An outdoor opportunity tries to keep yard sale tradition alive amid year of canceled festivals.
ALTAVISTA – It’s been a tough year for treasure hunting Virginians. Antique shows and yard sale operations across the Commonwealth cancelled events, disappointing both vendors and shoppers alike.
Of course, it’s an understandable decision. On September 20, Virginia’s COVID-19 cases hit a downward trend, but it’s unlikely that the virus will disappear any time soon. Congregate settings with little chance of social distancing could spike cases, adding to the crisis.
The D.C. Big Flea, located just outside of the nation’s capitol, markets itself as the mid-Atlantic’s largest indoor flea market, attracting 10,000 visitors at multiple events throughout the year. Even at a large venue like the Dulles Expo Center, it’d be difficult to maintain proper social distancing.
The pandemic also struck outdoor markets that garner large crowds – in the hundreds of thousands.
For the first time in its 53-year history, the Hillsville Flea Market didn’t attract hoards of people. In fact, it didn’t bring a single visitor to the town of 2,653 residents.
It wasn’t for lack of local support – vendors, businesses and restaurants benefit tremendously from the twice-annual sale. For some local establishments, the flea market traffic keeps them in the black for the entire year. Everyone from local homeowners to nonprofits rent out their parking lots and fields to vendors. Local restaurants count on that revenue to balance out traditionally lean times in winter.
First, COVID-19 concerns cancelled the smaller Memorial Day sale. Two months before the larger Labor Day event – which welcomes half a million shoppers on average, with 700,000 as the largest recorded crowd – event organizers promised a great show. The Virginia Department of Health had other plans.
The letter from the VDH read in part, “Please be advised if you continue with the planned event without meeting the requirements of Executive Order 67, the CCHD (Carroll County Health Department) will seek enforcement action pursuant to Executive Order 61, 63 and 67, including Class 1 criminal misdemeanor charges and civil injunctive relief.”
The Town of Hillsville noted after receiving the letter that they would not issue permits or have involvement with the Labor Day flea market event.
In August, with mere weeks left before the show, event organizers at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Grover King Post 1115 in Hillsville voted to cancel the show.
A creative idea
COVID-19 restrictions did not impact one event, however. The Virginia 100 Mile Yard Sale – roughly covering U.S. Rt. 29 from Lynchburg to Danville – welcomed vendors and visitors alike on Thursday. The show will take place through Sunday, complete with several private offshoots from the main road.
Since the event doesn’t corral vendors and customers in a single, compact location and spans over such a broad distance, it doesn’t fall under noncompliance with current state orders.
“You’re not piled on top of hundreds of people squished in one area. It’s spread out,” said Michele Testerman, owner at MAD Biddy’s antique store in Altavista. “And it’s a 95% outdoor event. I only know of one place that rents indoor spaces; everything else is outside.”
Every vendor and treasure hunter are responsible for their own individual actions when it comes to following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pandemic guidelines, but event organizers encouraged taking precautions.
Testerman led by example. As the main organizer of the 100 Mile Yard Sale – an idea prompted by Altavista native and antique enthusiast Brenda Bolen – Testerman performed sanitary actions before it was mainstream.
“We’ll still wear masks in our store. Even before the COVID hit, we sanitized on a daily basis. I never ran out of Clorox wipes. They’re still not on the shelves, but I still have some because I stock up when there’s not a virus because I use them on everything, every day,” Testerman said. “So what I would advise people is to have some common sense. If you’re sick, stay home. Don’t come out. Don’t subject other people to your illness, whatever it may be. Just use some common sense and everybody will be fine and have a lovely time.”
Yard sale follows precautions
As the event kicked off, vendors set up booths with plenty of space in between. The format allowed for proper physical distancing from other sellers, as well as gave buyers an opportunity to walk around without infringing on others’ personal space.
“If you’re in the fresh air, and circulating fresh air constantly, you’re not on top of anyone,” Testerman said. “So it’s going to be safer. “
On Friday, shoppers stayed with their own groups, rather than jetting from booth to booth separately. Vendor Cindy Blair, who sold tubs of $1 vintage items at the event, spoke positively about the experience.
“Being able to participate in the 100 Mile Yard Sale this fall is even more special than the years past, due to COVID,” Blair said. “I am selling outside as The Vintage Girl Shoppe and a lot of my regular customers that shop with me inside MAD Biddy’s have stopped by to shop the yard sale items and I have gotten to talk with them in person and see how they have been and that really means a lot to me.”
Even though Testerman organizes the event, not everyone participating checks in. People open their front yards, businesses, parking lots and other spaces along Hwy. 29 and beyond. As far as the number of vendors along the route, Testerman estimated hundreds.
Several churches, especially those with large parking lots, rented vendor spaces along the route. Testerman noted that big churches usually fill all of their vendor slots within three days of posting.
“The churches along the 29 Corridor have really embraced the idea as a fundraiser for the church, as far as renting out spaces,” Testerman said. “The church that’s across the street from us, Cavalry Baptist, they rent out spaces, but they also do breakfast and lunch because they have a kitchen there. So they do the baking, like pies and cakes and stuff as a fundraiser for the church.”
This year, COVID-19 restricted home baked good sales for the event.
Local charities also benefit from some sales. Rather than raking in a profit for themselves, Testerman knew of some sellers who donated the money they raised to programs that gave impoverished children Christmas presents.
It’s also a good advertising opportunity for area businesses.
“They come looking for antiques and looking for different things,” Testerman said. “I tell all of the businesses, ‘I don’t care if you throw a little folding card table out front with junk from your closet on it just to get people up to your door and in.’ It’s a great marketing tool for the area.”
Treasure hunting turnout
While Testerman estimated thousands might attend the event, she doubted the numbers would reflect the 100 Mile Yard Sale’s first year in 2016.
“What happened was, I said. ‘I’ll just put up the event on my Facebook page,’ not thinking anything of it,” Testerman said. “For some strange reason, it went viral overnight.”
A total of 775,000 people viewed the post within a two-week period.
She recalled a line forming outside of her store in advance of the sale.
“That first one was so insane. We actually had a hurricane because we did it in the fall. I had people camped out at my door, in a hurricane, at 6:30 in the morning,” Testerman said. “The first one was nuts, absolutely crazy.”
“It’s never happened again since,” Testerman said. “I’ve talked to every marketing professional I know. I’m like, ‘Why did this happen? Because I’d like to replicate it.’ And it’s never happened again.”
The organizer noted that she expected anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 people over the four-day event.
“Whatever it is you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it out here because there’s such a massive variety of people selling every kind of item,” Testerman said.
Creating a yard sale game plan
For antique, vintage and yard sale enthusiasts, the event spans a massive area, complete with vendors from as far away as South Carolina and Georgia. That doesn’t necessarily mean sales line yards for 100 straight miles.
“There’s big spaces. It’s a wide area. But from Altavista to Lynchburg probably is the biggest concentration,” Testerman said. “But this year, there’s so many big groups that are setting up at certain locations along the way.”
Although the event takes place over four days, the middle two bring in the highest attendance.
“Of course the biggest concentration of sales up and down the corridor will be Friday and Saturday,” Testerman said.
Whether it’s an excuse to leave the house or an opportunity to look for treasures, there’s a near guarantee that something will snag a person’s interest over 100 miles.
“There’s truly something for everyone,” Testerman said.
Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]