It isn’t exactly a newsflash anymore- Times are tough. I think we can all agree that the economy sucks. Shopping is no longer America’s favorite pastime, and for most of us the days of shopping in shiny high-tech malls, by catalog, or over the internet have lost most of their glamour. To regain some of the thrill of the thrift, we need to take a trip back in time to the marketplace of the past. Is there any better way to do this than by visiting a local OKC flea market? While certainly nothing new to a American culture whose frontier was built on General Stores, flea markets are part bargain-hunt and part entertainment and socialization. The ambiance of the modern Oklahoma flea market harks back to a time when people went to the marketplace not just to replenish the things they needed, but also to reconnect with their community.
The Old Paris Flea Market is a Classic Oklahoma City Landmark. It may not come up in the National Register of Historic Places, but by virtue of longevity the Old Paris should be considered a “classic.” Opened in 1976 by Raymond and Norma Wise after a full year of preparation, it has been owned and operated by the Wise family for 36 years. That makes it the same age as your author, and maybe older than much of our readership. If the market was a car, we would call it a “classic” and not quite an “antique,” but with no sign of letting up, the market may persevere long enough to make that National Register.
The Old Paris is located on Eastern Avenue between Reno and S.E. 15th Street in a large recycled warehouse. It might not be extravagant, but it suits its purpose admirably – the 110,000 square-foot climate-controlled building is even wheel-chair accessible. Time takes its toll on everything, but this building is actually remarkably well-kept and clean for its age. Situated in an industrial neighborhood which has fallen into disuse, a huge metal sign and vibrant mural separates the market from the nearby railroad yards and abandoned lots. It is unlikely that you would miss the building or mistake the Old Paris Flea Market for anything less than it is. Even if you somehow failed to see those signs, the large parking lot bustling with traffic on Saturdays and Sundays would certainly draw your attention.
Inside Old Paris, clean and cozy despite the wear and tear – Photo by the astute Lacey Dillard
Let’s be honest – flea markets have a bad reputation. The press is full of myths that seem to insinuate that flea markets are the gathering place of criminal elements and a place to find counterfeit or stolen goods. Even the Old Paris has had its share of bad-mouthing on the internet. While The Lost Ogle had enough respect not to list it of Oklahoma City’s Sleaziest Locations, commenters were not so kind – one person compared it to “the set of some post-apocalyptic film where survivors are attempting to exchange donkeys for funnel cake.” I myself felt comfortable at Old Paris; I was in the midst of bustling crowds and hardy merchants who continue to weather the storm of economic turmoil, not a seedy den of Mad Max thugs. There were no donkeys to be seen, either. Honestly, everyone there was more friendly and more well-behaved than the crowds at most local sporting events. The Old Paris is less “dirty” and “dangerous” than just good southern-fried family fun.
Strolling the grounds outdoors – photo by the talented Lacey Dillard
On my first visit with my two children, I almost didn’t make it inside. I handed them both a fiver in the parking lot, and before we even made it to the door, they nearly spent it all at the rows of outdoor banana boxes full of dollar store merchandise. The other vendors outside the building mostly host mobile garage sales either under tents or directly from their car trunks or truck flatbeds. There is almost a festival feel to the outside market. Many vendors blare loud Latino folk music, and the peppy sounds of trumpets and other horned instruments really do brighten the crowd. Immediately, I spotted the “Corn Wagon” that serves roasted corn and other treats. And this all comes before you are even in the front doors!
Dig for gold or platinum or find the next great unknown – Photo by the amazing Lacey Dillard
Once you get inside, you are pleasantly assaulted by the smells of delicious greasy concessions and the sights of an astoundingly eclectic mix of merchandise. There is no way that I could list every type of merchandise or service available, and it took two trips just to be sure I had seen a half of it. Veteran memorabilia is sold next to Justin Beiber paraphernalia, and a variety of clothes, toys and collectibles dazzle the eye. I saw vendors selling car audio speakers (the big ones that make your neighbors hate you), blinking wall art with Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean (the trinity of tacky nostalgia), bright gold-plated “bling,” and watches with faces as big as saucers. I was surprised to find you can buy Mexican baked goods as well as peanuts and produce. They sell bags of oranges even cheaper than El Mariachi, and the prices on cases of Jarrito’s Authentic Mexican soda (with sugar, not syrup!) were some of the lowest I have seen anywhere.
Just a taste for all the nerds like us – Photo by the superb Lacey Dillard
Old Paris offers plenty of services too. There were people ready to help you get to know your future by reading your tarot cards. I saw a couple stylist booths that offered cornrows and braids, and also barbers who can still do a classic 50’s cut or a tight perm. There is a notary public and wide variety of repairmen. There was even a bar in the back where you could sip a Corona and watch the game on a fifty-inch flat screen with what seemed to be a pretty easygoing crowd of Mexican cowboys, bikers and blue collar families.
Ye Olde Watering Hole – Photo by the remarkable Lacey Dillard
The aisles of the market are wide, but they still overflow with people browsing the booths. It can seem a little confusing and almost overwhelming at first – the building feels a mile long when walking from one side to the other. Luckily, there are five different concession stands across the lengthy span. They generally offer candy, popcorn, soft drinks, nachos, and the other usual suspects, but I also found breakfast items and the biggest bacon sandwiches I had ever seen.
A Local Character in the making – Photo by the wonderful Lacey Dillard
There are as many characters here as there are products. While too overwhelmed on my first visit with the bustle of the crowds and keeping up with my kids (to them, of course, this was a wonderland of toys and trinkets), I made a point of meeting some of the vendors on my next visit. I am glad I did. Each vendor I spoke to gave me just a bit more of the history and heritage of the state’s oldest indoor flea market. The first person I spoke to was Joe Willig, who drew me to his booth with the sweet sounds of soul music and gladly took a few minutes from his coffee and daily paper to talk to me about the business. Joe’s booth, aptly named The Music Box, mostly sells music from the 50’s and 60’s. Joe told me he had been part of the market since it first opened its doors back in 1976. He hasn’t always sold the same merchandise, but he’s always had something to sell. He began with the market while in his twenties and told me he was one of a “handful of the Old Timers” who was there from the beginning. He told me, “if I could write, I could write a soap opera about this place.” Most everyone knows each other if they have been there any time at all. While he admitted there was a gradual turnover and that some vendors only last a few years, he said that there was no reason to leave the flea market if you could just “hold on tight.” He shared that there was no trick to surviving the tough times except “remembering to put your pennies of profit back into the business.” He said it is getting harder to buy wholesale and still beat Wal-Mart or Target on prices, but that this challenge is where the fun lies in working this sort of career. “That’s ‘Flea Market,’ son.”
After we talked, he pointed me towards The Popcorn Patch, another of the original vendors. The Popcorn Patch is one of the more popular concession stands in the building. It is operated by David Jones, who started it with his parents, Walt and Sue Jones. Well-remembered and respected by all of the vendors I spoke to, Walt and Sue passed away barely more than a decade ago and left the business to their son. David told me that at one time his family had run all the concession in the building and that he had been “in ‘Flea Market’ all [his] life.” He told me that his parents weren’t the only other merchants in the family – his kids and his grandkids have also worked the concession stand with him. “I never thought of it that way before, but yeah, we have had four generations work this stand.” The Popcorn Patch supports more than blood-relatives, though. They have taken on hundreds of neighborhood kids over the years, offering young people some of their first jobs and often watching them go on to careers in retail management. “You develop a family here… Everybody in this building is family.”
Check yo’self before you wreck yo’self – Photo by the excellent Lacey Dillard
This was a sentiment that was echoed by all of the vendors that I visited with. They are definitely protective like a family. A vendor that prefers to just be known as Roger from the “Old Paris Knife Shop” was hesitant to talk to me until he was sure I was cleared by the market’s management and wasn’t the only one to look sideways at someone scribbling away on a notepad and asking odd questions. After I could produce evidence that I was indeed “okay to talk to”, he opened up to me about how much he enjoyed being a part of the Old Paris family. “You understand why we would want to be careful about what is written about us, these are people’s lives and families.” He is proud to be one of the “Antiques” that has been there as long as the market. While once traveling from state to state with his father-in-law to be part of gun and knife shows, Roger was very “content” to settle down and set up shop in Old Paris. He likes the vendors and the management and he “isn’t going anywhere.” He said that the feeling of family goes beyond just the vendors. He has seen three generations of customers and he “can’t take a sick day without someone noticing.” For many, this is the “highlight of their entire week” and “social time” to gossip, share stories and gab about family. He told me that he is recognized all over the metro even when he stops to get gas as “Roger, that knife guy from Old Paris” and that he enjoys being a pseudo-celebrity. A young acquaintance traveled away to be a student for some years in another state, and when he returned Roger told him, “I knew you would still be here. I was sort of counting on it.” Roger jokes that when he passes away, his wife will have to put his coffin on display in front of their stand.
Roger pointed me to another of the original vendors named Carolyn who operates Carolyn’s Imports. When talking about how old the market was, Carolyn proudly showed me her husband’s carpentry on many of the booths in the market. The booths have all lasted as long as the market itself. Carolyn has always been the owner of the Imports booth, but she worked with her husband before he passed away importing things from Mexico and selling wholesale to Skaggs, TG&Y and other grocery and variety stores in the years long before Oklahoma was littered with Wal-Marts and Targets on every other block. While most of what she carries now is bought wholesale in Dallas, originally the pair would negotiate great deals in Mexico and haul them back on a long trailer attached to a pick-up truck. She told me that “buying wholesale isn’t what it once was, but buying merchandise is still [her] favorite part of the business.” While once operating five booths and employing her sisters, Carolyn now has only one booth but still employs her nieces to help with it. While she has no plans to completely retire, she does admit “It is nice to only work two days a week… If I get tired, I just go home.”
The heyday of the Flea Market may have passed in the 80’s and 90’s, but the vendors told me that you couldn’t tell it by the crowds. Roger told me, “on a slow day, I still see 3000 faces and on a good day we get as many as 8000 people through this building.” Carolyn told me that “nobody spends as much these days” but that her customers always keep her busy.
Booths that have stood the test of time – Photo by the fabulous Lacey Dillard
The consumers are as unique as the vendors. I spoke with a young man in worn blue jeans and tooled leather boots who wanted to remain anonymous but described himself as a “Regular.” He said that he came every weekend “at least once and spent hours just walking around.” He told me that he knew the people at the Old Paris “better’n I know my neighbors… Lots of people come here just to talk and I probably know their stuff even more’n I do my own family’s.” He knew how to “talk a deal” and got most of his tools at the market. He told me that there were “all kinds here from ‘real’ bikers to rodeo cowboys” and that he had met lots of people from foreign countries, such as a lady from Australia that he corresponded with for a while, and lots of people from “all over Asia.” Even if you aren’t there to buy anything, a good time can be had just by people watching and interacting with the varied cultures and characters in the crowd.
The management seemed to be some of the hardest-working I have seen anywhere in retail, constantly answering the bleating calls of their radios and running from fork lift to front door. Their amazing pace keeps the whole market running smoothly and safely. Manager Clyde Steen, who graciously turned down his radio to make a minute for me, introduced me to Mike Parker, the great-grandson of original Old Paris owners Ray and Norma Wise. In these tough times, it is nice to see a family business doing so well with so much competition.
Whether the Wise family intended to create a market or a community when they opened the Old Paris Flea Market, they certainly have established an Oklahoma landmark. Old Paris is both a place to bring your family and a place to find a family. Anyone can become a part of the larger community that gathers each weekend to buy and sell, barter and trade, to connect or to share a common story. I am brought back to something that David Jones told me – “Sure, there are lots of stories and lots of water under the bridge.” Isn’t that the truth in every family?
Get adopted into the family and find the Old Paris Flea Market at 1111 S. Eastern Avenue, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, open every Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 6pm. Remember to shop The Popcorn Patch, Old Paris Knife Shop, Carolyn’s Imports and just follow the soulful music to find Joe Willig’s Music Box all inside the Old Paris Flea Market.
(c) Sean Murphy All rights reserved. Photos (c) Lacey Elaine Dillard. Please do not reproduce photos without Lacey’s permission.