Finding Faith at the Flea Market

A lifetime of searching for treasures at markets and garage sales across the country taught her—and PBS star Bob Richter—lasting life lessons.

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Posted in , Oct 26, 2021

Finding Faith at the Flea Market

When I was a child, I loved nothing more than to go junkin’ with my daddy. The markets we’d hit up proved to be a mecca for great finds—and great fun. But the older I get, the more I realize it wasn’t just about toting home a car full of stuff. The life lessons I learned at the flea market continue to inspire me today.

I was around 10 years old, when Daddy and I spontaneously checked out a pop-up flea market near our home in West Virginia.  Held in a grocery store parking lot, folks were marketing their wares from the trunks of their cars.

While my father sniffed out the old-timey clocks he resold for profit, I wandered the rows of vehicles in search of something to display on my bedroom bookshelf. I had five dollars from helping our neighbor pull weeds in her garden. A metal object shaped like a bouquet of flowers stopped me in my tracks. “This here’s a gen-u-wine antique cast-iron doorstop,” the seller drawled. “Don’t see these babies every day.” Its flashy colors even matched my bedspread. With nary a thought, I handed over my hard-earned money.

I couldn’t wait to show my father my find. But Daddy placed his big hand over mine, pointing my fingers toward the garish paint job. “If this were the real deal, honey, these colors would be softer and worn in places. I’m afraid it’s an old doorstop with a new paint job.”

On the drive home, Daddy said we’d find a dealer who specialized in antique doorstops. That way I could study the real deal; only then could I spot a fake. I didn’t know it that day, but my father and the flea market were teaching me about life.  The lesson learned? If you want to know what’s good and true, read The Good Book. When you’re steeped in The Real Thing, you’ll spot an imposter right away. 

One of my favorite flea market haunts is held twice a year in the central Texas town of Round Top. It’s a global attraction with 2,000 antiques vendors spread over five towns and 21 miles. I’ll never forget the first time I visited. As I steered my rental down a country road bordered by Longhorn cattle grazing in green pastures and fields of bluebonnets, I made a beeline for the Big Red Barn. A mix of Early American antiques soon had me rearranging my family room back home in West Virginia.

But Round Top folks don’t just create innovative booths and attractions. Recently, while giving a kicked-to-the-curb farm table a second chance in my historic log cabin, I returned to a lesson I learned there from a tall, blonde Texan sporting a cowgirl hat with a silver and turquoise buckle. She noticed me admiring her farm table and seemed to know that I was mentally smoothing away its flaws. With a knowing smile she sauntered up to me and wrapped an arm around my shoulder. “We can’t ever take a table’s story away,” she said. “Perfect is boring. Besides, we wanna always remember where we came from.” 

My own life was full of stories, not always of the inspirational variety. After that encounter I viewed them differently. My trials had made me who I was. This was my story—written by the Great Author Himself.  No one was going to take it from me.

Whenever I take advantage of early-bird hours at an outdoor flea market I think of Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” It’s usually dark at that time of morning, but you can shop by flashlight while the vendors set up their wares. One morning I was so excited I left my flashlight in the car. But a guy on a bicycle had just what I needed: a lantern welded to a wire basket. I followed his light for a while, then trailed behind a lady with a light clipped to a baby stroller-turned shopping cart. 

As my fellow shoppers lit my way, I purchased a wooden child’s chair, a blue graniteware stove, and a primitive ladder perfect for displaying the old quilt I’d discovered. When daylight came, I barely recognized my prized ‘finds.’ The chair was missing a rung. The graniteware stove had more dings than I did, and the quilt was ripped beyond repair. If I’d seen that stuff in broad daylight, I would have walked on by. But in the dark, following the crowd’s make-do light, it had proved irresistible.

I wasn’t looking for a lesson that day. But as sure as treasures found me, so did a memorable tutorial in faith. I thought back to the times I’d tried to live by someone else’s light. It had always landed me in a heap of trouble. God’s light—and the one that burns inside me—would never steer me wrong.

One of my most heart-tugging flea market moments involves Bob Richter, the vintage lifestyle expert best known for his starring role in the PBS series Market Warriors.  One crisp autumn afternoon at the wonderful Burlington, Kentucky outdoor market, Bob told me how his adored Nana had loved Guideposts and had left him a basket of her favorite issues when she passed away. The two of us connected immediately, and Bob shared a story which highlights his lifelong fascination with the history and mystery of castoffs. When Bob was a boy he learned about yard sales and flea markets from his beloved older brother Johnny. They were forever looking for the bluebird china their family used while growing up. Whenever they happened upon some, they would sense a little “God nod.”

Johnny died when he was 27; Bob was 15. Bob would always feel Johnny’s presence when he encountered something at a flea market they both had loved. Early one morning Bob decided to wander the aisles at the Chelsea Flea Market in New York City where he resides. 

While perusing the stalls, Bob was drawn, as if by a physical force, to a surrealistic landscape painting leaning against a wall. There’s something about that canvas, he thought.  He walked away, then felt as if he were taken by the hand to revisit the artwork. On closer inspection, Bob noticed the figure in the painting seemed to resemble Johnny. Were his eyes playing tricks on him?  Grief was known to do such things. Nostalgia and loneliness too.                      

Bob’s eyes travelled to the lower right hand corner of the frame. It couldn’t be. These things only happened in movies. But it was so. Before his very eyes was Johnny’s signature. The painting was of his brother and by his brother. While Bob had known Johnny had once painted, there were very few examples of his work. Even their mother only owned two of them. Did Johnny paint this canvas one summer when he was home from art school and perhaps sell it then?           

 “I didn’t go looking to find a piece of artwork done by my brother that day,” Bob says. “But that’s what I found. Or, I should say, ‘That’s what found me.’ It’s an example of the spirituality, the unexplainable, I encounter at flea markets. The events that connect the past with the present in a marvelous way.”

It goes to show that all who wander (even the aisles and stalls of flea markets) are not lost at all.  Especially when their Heavenly Father is leading the way at these wonderful vintage venues.

Today, Bob, likes to tell flea market devotees: “Pay attention when you are unexplainably drawn to something. These objects were loved, valued, and kept. There is  emotional worth to that. They provide comfort, connection, and continuity.” Bob also is convinced that if something seems special while shopping, it likely is. “The great underappreciated value at flea markets is emotional and spiritual. Financial value fluctuates based on trends, tastes, and style. Always trust that inner voice,” he urges.

Bob was not the only person touched by the divine mystery of that painting. “The dealer was blown away by the absolute miracle,” he says. “I still see the man who sold it to me, and we always recall our sacred moment with a smile.”

Today, his brother Johnny’s self-portrait has a place of honor in Bob’s home, a symbol that God will go to any lengths to comfort His children.  Each time I recall Bob’s story, I feel God’s care for me as well. I also remember that not all who wander—especially the aisles of a flea market—are lost.

It’s as author Willa Cather once observed: “Where there is great love, there are always miracles.” Mystery and miracles.  Even—and especially—on that walk of faith called the flea market.

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