Variety never ends at Smiley’s

Browsing for deals yields many surprises

jgaines@macon.comAugust 25, 2013 

Ever have one of those days when you needed a luchador mask, a shoehorn, some flatware and an iPhone connector -- and fast?

They’re all to be found at Smiley’s Flea Market, 6717 Hawkinsville Road, along with thousands of miscellaneous items, from giant cigarette lighters ($2.50) to used washer-dryer sets and custom-installed car speakers (variable).

But a Saturday or Sunday at Smiley’s is best spent slowly, perhaps with a stop for a snack in between strolling the pavilions and outdoor “yard sale” area.

That’s what sisters Lakeisha and Brittney Sparks did Sunday afternoon with their mother. Afterward, they sat on benches in the shade. The three women, all from Macon, come to Smiley’s every now and then just to browse, Brittney Sparks said.

“It’s a beautiful day outside. Who wouldn’t want to come out?” Lakeisha Sparks said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

On previous trips they’ve bought “just little odds and ends,” Lakeisha Sparks said. That was their plan for Sunday, she said, patting the bag beside her on the bench.

“We weren’t looking for anything in particular, but then I did score a great deal on some scrubs for work,” Lakeisha Sparks said.

Smiley’s didn’t start in Macon. It’s a chain, with Ben Campen Sr. opening his first location in Fletcher, N.C., in 1984, according to Smiley’s website. Macon followed in 1985, and the Micanopy, Fla., site opened in 1994. The Macon site has about 3,000 spaces for sellers, including about 500 without shelter, office manager David Riley said. The rest of the tables and booths are spread among open-sided pavilions and enclosed buildings.

Many vendors rotate their stock every few weeks, so there’s always something new, Riley said. Wandering around Sunday produced such varied items as a luchador mask bearing the logo of the Cruz Azul soccer team ($15), a long plastic shoehorn ($1), packages of a half-dozen forks and spoons ($1 each), USB connectors for iPhones ($4), and a bag full of office supplies ($8.50).

The latter came from a specialty shop run by Gene and Laura Gibson, of Bonaire.

“We have been in the flea market business off and on for 20 years,” said Laura Gibson, a former Robins Air Force Base employee. “Then when I retired from the base, we started doing it about full time.”

They began by reselling pots and pans bought at auction, and did all right, she said, but the Gibsons soon noticed that the flea market was packed with parents and children -- and nobody else sold school supplies.

So now they scour the state for deals and offer everything from tape to clipboards. That results in a big back-to-school rush, Laura Gibson said.

“We had people standing in line, waiting to pay,” she said.

Many of their regular customers are Hispanic families with must-have lists from local schools, Laura Gibson said. The parents don’t necessarily understand much English, so the Gibsons help them figure out what supplies are required, she said.

The flea market has turned into a surprisingly good place to make new friends, Laura Gibson said.

“Smiley’s has been good to us,” she said. “Unless you get up and come out here and meet the people, you don’t really understand.”

There’s a wide variety of food available at the flea market, from standard concession-stand fare to Jamaican and Mexican specialties. In fact, there are 10 restaurants, with one -- Jamaican Paradise -- having two locations, Riley said.

On the edge of the yard-sale area is the Tacos los Comales trailer, serving up fresh-cooked burritos, gorditas, nachos and more. There a meal-sized burrito stuffed with marinated pork and vegetables, and a big glass of lemonade, will run you 8 bucks. Shaded picnic tables are adjacent.

Owner Jose Reyes, of Warner Robins, works there with his nephew, his nephew’s wife, and a friend, he said. They’ve been at Smiley’s for three and a half years, said Reyes, who’s originally from Mexico.

He hopes the trailer kitchen, opening at 8:30 a.m. and closing at 3:30 p.m., will draw repeat customers -- patrons trying it one week, then bringing their friends the next, Reyes said. With that clientele as a springboard, he hopes to open a small restaurant in Warner Robins.

“Maybe pretty soon,” he said. “I hope next year.”

Saturday is the busiest day at Smiley’s, Riley said. There’s a handful of monthly spaces left to rent, but daily spaces run out fast, starting at just $10, he said.

Flea market gates open at 5 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, and don’t close until 7 p.m. Riley has seen business grow in his six years at Smiley’s, and there’s talk of expanding further, he said: turning the now-closed back half of one building into a farmers market, building more pavilions and yard sale tables.

“One thing: the economy has driven the flea market business,” Riley said. “Everybody is looking to make that extra dollar, and they’re coming to Smiley’s to do it.”

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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