In a town known for antiques, the dealers band together.

In an effort to boost business, Sherman's Antiques has started a flea market on its property. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

LAKE ALFRED — Normally in a very tough business climate, a small business owner like Linda Varnadore wouldn’t want to be surrounded by her biggest competitors.
But on a humid Saturday morning on an open field in downtown Lake Alfred, Varnadore not only set up a booth alongside a host of other antiques dealers, but also embraced the idea of all of them being together in one spot.
“I love it,” she said. “I love the message. It’s like, ‘Get here early if you want to find the good deals.’ ”
Linda Varnadore and her husband, Steve, now operate a booth at the Lake Alfred Antiques Mall, where “We try to find vintage items, like glassware,” she said.
“Anything old and interesting,” Steve Varnadore added.
On Saturday, they brought their booth to the second Lake Alfred Flea Market, organized by the owners of Sherman’s Antiques, the shop at 155 E. Haines Boulevard in downtown Lake Alfred. The idea was to capitalize on Lake Alfred’s reputation for antique shops, and bring them all together under one roof.
Rather than compete against one another, so the theory goes, the dealers would work together, courtesy of the Flea Market, to promote Lake Alfred as the ideal place for a morning or afternoon spent hunting for great bargains, by browsing past tables that contained everything from historic specialties to fruits and vegetables.
“It’s basically for all the vendors and merchants here to have a place to come to, and to have some fun,” said Al Kitzmiller, the co-owner of Sherman’s Antiques.
Kitzmiller and business partner Jerry Sherman came up with the idea of hosting a local Flea Market behind their store. Saturday was their second one, and Sherman said he hopes to make it a permanent part of Lake Alfred’s roster of weekend activities.
“We are working on making this a monthly event, and we have the support of business owners,” Sherman said. “We’re working on getting the Lake Alfred Merchants Association to sponsor it.”
Part of the reason they came up with the idea, Sherman said, is because downtown Lake Alfred, just like the rest of Central Florida, has struggled to overcome the impact of the collapse of the housing market and the national recession. Polk County’s unemployment rate in August was 12 percent, well above the national average of 9.1 percent.
“We used to have a lot more antique stores here,” Sherman said. “We’ve lost some of the businesses. We’re having just as hard a time as everyone else.”
Part of the problem, Sherman said, is people are nervous about where the economy is headed, and they’re not spending as much as they used to.
“I think most people are scared,” he said. “The media have told people, ‘The economy is bad, don’t spend.’ That’s what we’re still encountering right now.”
Another challenge, particularly for Sherman’s Antiques, has been the construction work that was done last year, that divided U.S. 17/92 as it went through downtown, making it a one way street heading north. Sherman said that made it hard for motorists to notice his shop, which is just half a block away from the highway.
“We lost our two way traffic,” he said. “Now we have traffic going north. No one will ever look over here now. They’d get into a car accident if they did. We’re off to the side, and hidden.”
Prior to the road construction, he said Sherman’s Antiques was drawing in plenty of business.
“We were doing very well with foot traffic,” he said. “Then we literally went from 50 customers a day to two.”
With those kinds of challenges, Sherman said the Flea Market seemed like a common sense, practical way to bring more customers to the downtown.
“This is a mix of everybody,” he said of the town’s business owners. “We’ve invited anyone who is selling, and then we opened it up to the public as well.”

In addition to antiques, the Lake Alfred Flea Market had plenty of good stuff to eat. (Photo by Michael Freeman).


Steve Varnadore said it truly is a smart idea.
“When folks get a sense of this being a regular event, they know they can come out and enjoy it,” he said. “In hard economic times, people are looking for a bargain — and it’s fun.”
The second Flea Market attracted a stronger crowd than the first one, Linda Varnadore added, so the word appears to getting out about the event.
“We’ve got more people this time,” she said. “Plus, people sit around and talk to one another. That brings congruity to the area.”

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