Frank Cafarella has watched the world walk by his stall every weekend for 43 years at the Super Flea in Cheektowaga. The U.S. Marine veteran and his brother-in-law were the first two vendors in the cavernous building on Walden Avenue when the flea market started in 1971. That’s when aisles were packed, and the weekend bazaar was thriving.
“People were like this, front to back, they’d have to all walk together because it was so crowded,” he recalled.
But this is the last weekend for the hodgepodge market with everything from dress military uniforms to used tape measures, from caps with the Masonic symbol to pink boots, where dealers are like family, and customers became friends through the years.
And the customers came and came Saturday. The parking lot looked like the Walden Galleria lot in December, but with a lot more potholes.
The exterior market was bustling, but inside the 123,000-square-foot building, many stalls were empty, with piles of trash still to be picked up, as dealers moved on to other locations.
After the flea closes at 5 p.m. today, the doors will be locked for good.
“It pains me to have to leave,” Cafarella, 81, said as he sat in a white plastic chair. “What are you going to do? They’re throwing us out. Can’t do anything about it.”
The low-slung, sprawling building at 2500 Walden Ave. was built in 1960 as a government employees’ exchange store – a membership department store for government employees.
“It’s been an incredible ride which has seen the site visited by literally millions of treasure-hunters and deal-seekers,” said Eric L. Recoon, vice president of development and leasing for Benderson Development Co., which owns the site.
But the ride is over for the flea’s dealers and customers. A total of four buildings on the site will be demolished to make way for a 183,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter that will replace the existing one located about two miles to the west. The Cheektowaga Town Board approved the site plan for the project last June.
Today’s closure involves the business model as much as the building.
“The Super Flea’s heyday has now passed. Vendors and visitor counts have been eroding for a while now,” Recoon said.
Dealers say with all the talk of building a Walmart on the site, people stopped coming to the Super Flea, believing it had already closed. They said the property is dirty and has been neglected, but it gives them the opportunity to make a little money. For some, that extra $150 or $200 a month was just enough to supplement their Social Security.
While town officials said there had been talks, in recent years, about moving the flea market operation to another Benderson site, Recoon closed the door on that possibility.
“There are no plans to continue to operate the flea market,” he said.
And that has left the 300 or so vendors at loose ends. Some are moving to Antique World in Clarence or the Erie County Auction and Expo Center on Big Tree Road in Aurora.
“We were supposed to have a place to go,” said Jesus Fuentes, who repaired jewelry from his stand near the front door. He and others said they found out a month ago when the flea would close, and that it would not continue at another site.
One dealer said the closing is “very sad,” and several others said it feels like the funeral of a family member.
Their customers don’t want to see the one-of-a-kind market close, either, and many came this weekend for one last bargain.
“Stuff you just don’t see anywhere else,” is how Chris Badner of North Tonawanda described the offerings.
“I don’t know of any other flea market around,” he said. “It would be nice to see if it can reopen.”
Many will miss haggling over a price, or finding that unique gift.
“I got such a big kick out of the people negotiating for something that cost $2. ‘I’ll give you 75 cents. I’ll give you 50 cents. I’ll give you a dollar and a quarter,’ ” Cafarella said. “That’s the way it was.”
Evelyn Moreno of Lancaster said the flea was a regular stop, particularly when her mother-in-law visited from Puerto Rico, and with its inexpensive items, it was a good teaching tool for children.
“It’s something to do with the family that is safe,” Moreno said. “You can teach the children how to use money wisely.”
Kathy Washington of Buffalo is a regular at Super Flea, but doesn’t think she will go to Clarence or Aurora to find the perfect bargain.
“Another man’s junk is my treasure,” she said with a laugh, adding she might have to frequent more garage sales now.
Cafarella gave the vendor’s perspective: “We sold product, made a few bucks. Nobody got rich, and we got rid of the stuff we bought.”
News Staff Reporter Janice L. Habuda contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org