For 317 days a year, the tiny East Texas town of Canton (pop. 5,147) is a sleepy country crossroads, anchored by a stately limestone courthouse and historic square. The streets are lined with mom-and-pop stores, homey BandBs and cafés that still close on Sundays. But four days a month, Canton is invaded: Traffic jams threaten the single four-way stop, and the population swells to more than 400,000. All of these rummage-sale pilgrims come for a crack at the best bargains the 150-year-old flea market has to offer.
First Monday Trade Days Flea Market, once a modest row of merchants set up outside the courthouse on the first Monday of every month, is now the world’s largest flea market (in continuous operation). Despite its name, the fair moved to weekends to attract more visitors, and today has more than 5,000 stalls on 500 acres of ranchland. Most buyers and sellers drive in from around Texas and neighboring states, but some come from as far as California and the East Coast—and you might run into a few Europeans.
Trying to catalog the wares is impossible. As one vendor put it, “if you can’t find it in Canton, it ain’t been made yet.” Shoppers come for the antiques, housewares, furniture and artisanal goods—but also for the experience. To visit Canton is to enter an old-world Americana marketplace that thrives on friendly conversations, word-of-mouth advertising and secret family recipes. Computers are rare, cash is preferred and the thrill of the hunt—for that perfect Depression-era kitchen table, Art Deco doorknob or early 1900s gold bracelet—is addictive.
FINDING YOUR WAY
A few unspoken rules will help you navigate the layout. New or infrequent vendors are in the unreserved rows of garage-sale booths. More established antiques merchants typically have bigger lots along pedestrian paths. Contemporary items—clothes, jewelry, artworks—are often in one of the 11 pavilions or breezy atriums. Though the First Mondays office, a log cabin on the south side of the grounds, does have spiffy laminated maps, visitors are probably better off using landmarks (the entry gate, the water tower) or asking for directions. Here’s a loose guide to some of our favorite old-time, out-of-the-ordinary and just plain interesting stalls, stands and vendors.
Travelers eager for a taste of cowboy culture should start their day at B Saddlery, where John “the Saddleman” exhibits his hand-tooled chaps, canteens and custom saddles, “guaranteed to fit your horse and you” (as his business card notes). Over the past 22 years, he has built some 1,000 Western saddles for ranchers, rodeo champs and Texas celebrities like George Strait. Hunting enthusiasts flock to Harry White, “the Cowboy”, a 6-foot-4-inch man sporting a handsome mustache, beard and cowboy hat. He has more than 1,000 hunting rifles and antique knives, mostly locked in glass cases.
Two jewelry vendors stand out for their well-curated collections. Saikou of SK USA Import Export Inc. sells beads from all over, including rustic necklaces made from colorful sea glass carefully selected in Nigeria. For estate jewelry, visit Donna Bookout of Bookout Antiques, who’s only missed two trade days in 40 years. Ask to see her 1810 Georgian ring with an oval ruby, or a swath of mine-cut diamonds set in white gold.
Joyce Nicoletti of Ole Yeller Barn Antiques carries a vast selection of “hard times glass” from the Depression era. Shabby chic decor continues at the Gypsy Pearl, where Fort Worth native Pam Burnett has French country furnishings and rare pieces of antique lace.
If metal works are more your speed, David Lowry at String Bean’s Blacksmith Shop sells striking iron candleholders, pot racks, headboards and tables, forging some on site. Next door, Phil and Tina Rice make furnishings out of discarded metals, such as barstools built from tractor parts. For antler chandeliers and cowhide rugs, visit Wild Bill, who also sells wooden swans he makes out of driftwood from Louisiana’s Ouachita River.
HEAD INTO TOWN
The Atrium, or food hall, on the market grounds sells delicious roasted corn, sausage dogs, turkey legs and funnel cakes. But a walk into Canton proper makes for a pleasant escape from the crowds. The first place to open every day is Donut Corner, where the counter is laden with donuts fresh from the oven. For cappuccinos, head over to Come Together Trading Co. on the main square. It also sells toys, clothes and souvenirs through Ten Thousand Villages, a Fair Trade retailer. If you can excuse the frilly interiors, the Tea Room on the Square is worth a visit for sweet almond tea and a slice of chess pie—a traditional Deep South dessert.
Happy hour fans were thrilled when the Texas Roads Winery opened last summer, pouring only Lone Star State wines. The Winery’s own Sweet Freedom is a refreshing white for a hot afternoon. Two doors down is Canton’s newest restaurant, the Soda Jerk, a 50s-style jukebox diner serving thick chocolate malts made with Texas Blue Bell ice cream. For 40 years, Ochoa’s has been known for its salsa, grilled skirt steak and tamales. And the best barbecue is only a short drive from town: Backwoods Bar-B-Que, for smoky brisket and spicy pork sausage.
BEYOND THE FAIR
Across Highway 19, the animal market affectionately known as Dog Town is like one big petting zoo: puppies, kittens, ranch horses and even flying squirrels are for sale along straw-covered paths. Pet fashions range from glitzy collars to warm woolen coats. Nearby is the Mountain, a gated shopping area set up like an old Western town, with stores housed in wooden cabins. Before you ride off into the sunset, stop here to rest your shopping bags, settle in on a breezy porch with an iced tea and tap your feet to some bluegrass.
OTHER TOP FLEA MARKETS
FIRST MONDAY TRADE DAYS FLEA MARKET
BRIMFIELD ANTIQUE SHOW
GEORGETOWN FLEA MARKET
DAYTONA FLEA and FARMERS MARKET
SHIPSHEWANA AUCTION and FLEA MARKET
MAXWELL STREET MARKET
ROSE BOWL FLEA MARKET
B Saddlery: 972.551.0113
Harry White: 817.676.1692
Saikou of SK USA Import Export Inc.: 917.312.1860
Bookout Antiques: 903.753.0613
Ole Yeller Barn Antiques: 417.434.1194
Gypsy Pearl: 817.319.6290
String Bean’s Blacksmith Shop: 903.498.7245
Phil and Tina Rice: 903.527.9166
Wild Bill: 318.355.2503
Donut Corner: 365 E. Dallas St.; 903.567.2045
Come Together Trading Co.: 116 E. Dallas St.; 903.567.1133
Tea Room on the Square: 131 S. Buffalo St.; 903.567.6221
Texas Roads Winery: 134 W. Dallas St.; 903.567.6801
Soda Jerk: 100 W. Dallas St.; 903.567.6800
Ochoa’s: 305 E. Dallas St.; 903.567.3373
Backwoods Bar-B-Que: 630 W. Hwy. 243; 903.567.6253
First Monday Trade Days Flea Market: 401 N. Hwy. 19; 903.567.6556; firstmondaycanton.com
Brimfield Antique Show: Brimfield, MA; brimfieldshow.com
Brooklyn Flea: Fort Greene, Brooklyn, NY; Saturday–Sunday year-round (indoors mid-November through March); brooklynflea.com
Georgetown Flea Market: Washington, DC; Sunday year-round; georgetownfleamarket.com
Saturday's Market: Middletown, PA; Saturday year-round; saturdaysmarket.com
Daytona Flea and Farmers Market: Daytona Beach, FL; Friday–Sunday year-round; daytonafleamarket.com
Ship Shewana Auction and Flea Market: Shipshewana, IN; tradingplaceamerica.com
Maxwell Street Market: Chicago, IL; Sunday year-round; maxwellstreetmarket.com
Rose Bowl Flea Market: Pasadena, CA; second Saturday of every month; rgcshows.com