What you’re smellin’ is what we’re sellin’

I have a possibly unhealthy relationship with Smiley’s Flea Market. Like fast food or smoking, Smiley’s is tough to quit if you get the habit.

I’ll forego doing smart research on how to spend my weekend junk excursions, because I’d rather hit Smiley’s. And even though I’ll often leave with barely enough stuff to make my gas money back, I can’t quit that place. Many junkers have given up on Smiley’s, preferring Pickens County Flea Market in South Carolina. And we’ll go to Pickens in this column eventually, but just because I know what’s good for me doesn’t mean I always do it.

Smiley’s is a sprawling mass of cement, potholes, Morton buildings and, usually, mud, located one mile east of Exit 44 on Hendersonville Highway, just outside the Fletcher city limits. It’s a giant, sprawling complex, with “three football fields” worth of selling space, with interior shops and exterior tables. Its layout is mazelike and baffling, like Xanadu, or the Winchester Mystery House.

Every weekend, starting at six in the morning and running to five in the evening (peak time is by my estimate 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) anyone with $15 (two tables for $20) can set up shop on an unevenly settled, unforgiving, jean-ripping concrete table that makes up the “yard-sale” (odd name—even my lawn doesn’t look this wasted) area of the flea market.

And in they come, professionals who travel the flea circuit, weekend warriors with an extra trailer full of stuff, families cleaning out a garage. They arrive with their guns, videotapes, religious propaganda, World War II memorabilia, stuffed animals, old tools, produce and clothes. Sometimes there’s junker stuff: stereo equipment, books, records, furniture, odd print items and boxes of old snapshots.

Following the dealers come the patrons, noses open for bargains. Gawkers of every nationality (and many lower-to-middle rungs of the class ladder) stroll through the aisles, avoiding the arbitrarily placed trashcans, pausing occasionally to look at a bright and shiny object. And I am one of these wandering Smilers, marching to the public service announcements and advertisements over the blown-out P.A. system (this week’s title comes from the ad for Homer’s Famous Donuts), and I am proud.

Because I LOVE SMILEY’s. Sign me up for that bumper sticker, I’ll wear it proudly. For me, Smiley’s is America. Like America, Smiley’s is people doing what they can to try to make a dollar or get a prize, barely following (or disregarding totally) vaguely outlined rules, and paying what’s usually a very measurable percentage of their take to the bosses of the land for the privilege. You get all this AND racial tension, too (the subject of a whole other column).

Many questions are vital to a successful raid on Smiley’s. Do I start at the front or the back? Do I start indoors or outdoors? When do I get there?

Never start indoors—indoor dealers are permanently set up and their stock changes slowly. They rarely open until after nine. Go in after you walk the outdoors. But ignore the indoor dealers at your own peril. I know from bitter experience that you skip inside and some newb scoops you.

You have to get there early enough to skim the top. Like an unrotated farm with fertile earth leached to a thin layer of topsoil, there’s only a small dusting of treasure coating Smiley’s at the beginning of each day. If you miss it you’re left with scorched earth. But get there too early and it’s just you and the die-hards. Often it’s the last-comers who bring Smiley’s new blood. Even so, everyone who sells is usually there by 9 a.m.  So your arrival time depends on how long you can last. I got about an hour of soaking up Smiley’s in me (not counting real digging time), so I try to hit it about 8 a.m.

If the market is full when you show up, always start at the tables nearest the street. This is the back of the market, even if it looks like the front, because the parking lot is in the back, if you follow. The back (front) tables fill up first, so the front (back) tables have the latecomers. If I were to map out my outdoor Smiley scores, I bet the highest percentage would be in the back (front).

We’ll discuss Smiley’s more in future columns, because, like America, Smiley’s is complicated. There’s a lot going on—I know I am not entirely aware of all its mechanisms after ten years of frequenting the place. I didn’t follow my own rules two weeks ago and got beat to something I really wanted by about 30 seconds. If I’d started at the back (front) I would have had it. But I started at the front (back). Got distracted by the shiny objects.

— Whitney Shroyer

[editor’s note: Had to ask – what was the something you really wanted that you got beat on? Below is the response.]

There’s a James Brown album called Soul on Top that he cut in 1969. (In the late 60s, when Brown was ruling the universe, he not only released revolutionary funk albums, and super-positive black power anthems,  he also insisted on releasing albums with a jazz trio, and big band albums, Christmas records, and all sorts of other product that is off-brand and mediocre at best.  Working hard does not always mean working well.). Anyway, this Soul on Top album was cut with Oliver Nelson and Louis Bellson’s big band. It’s mainly standards, but there is one incredible, unique moment: This big band funked-up cover of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart” (the only time Brown ever cut it, so you could probably find it on line.)  It was never released as a 45 or on any other record. I would love to be able to play this cut out at my regular Saturday night gig at the Admiral, but I refuse to spend more than a dollar or two on the record, because on the main it sucks.

So I walk up to this stack of records and notice this really weird regular who hangs at Smiley’s has just paid for a small bunch of them. He’s tall and emaciated, with a real soft chin and a long face, he dyes his hair this shiny golden blonde color, and it’s in this kind of Beatle bob.

Anyway, he collects LPs, and I have to listen to him brag about his stuff when I see him at the market from time to time. But I rarely see him buy at Smiley’s, because what he really likes are sealed records. A surprising percentage of the record collectors at Smiley’s have a fetish for SEALED, because, I guess, you can’t get better condition than new.  Although why a fella’d want to have a record he’d never play is, well, it’s not beyond me, but it is coming from a different perspective than mine.

So he says, “this guy got some nice records” and I say to him “let me see what you got,” before even looking through the stack that are still in play, because the devil you know is always better than the unknown score the other guy got, and sure enough, there is a SEALED copy of James Brown Soul on Top in this guy’s trio of LPs. The other two were OK (I woulda bought ‘em sealed, because I’m a dealer and collectors do like sealed records) but seeing an item on my medium-list of personal wants made me wince. I actually tried to buy it off him for $6 (which would have represented a full return on his entire investment, and he still would have had a sealed RUBY AND THE ROMANTICS and a sealed DION BY REQUEST) but since it was DAMN SEALED, he would not part with it. Now it will never be opened and never be played and the shrink wrap will continue to coil tighter and tighter around it until it warps into unplayability, all because my ass couldn’t be bothered to walk all the way from the parking lot to the road. Or I could have also gotten up 10 minutes earlier. Same effect. Lame.

—W.S. 

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11 thoughts on “What you’re smellin’ is what we’re sellin’

  1. Except for a Pee Wee Herman doll and a Pat Benatar 8-track, I’ve had no luck at Smiley’s. I think its the worst flea market I’ve ever seen.

    Now the small one near Canton is a different story…

    Where is the one in South Carolina?

  2. It’s in Pickens County, and is a bit of an undertaking to get to, especially since all the experts recommend you get there on a Wednesday at 6 AM or earlier.

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/pickens-county-flea-market-pickens-2

    Smiley’s has done me right, done me SUPER-right, and done me wrong. I suspect you have to hit it a lot to truly see return. But I can’t even begin to list all the great records I’ve pulled out of there. (I could probably do a top five, though). And even a romanticizer such as myself is growing weary with the place. This season has been extra tough – the quality of the merch is kind of stagnant at the moment and leads me to wonder if the area isn’t picked – it’s been a while since I’ve walked out of there with much of a digger-buzz. Too many traveling dealers are starting to give Smiley’s the miss, and it’s becoming kind of the same old same old boxes of picked over junk week in week out.

    It’s interesting that you’ve done better at Canton -the couple of times I’ve been there I’ve only failed. What’s your methodology? Weekends? During the week? What’d you find?

  3. Dionysis

    Having been repeatedly (for years) told that I MUST visit Smiley’s, a few weeks back I trekked out there, cash in hand, hoping to find some interesting books and whatever. It was among the worst experiences I’ve had. I pulled in off the road, trying to get to the parking area. It took literally an hour to get from the front (highway) to the road leading to the parking lot. Tons of people meandering all over the place, surly venders and a general atmosphere of scuz caused me to get out of there ASAP. The crowd (at least on that Saturday) appeared to be a mix of trailer park denizens and immigrants from south-of-the-border.
    I like to treasure hunt such places, but after that experience, I decided that there could not possibly be anything for sale there that warranted the hassle. If that experience was the exception and not the norm, I’d give it another shot, but somehow, I doubt it.

  4. With the exception of the hour to get from the front to the back, that sounds like a typical Smiley’s experience. I shudder to think how long it must have taken you to get out.

  5. Dionysis

    “I shudder to think how long it must have taken you to get out.”

    Let’s put it this way; it took twice as long (at least) to get in and then back out (to the main road) as it did to get from my house, north of Weaverville, to Smiley’s.

  6. tunsum

    smileys was complete bust last weekend
    seems to be getting worse and worse, too many permanent dealers not enough random folks
    used to sell there every weekend but the early wakeup and the thought of baking in the scuzzy smileys sun has kept me away; a little bit of smileys is fun a whole six hours is mindnumbing
    the real heyday there was when dreamland was still in existence and everyone in asheville went there and smileys was much more a country flea market with dirt cheap prices

    whitney yer dead on with starting on the road side first, one day thought i should do so and didnt; missed out on two mcintosh amps for cheap by about two minutes, got there to see a very happy buyer loading em into his van

    do yall mean the flea market in Candler?
    what of the little one in swannanoa?
    leicester one is closed now but that used to be good just it was cheap and you could get there late in the day

  7. I was wondering what happened to the one in Leicester… mowed down for more condos I guess.

    My favorite small one is the market right before Canton. Some dude that was in DELIVERANCE is there sometimes for photo-ops. I go mainly to look for weird stuff. Last time I scored a toy ED-209 in the box from a ROBOCOP cartoon. I think it’s a little odd making a toy from one of the bloodiest movies ever.

    There was a decent one near the E Asheville exit on I-40 (before Warren Wilson), but they didn’t seem open Sunday. Might be a Saturday thang.

  8. Hey Orbit – I would be glad to take a field trip to Pickens. For the good of the column of course. But we apparently have to entirely redefine the notion of “early bird” to do any good. The only time I’ve ever gone there looked like a bust but it ultimately turned out OK – got a SEALED and extremely rare post-Parliament album by funk drummer Jerome Brailey, which made the trip worthwhile. I’ll speak to you about this in the real world.

    tunsum, I discovered long ago that I do not have anything close to what it takes to sell at Smiley’s – the couple of times I tried just made me absolutely miserable. The hourly pay rate was not much less than I am used to but at least I normally don’t have to leave the house to not make money. All due respect to anyone with the fortitude to stick out an entire day there.

    I could always count on Leicester to yield me gas money for the rest of the day, and it wasn’t that far out of my way to stop there on the way home, but I never truly scored there.

  9. Hey Orbit – I would be glad to take a field trip to Pickens. For the good of the column of course. But we apparently have to entirely redefine the notion of “early bird” to do any good.

    Let’s do it. I’ve got two kids, so waking up at weird hours is no biggie for me.

    Do you really have to be there THAT early? Is there hordes of record collectors from five states fighting over the merchandise?

  10. Do you really have to be there THAT early? Is there hordes of record collectors from five states fighting over the merchandise?

    This is extremely doubtful, indeed. And as I understand it, one of my “rivals” from the area shows up there to sell, and that dude is unskunkable when it comes to early birding, so we might as well forget the 4 AM thing. But remember, I have a column now, so I have this dramatic impulse to stumble around in the dark. So we’re still leavin’ early.

    It’s going to be a couple of weeks before I have a free Wednesday.

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