By Mary Elizabeth Dial, Staff Correspondent
Visiting a local flea market or trade day is a time-honored fall tradition in the South, and no one understands that better than Janie Terrell, the owner of Mountain Top Flea Market in Altoona. She and her husband, known as “Cowboy” by most, operate the market every Sunday of the year.
A day at Mountain Top begins at 5 a.m., when vendors begin to set up their tabletop shops and visit the Terrells for breakfast. Some serious customers also arrive at daybreak to beat the crowd and find the best deals. Typically, however, shoppers begin to fill the aisles around 9 a.m. and meander around the property for most of the day.
Fall is a “good, busy time because the weather is nice,” Terrell said.
Most shoppers will wait until they can break out their jackets and boots before braving the 2.6 miles of tents, tables and trailers that fill Mountain Top’s 1,000 dealer lots.
Among those 1,000 dealers is a huge catalogue of products. Some may think of junk when they think of flea markets, but Terrell asserts that shoppers can find almost anything they could want in her market.
“Just about anything you can think of… if you don’t see it one week, you might see it the next week,” Terrell said.
She prides herself on the vast assortment of goods at Mountain Top, which range from produce to animals.
“You can nearly live in [the flea market], because you can get groceries, paper goods, things for your house, things to wear.”
A walk up any given aisle may contain makeup, video games, handcrafted furniture and live animals, plus a caricature artist to draw your picture while you wait. One of Terrell’s primary goals is to avoid placing her own restrictions on what can be bought and sold, so that both dealers and shoppers can get as much from the market as possible.
Another goal is to make Mountain Top a good place to spend a Sunday for all families. Terrell has made a point of not charging for parking in the market’s lot and of making the entire property as handicap-accessible as possible.
Terrell also knows that a trip to the flea market is an all-day affair for many families, which is why she makes a significant effort to provide quality food.
“There’s very few things I limit, other than concessions,” she said.
A health inspector verifies each unique food vendor, but anyone selling food and drinks also has to meet Terrell’s high standard of quality. She expects a score of 100 on every inspection, and that expectation is almost always met, because she wants families to feel good about eating the chicken, hot dogs, lemonade and ice cream that her market provides.
The biggest payoff for the Terrells is the knowledge that their market has become something that parents can share with and pass down to their children.
“I have people that I meet now who say, ‘Oh, I went [to Mountain Top] when I was a child,’ and they’re up in their fifties,” she said.
She also tells stories about meeting people all over the country and even the world who have fond memories of the market. All this is proof that her unconventional career choice has made an invaluable impact on the community.
Terrell will also be the first to say that this “alternative way of shopping,” outdoors on a Sunday morning, is the best way to find unique goods that are worth searching for.
“You find something that you weren’t out here looking for. You find something that you like and it’s your treasure,” she said, and her longtime customers surely agree.