Super Flea & Farmers Market in Cheektowaga may be the only place you can buy a “Ghostbusters” lunchbox, apples, tires, vacuum cleaners, jewelry, soy candles, a Lex Luger wrestling figure, purses, cheese, and coats for dogs, as well as get a haircut while you’re at it.
The only thing the Walden Avenue market and its more than 200 vendors have been short on this holiday season is customers.
Aisles at the flea market, open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, used to be packed on the weekends before Christmas. People would line up outside the doors, located a half-mile – and a world away – from the glitzy Walden Galleria.
Vendors think the downturn has a little bit to do with the economy and a lot to do with plans to demolish the building and construct a Walmart on the site. They fear that many would-be customers believe that Super Flea already has become a memory of Christmases past.
“People have got to know, we’re still here,” said Betty Sleger, who has run Betty’s Gifts at the market for more than 25 years.
She used to make $500 to $700 a day at her store. “Now $100 is a good day,” she said.
Sunday, it was easy to navigate the narrow walkways between booths filled with wares. Many of the customers were regulars, including Jean Claude Wouters of Buffalo.
“A lot of people think it is closed,” Wouters said. “As long as it’s open, I’m going to keep coming.”
Benderson Development Co. opened the flea market in 1975 after buying the property from G.E.X., a now-defunct chain of discount stores.
Vendors said the downturn started about three years ago, when a small fire forced the closing of Super Flea for several weekends.
Since the fire, “it’s not the same,” said Jay Fuentes, who repairs jewelry from his stand near the front door. A sign of the slowdown was evident, as half a dozen vendors had the time to gather Sunday afternoon at his jewelry case and talk with a reporter.
There was word about two years ago that Super Flea would move to Garden Village Plaza Market Place on Union Road to make room for a big-box store, which turned out to be Walmart. The giant retailer plans to move from its Thruway Plaza site to 2500 Walden, where the Super Flea is now. That is not expected to happen for six months or more, but no one knows exactly when. The Walmart project is under review by the Town of Cheektowaga, and the Town Board must approve the site plan.
“Vendors will be moved to the Market Place,” Town Supervisor Mary F. Holtz said. “I don’t want to hurt those businesses.”
She said the preliminary plans for the Market Place from Benderson, which owns both locations, are “absolutely great.”
What Walmart has given Super Flea for Christmas, said Chuck Zarbo, owner of Silver Kaleidoscope. “is basically … the death sentence.”
“A lot of people depend on the little they make here to supplement their Social Security,” said Lois Tomasello, who has run the Gift Center for about nine years. Given that Christmas season can be make-or-break for many businesses, “a lot of booths … have closed up” at Super Flea, she said.
It got so bad that 57 vendors pooled their money and bought advertising time on radio. For the moment, “we’re OK,” Zarbo said, “but we’re dying in here.”