It is a summertime tradition, a shopping destination known for its rare antiques and its bizarre gems — a prosthetic leg, a mounted deer head, a talking bathroom scale. It is the flea market and, after 40 years as a Chilmark institution, it is moving to West Tisbury.
The move, to the grounds of the West Tisbury School on Old County Road, will reduce the scope of the flea, but will allow congregates of the Chilmark Community Church to continue to host the twice-a-week market.
“It’s going to be sorely missed,” said Jane Slater, chair of the Chilmark historical commission. “It’s too bad because it was always a Chilmark thing. It was famous around the world as the Chilmark Flea.”
The Chilmark Flea began in 1967 with five ladies selling baked goods and knickknacks from the steps of the white church house at the Menemsha Crossroads. Church member Jean Hancock first had the idea after hearing about a Florida church which raised needed funds through a swap meet.
Mrs. Slater was not among the five who set up shop at the first flea market, but she and her mother cleaned out their attic and brought their goods to sell the following week. Over the course of that first summer, other church members joined in, and soon, people from Chilmark and beyond were flocking to the front lawn of the church. When the crowds grew and the list of vendors became too long, the parishioners cleared the weeds and poison ivy between the parsonage and the church to give the market more space.
Once held weekly, the flea market later became both a Wednesday and Saturday morning event. For 10 years, a pair of identical twins, Gert Shea and Gladys Wallace, who were themselves married to a pair of brothers, managed the market. When they stepped down in 1994, church member Phyllis Conway took over, with help from her husband, Robert.
“I think of the flea market as something like the village green,” Mrs. Conway said in a 1998 Gazette article. “We have no other place. This harks back to the English market, to medieval times, when people gathered on the cathedral green and had a market day.” Mrs. Wallace had first visited the flea in its early days as an idle shopper and later volunteered at a table run by church members.
Held on the same day as the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, the Chilmark Flea became part of an up-Island routine for many Vineyarders. It was, according to some, the only thing to motivate a few down-Island residents to make the trek up-Island. “It was a big thing for all the summer people to bring their guests to the flea in the morning,” Mrs. Slater said.
The market was such a hit that church members used the profits to finance a major expansion to the back of the church.
But by the late 1990s, the popularity of the market became a safety issue in town. “We were loved to death,” Mrs. Conway said. In 2000, after a flea market morning which saw over 70 cars parked along the Crossroads and some on the lawns of private homes, the town pressured flea market organizers to find a new home.
The following summer, the market moved from its original grounds to a seven-acre site off Middle Road and adopted a new name, the Chilmark Flea in the Meadow Market. The new location provided on-site parking and more room for vendors. “We could just stretch in every possible direction,” Mrs. Conway said this week.
But not just any vendor was allowed in. “Everything on the field is juried by either myself or [vendor and space manager] Pat Lynch,” Mrs. Conway said. “We see the product or see pictures of it and see if it works for a country flea. We have been very selective over the years because we want to be of the finest quality.”
On any given Wednesday or Saturday summer morning, browsers can be found at the flea market picking through vintage baseball cards and costume jewelry. Avid shoppers will haggle over antiques and art lovers will come away with whimsical wire sculptures and hand-crafted pottery. All of this provided there is no rain (clouds are okay, under the official flea market regulations, but fields muddied by a previous day’s showers are not).
This fall, the rising cost to rent the Middle Road site from a private landowner threatened the long-standing tradition. “We did start looking last fall, we knew we had to find another place. Our trustees and all those involved with the Community Church did a thorough search for land in Chilmark,” Mrs. Conway said. “We were just stymied.”
In January, someone suggested the grounds of the West Tisbury school. On March 10, the West Tisbury school committee voted to give the church a trial one-year lease to hold the market on school grounds.
“The school is absolutely thrilled to have us, and they will use the rent money for the annual eighth grade fall trip to England,” Mrs. Conway said. In exchange, the students will volunteer as parking attendants and their parents will take turns supervising the operation.
The new location will afford plenty of on-site parking, but the number of spaces available to vendors will be reduced from 75 to 50. “Yes it will restrict the size of the space,” Mrs. Conway said. But she remains hopeful that the new location will work for all involved, from the vendors and customers to the school and the church. “Many vendors have said they’re very optimistic that we are now on a public road and not one where people will get lost trying to find us. There’s optimism and what else are we going to do? We’re doing the best we can.”
When it begins on June 25, the hours of the market will be shortened by a half hour. The flea market each Wednesday and Saturday now will start at nine, rather than 8:30. It will still close at two. And, no longer in Chilmark, the name will change. This summer, the market will be known simply as The Flea. The flea will continue to run until August 30.
After this summer, the future of the flea is unknown. Mrs. Conway said church members will find some way to continue the event, which covers the annual costs to maintain the historic Chilmark church.
“We’re certainly going to lose character,” Mrs. Conway said. “We just hope for the best. We’re doing the best we can and the church does depend on the flea.”