For four decades, visitors to Fort Worth’s longest-running flea market could find baseball cards, straight razors, Beanie Babies, 45-rpm records, and a thousand other cool items that had fallen out of favor with the general populace or become obsolete.
And now the Cattle Barn Flea Market itself is falling into obscurity. After more than 40 years of operating every weekend except during the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, the indoor flea market at Will Rogers Memorial Center has closed.
“It’s an icon of Fort Worth that’s going away,” manager Norman Pannell said. “People are upset about it –– it’s been part of their lives for a long time. There’s no indoor flea market anywhere around Fort Worth and Dallas.”
Most dealers blame the city’s high parking fees for killing the market, although other factors contributed to its decline, including the work habits of the dealers themselves, who often showed up late to tend to their booths, frustrating early-bird shoppers. In the end, perhaps, the general scruffiness of the market and its dealers just didn’t fit into the city’s efforts to beautify and renovate Will Rogers Memorial Center in conjunction with a planned $450 million equestrian center.
Several years ago, the city borrowed $27 million to provide more parking during the stock show and built a four-story garage that sits nearly empty most of the time. On May 1, 2010, city leaders decided to start charging for parking year-round in all of the parking areas around the Will Rogers complex, even curbside. The city paid for the garage with revenue bonds, and parking income is supposed to cover bond payments. Many people refuse to pay the fee and instead park in nearby neighborhoods or simply don’t visit the area anymore. So the city raised parking fees from $5 to $8 to $10 over the next few years.
Surrounding businesses suffered. The nonprofit Z’s Café, in the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, moved to a new location due to the massive drop-off in business. The fees also hurt the popularity of nearby museums.
The main beneficiary of the parking fees and garage is the stock show and rodeo, an event that lasts only three weeks a year and is privately owned.
“They [city officials] don’t care about losing customers, they care about making money,” Pannell said. “It’s all about the horse shows.”
Flea market attendance dropped immediately after a $5 parking fee went into effect and declined further after the fees doubled. The city has allowed some of the gun shows and horse shows to offer reduced parking fees to their customers, but a similar arrangement was never offered to the flea market, Pannell said.
Dealers had to pay, just like customers, so vendors too began to abandon ship. The city turned fee collections over to a private contractor, who typically placed only one parking attendant outside the flea market, creating a long line in the mornings as vendors arrived to set up their tables and customers arrived early to get first crack at finding a good deal. Adding insult to injury, the sprawling parking lots were almost always nearly empty. Vendors and customers who’d enjoyed free parking for four decades felt as if the city was gouging them to pay for a parking garage that only benefited stock show enthusiasts for a few weeks each year.
The number of dealers shrank by more than 60 percent.
“I’ve been managing it for three years and have seen us come down from 90 dealers to 30 dealers in that time,” said Pannell, who leased the booths to dealers and also worked as a dealer himself. “We can’t open with 30 dealers. It just doesn’t pay.”
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the barn attracted more than 100 dealers, so many that an overflow room was added. Hundreds of customers would show up on weekends looking for deals on antiques, books, records, knives, furniture, guns, stamps, and any number of items. (Note: I was a vendor there for about six years but left before the current controversy.)
Most North Texas flea markets are held outside, such as the Henderson Bazaar in Fort Worth and First Monday Trade Days in Weatherford. Dealers enjoyed the indoor Cattle Barn because they could leave their booths set up all week, safe in the locked and weatherproof barn. But that hurt the flea market as well. Customers wanted to see new items on display each week, like at a true flea market, rather than stagnant booths like those at antique malls.
Other factors also worked against the market. Little advertising was done. The barn was designed for animals, and while the floor had concrete walkways, the booth areas themselves were just patches of dirt and sawdust that would stir up easily. People were allowed to bring pets, and the animals sometimes peed (or worse) on or around the merchandise.
As the number of customers began to dwindle, so did dealers’ interest.
“A lot of it was our fault –– half the dealers wouldn’t be there until after 11 on Saturday,” said Charles Estell, whose booth anchored the northwest corner of the barn for 20 years. “People would pay to park and then come in, and half the dealers wouldn’t be there.”
Some dealers could be a little crusty, showing up for work without bathing or maybe even still drunk from the night before. One vendor earned the nickname Crowbar Steve after chasing a customer with a crowbar during a dispute. The barn was hot during summers and cold during winters. The advent of online auctions pulled away more customers –– and dealers –– to those virtual flea markets.
Those distractions turned off some customers over the years but didn’t come close to putting the flea market out of business.
“A few years ago they built that high-rise parking garage that nobody uses –– it’s the most expensive storage building ever built,” Pannell said. “One vendor has been out here for more than 40 years. We’ve got some who have been here 30 years. People are upset about it. It’s been part of their lives for a long time.”
Estell used to make between $600 and $800 per weekend re-selling items he’d find at garage sales or at other flea markets. In recent months, he’d been pulling in less than $200 a weekend, he said. At 71, he’s decided to drop out of the game altogether.
“Everything changed,” he said. “It was fun while it lasted, but I guess everything has got to end.”
Valerie Arnett saw the writing on the wall after the parking lot fees were initiated. She vacated her booth and opened her own store, Junker Val’s Antiques, on Bluebonnet Circle. She’s selling the same types of items she sold for 17 years at the flea market.
“The cattle barn was a wonderful place to go and shop and find bargains,” she said. “You never knew what you might find. I’m sad that it closed.”
Estell suspects that the planned horse arena and improvements to the Will Rogers complex painted a bull’s-eye on the flea market.
“I don’t think they really wanted us out there,” Estell said. “They’re trying to pretty up the place. “We probably don’t fit into the pretty part. They really just want that place to be an equestrian center.”