“This man came in and was wandering around. When I asked him if I could help him. He told me no. His psychiatrist told him to start going to flea markets and just walk around re-visiting the things of his childhood. I let him wander. Who am I to argue with his psychiatrist?”
– Beverly Russell
Owner of Jefferson Flea Market
Legend has it that early on in his life, James Cash Penney received two gifts that turned out to be identical dress shirts. Figuring it was one too many, Penney sold one of the shirts and, well, the next time you walk into a J.C. Penney store, just remember those humble beginnings.
Beverly Russell knows how Penney felt. In fact, her “empire” is built on going to one garage sale too many, buying one “extra” lamp, more dishes than were needed and enough clocks for each time zone in the world. In fact, in those early years, it seemed she could leave no “Last-Supper-on-black-velvet” behind!
“I was building a new house and I started going to garage sales just to get an idea on how they priced the things,” Russell says in looking back at her Penney-esque beginnings.
“I wound up buying much more stuff than I could ever use. I knew I had to get rid of some of it so what did I do? I started having garage sales, of course!”
Those garage sales turned into an indoor flea market off Causeway Boulevard, then into a sprawling flea market warehouse operation near the Huey P. Long Bridge, with store space being rented out to other budding J.C. Penneys.
When her lease ran out seven years ago, Russell and her husband of 60 years, Jim, moved their alarm clocks, neon Budweiser signs, garden tools, bakers racks, Bionic Woman posters and collectible Royal Crown Cola, Nehi Orange Drink, Hillbilly Brew and Red Rock Cola bottles to the big yellow building on Airline Highway near Louis Armstrong Airport.
“Hey, I’m lookin’ for a window fan,” says a self-proclaimed hippie customer who admits he’s still lost somewhere back in the 1960s, who’s wandering around the store. “They don’t make no windah fans no mo’,” says his girlfriend, a lost-in-time flower child who calls herself, ‘Morning Rain.’ “Maybe we could git one of them little fans ’n’ put it up on the ledge where the cat sleeps. And just pretend it’s a windah fan.”
“Cool!” the customer avers and the couple head to where Morning Rain saw the fan earlier.
Another guy with the look of a man possessed asks a woman who runs one of the stores in Russell’s building for a “brass razor … like the one my dad gave me when I first started to shave.”
The woman retreats to the back of her cubicle and returns with a Gillette razor with a brass head and a faux bone handle.
“Nahhhhh,” Mr. Possessed says, shaking his head in disgust. “This one had an SS carved on it – Schutzstaffel,” he says. “German memorabilia.”
“Naw, nothing like that,” the woman says. She waves him off and the guy walks away whistling “Deutschland Über Alles.”
Over here, a well-dressed young preppie couple roots around in a darkened corner looking for nothing in particular but admitting to be “looking for something we had no intention of buying when we walked in here.”
Further away, in a cubicle offering items including a plastic, battery-operated angel who flaps her wings and glows and the classic “Elvis-on-black-velvet,” a middle aged women is running her hand over a solid wood desk and is on the verge of making up her mind to buy it.
Another woman, named, Cynthia, is looking through Russell’s “kitchen section.” She is picking out “smaller dishes” because, “everything I have is so big.” She corners a stranger and begins pontificating on why she’s shopping for smaller dishes: “My Chihuahua, Lola, has a difficult time eating out of those larger dishes,” Cynthia says. “These smaller dishes would be perfect for her. Now she can’t put one of her paws in these when she eats. Another thing these little flat ones are good for.”
The cornered stranger, who has that unmistakable don’t-give-a-damn look on her face, finally edges her way into an open aisle and high-tails it out of there, leaving Cynthia still talking about Lola and the small dishes.
“‘We want to buy everything you have outside.’ I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Russell says. “They did just that. They asked that I give them an itemized statement and make it out to MGM Studios, Hollywood, California.
“I rent and lease a lot of items for commercials too. The producers tell me when the commercial is going to start airing and I watch for them. By now the word has spread. I’ve got production companies that are regular customers,” Russell continues. “One day there was a production chief here and he wanted to rent a special kind of bed to be used in a Dolly Parton television special. Well, this guy was standing next to the two men and he was taking in everything they said. When they left, he asked me if they were bringing that furniture back. I told him yes because they were just leasing it for the TV special. The man says, ‘If Dolly Parton sleeps on that bed, I want to buy it when it comes back! When you get it back, you just call me. I’ll be here in a minute! I want that bed!’ On the show, Miss Parton didn’t actually sleep on the bed. She sat in a rocking chair with a child in her lap … next to the bed.”
The guy who wanted to sleep where Dolly slept was disappointed, of course. But he returned a month later and when he did, he bought a Star Trek bath mat and a John Wayne coin bank.
For Beverly Russell such treasures are money in the bank.