CONWAY — While taking money from another customer, Mary Hoyt noticed the slight sneeze of the toddler next in line, not missing a beat to say “Bless you.” They were waiting to buy “Twister,” with Hoyt smiling at the curly-haired tot looking up at her.
Personal connections with the more than 1,000 customers that come through the St. Joseph Flea Market in Conway each week make it more than just a place to find everything and then some.
“You meet people and hear their story. Everyone has a story,” said Hoyt, the school volunteer coordinator for the flea market.
The St. Joseph Flea Market has been a staple in Conway, originating in 1976 in conjunction with the annual St. Joseph Bazaar, which began in 1912, according to the 2011 book, “St. Joseph School Bazaar-1912-2011: A Lasting Tradition.”
Since 2002, the flea market has been open year round, Thursday through Saturday and is housed in an 8,000-square-foot building near the school gymnasium. On any given Thursday, almost 100 could be lined up waiting to check out the newest inventory before doors open at 8 a.m. With every purchase, Catholic education prospers.
“The flea market’s solely here to support the school,” said Mark Bailey, chairman of the flea market board.
For the 2018-2019 school year, the flea market raised $475,000 toward the school’s budget — an astounding feat given the bargain-priced merchandise. It increased by $25,000 from the previous year to help with teacher salary increases.
“It’s invaluable, especially in terms of the general operating budget. Without it, tuition would increase by $1,000 per student. That’s just how vital that is to our budget,” said St. Joseph High School principal Diane Wolfe. “… It keeps it affordable. I never have to worry about how I’m going to make ends meet because of the generous amount that institution generates each year.”
Donning a blue apron, Helen Kordsmeier explained she was running a bit behind, waiting to be relieved from her 7 to 8 a.m. adoration hour. The 84-year-old parishioner said the flea market has evolved since she began volunteering 25 years ago, moving from the bazaar to Spiritan Hall to its own building. She and her husband Emil “Doc” Kordsmeier, 88, volunteer five mornings a week.
“Some people said they couldn’t make it without our flea market. You feel like you’re serving humanity, helping the poor and needy. It keeps us active and out of the nursing home,” she said, later adding the volunteers “become a family. We pray for each other when we have problems and rejoice with each other … it’s a fun place.”
About 30 to 40 volunteers help take donations and price items for the various departments including clothes, furniture, toys, books, bric-a-brac and electronics.
It’s a “yard sale mentality,” Hoyt said, adding that quarter sales — all items are 25 cents — in the spring and fall help move long-time inventory.
But for Hoyt, it’s all about the customers, especially the regulars that she knows by name, keeping track of them in her “flea market book of characters” so she can add that personal touch.
“You often hear about people who are sick or seeing the infirm ones come in,” she said, and noticing when they no longer visit. Teary-eyed, she added, “It makes me think about how we’re only here for a short while.”
Regular customer Kathy Chandler held onto two clear, garbage-sized bags of red vigil candle holders, at $1 per bag.
“I get bargains, bargains, deals, deals … She had to sucker me into buying something,” she said of Hoyt. “I wouldn’t have seen that nowhere else but here,” adding she’ll likely use them to make centerpieces.
While there’s been no shortage of unique items to come through the doors, Kordsmeier doesn’t have to think twice when it comes to the strangest donation.
“A camel saddle; I thought who on earth is going to buy a camel saddle, there aren’t camels around here,” she said, adding with a smile, “We put $40 on it and it sold.”
Paula Carter, a regular customer from Clinton, stopped by to search for some bedding before visiting her mother in Conway.
“Just the good prices, good deals, good stuff for a quality price. I come every chance I get,” she said.
Josh Grant, whose two daughters attend St. Joseph School, was killing time recently before watching his youngest compete in a toad race at the school, a week before the city’s Toad Suck Daze.
“Me and my oldest daughter like to shop around,” he said, adding that he usually shops for pants “that I have no problem ripping” due to his work on a drilling rig.”
When Bailey first joined the flea market board in 2008, it raised about $50,000-$75,000 annually “so we have just kind of gradually increased every year to it’s almost a plateau now. What we provided this year we’ll provide next year, we’ve already committed to that.”
“It’s allowing some people who may not be able to normally send their child to a Catholic school, they’ve got that opportunity because of what we’re doing out here and that child is getting that spiritual education and upbringing through the school,” Bailey said.
Wolfe said retirees, parents, grandparents and students volunteer.
“The students love going over there and working. Some of the religion classes will go over there and lend a hand moving things, pricing things,” Wolfe said. “The flea market has quite a reputation.”
“I think it’s just important because most individuals are not going to be able to find that outlet for something that they may not have a use for anymore and instead of them throwing that in just their pile of garbage and stuff they’ve got an outlet here,” Bailey said. “We have other avenues that we are able to do things with that somebody may not think is usable that somebody else can find a use for.”
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