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ASHEVILLE — The first clue that this flea market is a little unconventional is the cheerful melody from the guy on the fiddle playing “Jingle Bell Rock” on a sweltering Saturday in July.
The second is the presence of a “dressing room” with a mirror in a grassy field, where customers can try on vintage clothing, hand-knitted hats and scarves or other accessories and assess them privately behind closed flaps.
The Paris of the South Flea Market, now in its seventh weekend on the grounds of The Asheville Public restaurant at 175 Clingman Ave. — formerly the Silver Dollar — is a colorful, festival-like affair, with live music, food for purchase and a prime and easily accessible location.
“It’s perfect — right between the River Arts District and downtown,” said flea market co-owner Lonie Wenning. “If you’re going to either, you have to see us.”
Wenning, who runs the flea market with Zia Rifkin, said they want the venue to have the flavor of a “modern-day Dreamland,” referring to the popular flea market that operated for decades on the south end of Tunnel Road before closing in the late ’90s.
You can certainly find the used books, household knickknacks and Christmas décor featured at the Dreamland.
But it’s doubtful the old flea market offered Tarot card readings, “Magic Boxes” containing crystals and herbs, or bagged bath salts with flavors such as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Here Comes the Sun.”
On Saturday, one booth featured a flashback-producing array of vintage Corning Ware, Pyrex and other kitchenware, while another showcased garments representing virtually every scene in “Forrest Gump.”
There were vinyl records, glass bricks, jars of marbles, handmade jewelry and textiles, antique lamps and figurines, and just about everything else you’d imagine at a freewheeling flea market.
One startling booth offered a choice of jewelry with Indian-style beadwork, a massive Magic Chef microwave, a knee orthotic, cotton scarves, bike helmets and tennis rackets.
Among the offerings on the “free table,” with all items donated by vendors and up for grabs, were a Bible, a pair of pantyhose, a throw pillow, a lamp base, a Christmas candle and a pair of ladies shoes.
“Last weekend, someone donated a bunch of canned goods, and you can’t believe how fast they went,” Wenning said.
Some of the vendors at Paris of the South said they’re doing good business at the relatively new venue, selling edgier products that appeal to the more artsy crowd likely to stop by on their way to the studios in the River Arts District.
“I had my stuff in a downtown shop, but I’ve sold more here than I ever did there,” said Alee Gittens, owner of Vagabond Studios, who makes items ranging from old-fashioned aprons to rings made with Legos and Scrabble tiles to keepsake boxes created from old Altoids tins.
Husband and wife Jim Hickey and Alicia Araya, owners of the cleverly named Marshall Arts, featuring unique wood art and mounted photos, said business hasn’t boomed during their first two weekends selling at Paris of the South.
“But where there’s life there’s hope,” Hickey smiled.
Saturday was just their second weekend at the market, Araya said, and they expected to have to become a more familiar presence to begin taking off in sales.
“We’re getting really good feedback — it’s just a matter of getting the right person,” she said. “But it’s a fun place to be, with a great community feel to it.”
Melanie Bryson was making her first visit to Paris of the South and agreed that it has a good vibe, from the eclectic assortment of goods and friendly vendors to the live music wafting from a canopy at the edge of the grassy field.
“There’s not really a lot of junk here, and some of this stuff is really good quality,” she said, nodding at a display of handmade jewelry. “I’ll definitely come back again.”
Wenning, who also operates the Our Own Inc. booth at the Downtown Market on South French Broad Avenue, said she and Rifkin want Paris of the South to be a true community player, promoting their own business but also those of their fellow entrepreneurs and area nonprofits.
They devote one booth entirely to brochures and business cards of locally owned businesses that don’t sell at the market. And one local nonprofit per week is invited to use a table, booth and canopy for free to raise funds.
Next weekend, when the city’s street-corner buskers will be edged out by the Bele Chere festival, those performers have been invited to take one-hour shifts at the market to offset their lost income.
“We’re totally pro-local; we want everybody to have a good time, and we want the reputation of being the friendliest flea market in Asheville,” Wenning said with a grin, noting that Paris of the South is the only flea market in town.