday, February 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:40 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

With the arrival of online auction sites, shopping for or selling antiques and collectibles has gone from being a fun hobby to a lucrative pastime that can sometimes pay for itself.

But as more and more collectors hawk their items online, the old-fashioned flea market has struggled to compete with the ease and efficiency of auctioning online.

On Sunday at the Holiday Inn Expo Indoor Garage Sale and Flea Market, vendors sold their wares and discussed how the Internet has changed the market for collectibles.

Art and Steph McDermott know the ins and outs of buying and selling collectible items. Steph McDermott has been buying used items at antique stores and flea markets since high school.

On Sunday, the couple was selling, among other items, tin molding that was once used to decorate Victorian homes but now can be used for framing pictures.

The McDermotts said that using eBay detracts from the thrill of the hunt because it is so much easier to find unique items.

“I am more of a scratch-and-sniff type,” said Steph McDermott, describing her shopping style. “The junkier and dirtier it is, the more fun it is to find it.”

Several vendors at the expo said that collectors have been spending less at garage sales and flea markets in recent years as the economy has lagged.

“I use eBay occasionally because there are more buyers and the audience is much larger,” said vendor Val Gingerich. “People who find what you list are looking for what you have listed.”

Vendor Rod Walls, who attends flea markets from Nashville to Wentzville, said flea markets are still a great place to find and sell antiques. He said older items tend to sell better at flea markets while musical instruments are more easily sold on eBay.

Art McDermott uses eBay to sell smaller items that are easy to ship, but he said eBay has hurt the market overall.

“Ebay is one deal that drove the prices sky high,” he said. “It makes everything available to everyone, which is great for sellers but not buyers.”

He said that while the online bidding process often leads to better prices, once sold, those items need to be packed and shipped.

Maggie Johnson, a lifelong collector, attended Sunday’s expo to pare down her collection.

“I collected everything,” she said, smiling. “It was so fun the years I collected.”

Johnson does not have the Internet and thus relies on flea markets to sell her extra items, which include dolls, jewelry and old campaign buttons. Despite not having the global audience of eBay, she has been successful.

“I’ve sold a lot,” she said.

Sandy Licklider was looking for antique nonfiction books to sell on eBay. A year ago she quit her job as a software designer to pursue the trade. She goes to the Salvation Army, estate sales and flea markets to buy books.

“If I buy a box of books for $2 and only sell some, it’s still good,” she said.

She has had some great finds, including a book of pictures from Bermuda that she bought for $2 and sold for $100 to a man from Bermuda. She said that result isn’t typical, but it is exciting.

“It worked out well for both of us,” she said. “It’s so much fun.”

Jim Brockman strolled through the booths looking for milk glass to buy for a friend who buys and sells it.

“Sometimes you pick up a piece being sold for $2 or $3 and it can end up being worth much more,” he said. “It’s never happened to me.”

He said the pricing on eBay for milk glass is usually accurate because serious collectors have catalogs that list values.

“People trade with each other and try to get the best deals they can,” Brockman said. “It’s like a big game.”


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