Above: Storefronts along Main Street are decorated to welcome fall shoppers. Canton Visitors Bureau photo
Below: A clock is one of many First Monday finds. Joan Elliott photo
Welcome to First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas, the largest flea market in the country. As many as 400,000 bargain hunters and curious shoppers come to this small (population 3,500) east Texas town for the four-day event. More than 7,000 vendor spaces fill 450 acres, offering a tantalizing assortment of antiques, home décor, fine arts, jewelry, furniture, unusual gifts, clothing, and more.
Driving into town, you’ll see parking lots for cars and RVs on both sides of Highway 19. Huge pavilions–Canton Marketplace, Pavilion 4000, Arbor 3, Trade Center 4–call out to collectors. The excitement ripples through town as restaurants, hotels, B&Bs, and parking lots fill to capacity. The exhilaration rivals opening day of the World Series.
Finding bargains, making buddies
First Monday Trade Days began innocently enough. In the 1850s, the circuit judge came to Canton the first Monday of each month to handle court proceedings. Locals figured this was a good time to bring livestock and produce into town to sell or, more likely, to trade. Over time, First Monday Trade Day outgrew Courthouse Square.
The city purchased six acres two blocks away and the sale moved off the square. Eventually, the “trade day” expanded to four days prior to the first Monday of the month, and allotted space grew exponentially. Today, in spite of its size, First Monday Trade Days retains its charm, attracting bargain hunters every month year-round, rain or shine. It is open from 8 a.m. until dark.
The area nearest the courthouse is set aside for unreserved tables. Vendors have been known to line up Monday morning before the Thursday event begins to get a good spot. Merchandise, typically found at garage sales, abounds; bargaining is both customary and expected. The best deals, it should be noted, are negotiated on Sunday afternoons when vendors would rather sell cheap than cart merchandise back home.
Gilbert Garza of Brownsville, Texas, lives solely off his First Monday earnings, and has only missed a couple events in 30 years. Once a month, his truck rolls into town, weighed down with 14,000 pounds of sandpaper and related merchandise, as well as seasonal produce.
“I love making new friends here,” he says. “When I leave, I feel I have served the people, brought what they needed, and have made them happy.”
With a 42-year history at First Monday, 90-year-old vendor Donna Bookout of Longview, Texas, sells antique jewelry from her booth in the Civic Center. She and her husband used to travel to international shows, especially in London and Paris, to find interesting pieces to sell.
“My most exotic,” she says, “was an 1810 Georgian wedding necklace with rose-cut diamonds and pearls.” She refers to her regular customers as extended family, and happily shares her know-how on pieces customers bring her.
“This has always been a joy to me; it’s never been work,” Bookout says.
Diversity is the name of the game at First Monday Trade Days. Steve Crain sells Swiss peeler; Michael Burke, gourds. Rosa Gomez offers metal yard art, while Brad Levinson sells bandless ear mitts that he designed and had patented. Howard DuBois, who painted murals on several buildings in Canton, continues to paint Western scenes as he chats with passersby. He never tires, he readily admits, of meeting new people and hearing about their lives.
The Marketplace has 93,000 square feet under one roof, and its themed sections presently contain 115 small boutiques, bearing such names as Pieces of a Dream, Love You More, Everything Vintage, and Illusions. These shops, which sell new merchandise, leave their displays up from month to month.
East of Highways 19 and 64 is a privately owned 100-acre complex that is part of First Mondays, and was developed in the mid-1990s. It includes Village Shops, the Old Mill Market Place, and The Mountain, which has both shops and small Western-style bungalows arranged in no particular fashion on rolling terrain.
Where to eat
While there are numerous food vendors in the various marketplaces, many folks opt for the Soda Jerk diner in downtown Canton. Cross the threshold, blink twice, and you’re transported back to the 1950s and 1960s. Sign the wall, put your quarter into the jukebox, and you can select five nostalgic songs, such as Hey, Hey Paula; Raindrops; and My Girl among them.
Choose a table, a booth, or a barstool and order a meal¬–primarily a sandwich or burger–that’s made from scratch each day, according to its owner Judith Turner. Potatoes are peeled and sliced for french fries; mounds of ground beef are seasoned and shaped into balls, ready for flattening and frying. Other items on the menu include taco or chicken salad, fried pickles, onion rings and–of course–floats, malts, shakes, and old-fashioned sodas.
“During Trade Days we need a revolving door,” says Turner. “We can only seat 50 at a time and on those days we may serve 500 to 1,000 a day.”
Where to stay
If you plan on an overnight for First Monday Trade Days, you’ll find a handful of motels, B&Bs, and RV parks in Canton. Know that the amenities and prices may run the gamut during the event, and rooms fill up quickly. AAA Two Diamond motel choices here include Super 8, Best Western, and Quality Inns and Suites. Mill Creek Ranch RV and Cottage resort is a lovely option. Alternatives might include staying in neighboring towns, such as Athens or Mineola, and driving to Canton for First Monday Trade Days.
Go to Trade Days for the ambience, the bargains, the people watching, or the almost bewildering excitement. As one shopper so aptly proclaimed, “If you can’t find it at First Monday, it doesn’t exist.”
Joan Elliott is a contributor from Lake Sherwood, Mo.