One of Wichita’s oldest and quirkiest shopping destinations is closing.
Village Flea Market, which has operated at 2301 S. Meridian every weekend since 1975, will close for good at the end of business on July 2, said owner Mike Garvey.
His plan is to turn the 100,000-square-foot building into a storage facility for Builder’s Inc., the Garvey family’s real estate development company, where he is president.
But several vendors are making plans to find a new place to revive the flea market, which on weekends draws bargain shoppers looking for deals on comic books, games, jewelry, toys, coins, sunglasses, bras, knives, fishing poles, records, furniture and more.
They don’t want to see it come to an end, they say.
“This place has been a flea market since the ’70s, and there have been generations of people who have grown up here,” said Robert Esau-Rutherford, who has run a comic book and toy booth called Collectible Bulk at the market for four years. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the city’s heritage.”
As far as I’m concerned, this is the city’s heritage.
Robert Esau-Rutherford, vendor
The flea market’s vendors recently received a letter summoning them to a mandatory meeting, which happened after closing on Sunday. At the meeting, the general manager told the vendors about the closing and about Garvey’s plans for the space.
The market has struggled financially for years, Garvey said, and the number of vendors has fallen. The 100,000-square-foot building has space for 400 booths, but only about 80 are permanently filled.
The market isn’t what it used to be, he said, and foot traffic has slowed. He decided he could find a better use for the space – though he said the decision was a difficult one.
“Obviously, people were disappointed,” he said. “And I think we knew that would be the case.
“But sometimes, you’ve just got to do it.”
Garvey noted that other flea markets in the area also have been closing, including the Mid America Market’s flea market in the Kansas Pavilions, which moved to Hutchinson last year after 40 years in Wichita.
“I think with the internet, there’s a lot of competition out there,” he said. “Retail struggles in general.”
Esau-Rutherford said he grew up going to the market, where his father and grandfather had a booth in the 1980s. They had a computer that would print images on calendars, puzzles and T-shirts, and in the 1980s, that technology was still rare.
He said vendors received the letter about the meeting about nine days before it happened, and there was a lot of speculation and fear leading up to it.
I think with the internet, there’s a lot of competition out there.
Mike Garvey, Village Flea Market
Business was up and down, he admitted, and it was down for the months and months that Meridian was under construction. But that was recently completed, and things had started to pick back up, he said.
Now, Esau-Rutherford said, he’s trying to figure out what’s next. He may try to open a storefront or he may take his business strictly online.
“It’s just really a shame because Wichita has lost a venue where small businesses could easily get a start,” he said.
Jason Knipp said he also grew up at the flea market, where his father, Scott, has operated a booth off and on since the 1980s. Knipp remembers that on Saturdays, he’d clean his mother’s beauty salon and earn $2 or $3. She’d drop him off at the flea market, and he would spend his money buying baseball cards or Garbage Pail Kid cards from a booth owned by a guy named Jerry.
Knipp said he wants to find a new place for the market to set up and has a few buildings in mind, including the recently vacated Kmart building on West Kellogg. He said he has made initial contact with the owner to float his idea.
The market is an important part of his childhood memories and is his father’s main occupation, Knipp said. It’s also helped Jerry, his old baseball card pal, earn money to help care for his sick wife.
He hates to think about all those vendors having to close.
“I just don’t want to see them left out in the cold,” he said.
Jael Van Boening also is concerned about the vendors. She was the general manager of the flea market from June 2014 until she was fired in February.
After the meeting was over, her phone blew up with calls from her old flea market friends, asking her what they should do, she said.
Van Boening has organized a meeting for Tuesday to see how many vendors want to continue with their businesses and to talk about relocation ideas.
“I worked with all of those entrepreneurs that had booths inside of there, and it breaks my heart that the decision to close the flea market could mean for a lot of them closing their businesses,” she said. “I know how hard they work to build their businesses, to grow their business.”
The people who had businesses at the market were like family, she said, and everyone looked out for everyone else. Race, religion and sexual orientation didn’t matter inside those walls.
It’s been a part of the community for 43 years and it’s the entrepreneurial hub for retail in this city.
Jael Van Boening, former general manager
Van Boening said she could count at least 30 people whose flea market booths were their sole source of income.
“It’s been a part of the community for 43 years,” she said. “And it’s the entrepreneurial hub for retail in this city. For anyone that wants to start any kind of a retail business, that was the best place to start.
“And now, it won’t be an option anymore.”
The flea market operates in the old G.E.M. store, which was a discount membership chain aimed at government employees. When it closed, the Garveys took the building over and turned it into a flea market originally known as Traders Village.
The market, which also has a popular snack bar, opens from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.