This Saturday, when the parades are stepping off across America and the cherry bombs start to pop, Ron Haring will be exercising his independence at the Kane County Flea Market, setting out his phonographs, cylinder records, and busts of Thomas Edison, awaiting the buyers who storm the grounds at the stroke of noon. Two months ago, wife and three kids notwithstanding, Haring chucked the repair and warehouse management job he'd held for eight years to see if he could make a full-time gig of his moonlight persona--Victrola Man.
A stamp and coin collector as a kid, Haring knows firsthand the force that drives the Kane County shopper. He and his younger brother spent their Ohio boyhood on a perpetual treasure hunt, grazing the landscape with metal detectors, learning to appreciate anything old. A lover of both history and machinery, he was smitten with the antique talking box the first time he came across one, about 20 years ago. Since then he's bought and sold more than a thousand of them. He buys them from other dealers or customers at shows, does the necessary repairs (often a broken mainspring, which powers the turntable), and resells them for $150 to $1,500. "Usually, I try to leave the cabinets in their original condition," he says. Most are purchased as functional pieces of nostalgia.
"Edison invented the phonograph in 1877," Haring says. "He designed a hand-turned barrel with tinfoil wrapped around it, a stylus that rested on the foil, and a mouthpiece. When you spoke into the mouthpiece, the vibration would indent the foil." (Edison himself uttered history's first recorded words: "Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow.") Eventually, competitors like the Victor Talking Machine Company brought out flat discs, which were better for storage; Edison, who was quite deaf and would bite the cabinets of his phonographs in order to "hear" their vibrations, resisted this change, believing the cylinders produced better sound. When he finally came out with the Edison Diamond Disc, says Haring, it was a quarter-inch thick, weighed nearly a pound, and was so expensive to make that it helped put him out of the business.
Haring started selling at Kane County 17 years ago, but the flea market has been around since 1967. Manager Helen Robinson, then a rural housewife and mother of four young sons, started with 14 dealers and 400 shoppers. Last month 1,200 dealers were offering everything from American quilts hand-made in China ($20 to $135) to audiotapes of vintage sports broadcasts ($6). Sixteen thousand customers stomped around in the dust, chomped on egg-salad sandwiches and strawberry-rhubarb pie, and queued up for the ladies' room, a spotter with a view into each stall managing the traffic. Robinson, in shades and bright red nail polish, manned the information booth.
Haring says he's seen a shift at Kane County, with more people coming to buy bargain socks and Beanie Babies, and fewer looking for antiques. It's also getting harder for him to find the kind of thing he sells. The PBS program Antiques Roadshow has raised expectations about values to unrealistic levels, he says: "People don't understand that there's a difference between the appraised value of an item and the price they can usually sell it for." Meanwhile smaller antiques and collectibles are starting to move on the Internet rather than at the markets. Still, after years of working what amounted to two full-time jobs, he's managed to pay off the mortgage on his Plano home and thinks he might be able to swing this entrepreneurial thing.
Crowds at the Kane County Flea Market may be light this weekend--I heard several dealers say they would skip it because of the holiday. On the other hand, that could make for good buying opportunities from the vendors who do show. Victrola Man will be at his usual spot on the north end of the dairy barn: look for the wooden boxes sprouting morning-glory horns, the plaster pup listening for his master's voice, and--down at the end of the table--the Teenie Beanies.
The Kane County Flea Market is held on the first Sunday of each month and the preceding Saturday afternoon, at the Kane County Fairgrounds, Randall Road between highways 64 and 38, Saint Charles. Hours are noon to 5 PM Saturday and 7 AM to 4 PM Sunday. Admission is $5; free for kids younger than 12. Call 630-377-2252 for information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ron Haring photo by Nathan Mandell.