Every time a flea market enthusiast has encouraged me to go to Pickens Flea Market they've always started with the caveat: "You have to get there early."
Early birding is a good idea for any flea market, but it seems dogma de rigueur for this massive tribute to individualized entrepreneurialism, located on the western outskirt of the small city of Pickens in South Carolina.
I find this a difficult directive to follow. In flea market terms, "early" means 6 a.m. Pickens, by any route, is a very long hour and a half from Asheville (I recommend going highway 25 to S.C. 11 and then following the signs). This means leaving the house at 4:30 a.m. One reason I have followed the slippery slope to life as a junker is a degree of laziness directly opposed to 4:30 in the morning.
But the siren call of junk and my basic journalistic responsibilities to the Mountain Xpress dictated that I hit Pickens, so off I went one recent Wednesday morning, albeit at the blasphemously late hour of 7 a.m..
That's right, Wednesday. Until recently Pickens was a Wednesday-only flea market, giving dealers from all over the south an extra place to come, which means Pickens sees a more diverse group of sellers than other fleas.
Pickens' vast size is owed to the fact that it's actually two flea markets that have grown together, like Raleigh-Durham, or Time/Warner or something. The first is Pickens Flea Market (the "old" market, mainly locals), the second is the Bargain Exchange Flea Market (the adjacent "new" market, mostly out-of-towners). But mutual expansion and small connecting outcroppings have joined them, so you can walk from the end of the "old" to the other end of the "new" and never realize you made a transition.
I did discover that there are more reasons than firsties to get to Pickens before the rising sun, particularly in late July. Schlepping around in the heat led to my discovery of the slimming and self-improving "Pickens Workout," which I now bring to you — at no additional charge! Combat fundamental laziness through a system combining endurance, cardiovascular stimulation, built-in rewards programs and heat therapy. As the program's tag line reads, "Stay Fit and Get Sh*t!"
The Pickens Workout requires good walking shoes. No thin-soled city sneakers are going to work. The walking paths of the Bargain Exchange Flea Market in particular are mined with the harshest, most jagged gravel known to man. My one previous visit I'd worn my Chucks. Never again. I might as well have been walking barefoot on broken glass.
It also requires good sun block. Walking the Western N.C. flea markets is nothing like coming down off the mountains and ending up in South Carolina – the temperature went up 20 degrees, the humidity 20 percent. I was immediately coated in a moist heat bath and could feel that bloaty water weight melting right off. And if you want to try to buy a bottle of water when you're in the back 40, forget it. There is one guy who controls water concessions for the whole market and he drives around in a golf cart and bullies anyone cutting in on his racket.
The Pickens Workout will test your endurance. Even when you stop moving and start digging, you are assaulted by the varied and tenacious menagerie of insects for which South Carolina is famous, all trying to help you with their own malaria-and Lyme-disease weight-reduction programs. Plus the atmosphere is decidedly rural, and several distinct olfactory species of manure accompany you on your journey around the grounds.
However, at least on this particular Wednesday, I was rewarded with a wide variety of useful goods, for both personal consumption and sustained fiscal solvency. I got scooped on some nice LPs (guy who found them told me, "You have to get here early") but I found great 45s and a dazzlingly stylish briefcase stereo system from the late '60s that looks like something James Bond would have used to spy on the villain, contact Her Majesty's Secret Service via shortwave, address a panicked public, and provide background music for seducing a female double agent.
But even rewards have their hurdles – lugging an armful of records and this slim but dense piece of antiquated technology all the way back to my vehicle was the sort of full body no-holds-barred workout that you'd have to pay for at The Rush, but get, with benefits and for no cover charge, in Pickens, S.C.
Results of the Pickens Workout may vary. Stopping at the concession stand negates all benefits. Consult your physician before getting up at 4:30 a.m.