Used Shoes, Tchotchkes, and Books ~ Adventures at a Flea Market

Photo credit – Pixabay

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

These days, book sales are down for many authors including myself. So I’ve been on the lookout for out-of-the-box ideas. Recently, an unexpected and unconventional opportunity came my way.

For years, we’ve vacationed in a Florida community of approximately 1500 homes. The development caters to snowbirds but is also a permanent residence for many locals as well. Over time, I’ve built a small but loyal following there among book clubs and readers I met at Zumba classes. I also recognize many people by sight from daily strolls around the complex.

During one Friday walk, I spotted a notice on a bulletin board advertising a Community Flea Market the next day.

Hmm.

I’ve attended art festivals and outdoor library events but never a flea market. Since there was no cost for a table, I figured why not?

Being away from home, my book inventory was small but I had plenty of business cards, handouts with book descriptions, and a mailing list sign-up sheet. Friends offered use of a folding table and chair.

I opted for KISS bookkeeping (Keep it simple stupid). Cash only, no coins, no credit cards, no checks. I printed a sign that read: ALL BOOKS $10.

The venue was one-acre open parking lot edged with Florida thatch palms, near a pond and a jasmine-covered gazebo.

Many vendors were flea market pros, equipped with pop-up shade canopies, display cases, racks for hanging clothes, professionally printed signs, beverage coolers, etc.

Others were obviously clearing out closets, cupboards, and garages: used clothes, small appliances that were missing parts, odd dishes and glassware, tchotchkes, old music cassettes, rusted tools—no extra charge for dust.

And…lots of tables with used books priced at 25 cents or five for a dollar.

Gulp.

How could I compete, selling new books even at the discounted price of $10?

I set up my table between a young couple who were professional jewelry vendors and a gentleman who was a closet cleaner.

The couple not only brought a tent, they had two fans. As the sun and temperature climbed, they graciously shared their shade with me.

The closet cleaner on the other side mentioned his nephew was also an author and gave me the man’s book for free. His items included a pair of brand-name shoes in new condition. I bought them for $2.

Through the morning, hundreds of shoppers turned out. People from Zumba class dragged their friends and neighbors to my table, saying, “You’ve got to read Debbie’s books!”

Word of mouth recommendations are wonderful!

The fourth book in my series, Dead Man’s Bluff, is set in Florida during Hurricane Irma. That caught the attention of locals and those copies sold out first.

Residents recognized me from daily walks and said, “I didn’t know you were an author.” Several bought books.

The new community social director, whom I hadn’t met before, stopped by and told me about a small book club. The following Monday, I met with them and sold two more books there.

 

A couple of years before, I’d met a Minnesota snowbird named Kim who looked exactly like my main character–a tall, slender redhead with a French braid. She became a fan and a friend.

That Saturday morning, I saw Kim/Tawny and she suggested taking pictures of us together holding books. The jewelry seller from the neighboring booth snapped shots with my phone.

 

Two unusual encounters happened—one head-shaking, one heartwarming.

First, the head-shaker. There’s a woman I know from Zumba class who dresses exquisitely, drives a Lexus, and lives in a nearby luxury subdivision. She stopped at the table and thumbed through my books with interest and enthusiasm. After she chose three of them, she set down a quarter and said, “I owe you a nickel.”

Huh???

I told her the books were 10 dollars.

“Oh, I thought the sign said 10 cents.” She put down the books, picked up her quarter, and left.

I might have dismissed it as a mistake except for a prior encounter. The year before, I was selling a new release at cost to Zumba dance-mates. This same woman read the back cover and decided she wanted it for her upcoming weekend trip to New Orleans. “I’ll take it with me today [Friday] and give it back to you on Monday.”

Uh, no. That would make it a used book that I couldn’t sell as new.

She apparently thought I was a librarian, not an author struggling to make a living.

When I asked her for the money, her eyes went wide with disbelief. But she did pay.

Second, the heart-warmer. A woman I only knew by sight was strolling through the flea market and stopped at my table. During our chat, I learned she had been a flight attendant and now manages rental properties within the community.

Photo credit – autumnsgoddess0 – Pixabay

She scanned the handout of my book descriptions and said, “Seven books is quite an accomplishment. But I’m not a reader.” However, she set a $10 bill on the table.

“Which book would you like?” I asked.

“I don’t want a book,” she replied. “I just want to encourage you because what you’re doing is hard.”

Wow.

Her kindness brought a lump to my throat.

When the flea market was over, I’d sold ten books and collected names for my email list–not enough to make the USA Today list but a good morning’s work.

The following day, while I was taking a walk in my $2 shoes, a man hailed me and said he’d bought Dead Man’s Bluff on Kindle. He liked it but he thought there should be more sex. 

Oh well, ya can’t please all the people all the time.

Over the next week, folks told me after seeing the books at the market, they’d ordered them online. 

Encounters at the flea market led to an invitation to another much larger book club where I met more new people and sold more books. By the time I went home, only two books remained in my Florida inventory.

Sales reports showed a nice little spike that I attribute to contacts made at the flea market.

The moral of this story: don’t be afraid to seize unconventional opportunities. You never know where they might lead.

You might even walk away with a new pair of shoes, too. 

~~~

Today, I have to be offline and will respond to comments later. In the mean time, here are a couple of discussion questions:

Have you ever tried an unusual venue to sell books? How did it work out for you?

~~~

 

 

Memorial Weekend SaleBinge on seven Tawny Lindholm Thrillers. All books only $.99 each. Sale ends May 30. Sales link.

This entry was posted in #amwriting, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, Flight to Forever, and Until Proven Guilty. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

43 thoughts on “Used Shoes, Tchotchkes, and Books ~ Adventures at a Flea Market

  1. I remember Irma and Matthew. We were out of power for a week and the power company used our yard for a staging area. We were the last to get power, which I thought was tacky on their part, but I smiked and fed them donuts from Krispy Kreme anyway.

    It was.a joy to go to work – work had air conditioning.

    I’m so glad you had success with the flea market and other endeavors. Way to go!

      • Mornin’, Cynthia. I recall your hurricane adventure. Maybe your power was last to go on b/c the workers were fond of the nice lady who fed them Krispy Kremes and they didn’t want that to end.

        Thanks for your encouragement!

  2. I love your out-of-box ideas, Debbie. Great post.

    Mother Teresa said, “Love starts at home.” Elon Musk is helping to uncover how many accounts on twitter are bots, and social media is so crowded that it is impossible to get noticed. Starting your fan base in your local community is a legitimate way to begin.

    I admire your experimentation, Debbie. Keep us informed of all your new adventures. Here’s to wishing you success in all of them.

    • Thanks, Steve. Impersonal mass advertising and social media haven’t worked well for me. I much prefer a one-on-one connection with readers.

      Marketing guru Kevin Kelly says the key to success is to develop 1000 true fans. I’m working toward that goal, one reader at a time.

  3. I believe it was in Fairhope, Alabama, at their annual “close down several blocks of Section (Main) Street” art festival that I saw an author’s tent, with beaucoups books, among the bent metal and driftwood sculptures, stained glass wind-chimes, and watercolor beach scenes… The author, (I’m assuming), wasn’t very engaging, and while I did stop and look over what he was offering (and “eavesdrop” on him chatting across the table with an older woman I realized was around my age…), I was a bit disappointed to find his stories were not to my taste… I’m not sure how successful he was, but it was the first time I’d seen an author and his/her books at one of these free-to-the-public street “fairs” – of which the ATL area is rife – The Yellow Daisy Festival, the Dogwood Festival, the Jonquil Festival, Old Campbell County Day, Gold Rush Days, Hey-Let’s-Screw-Up-Traffic-for-the-Weekend Days…

    Glad your flea market experience was fruitful… and it seems you may have found a new character in your “Lexus Lady”… 🙄

    • Hahaha, George! Love the “Hey-Let’s-Screw-Up-Traffic-for-the-Weekend Days.”

      Our area has similar street fairs and farmer’s markets. Based on this experience, I plan to try a few of those this summer.

      Actually, the Lexus lady did provide inspiration for a plot twist in one book. I never waste an opportunity. 😉

  4. RE: the offensive lady and her “quarter”–don’t know how you kept your cool. Sheesh. If a person is really that disinterested just hush and move it along.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a flea market (or don’t remember) but I know that visual artists also go to these community events to sell paintings, etc. too. They do make some sales (to what extent I don’t know–obviously enough to keep them going to more events).

    Now I’m curious if they have any horror stories to tell about their experience.

    • BK, I used to work in retail. Dealing with the public requires a thick hide and a smile permanently affixed with super glue.

      Plenty of horror stories out there. Maybe some commenters will share theirs?

      • I worked in an auto parts store and a guy calls up on the phone and asks me if I have caliper kits for an Alfa Romeo Spyder of a certain year. I did. He was coming from a town an hour away. He pulls up in front of the store in an Alfa Romeo sedan. I ask if that’s the car he wants the caliper kits for and he says yes. I say “That’s not a Spyder and these parts won’t fit.” He goes off on me and starts screaming for the manager, demanding that he be paid for his time and his mileage. I tell him you’re looking at the manager (it was Saturday) and you can go right back from whatever place you came from.

  5. Thank you, Debbie, for the inspiration and a bunch of great vignettes. It sounds like Lexus Lady has a terminal case of chutzpah. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is best illustrated by example: “I just found a book about chutzpah and I want you to buy it for me.”

    Hope you’re having a great week, Debbie. Thanks again.

  6. Debbie, a great tip you have here. My friend Liz Curtis Higgs is one of the best author-speakers out there, and said whenever she has books at the back of the room, no matter the length, she prices them each at $10. It actually seems to stimulate sales. That’s what I’ve done ever since, and it works.

    I imagine you can really move books at 10¢, but my rudimentary math tells me there’s a deficit in there somewhere….

    • Jim, selling books as 10 cents each, I should be able to buy a yacht by 2095!

      I’m all about simplicity in bookkeeping. I can’t chat with a customer and juggle money at the same time.

  7. Love it, Debbie! You go, girl.

    Early on, I set up a booth at every local fair in the area. Over the years I’ve dwindled that list down to the best three. Vacationers crowd our streets from May to October, which transforms our sleepy community into a goldmine. And I sell out at all three events every summer. We’re talking 50-60 paperbacks per event. When I started accepting debit/credit cards, my sales skyrocket. It’s crazy! My ebook sales get a nice bump, too.

    What I do is set a bulk deal. Ex. $15 for one, $50 for four. PayPal Zettle allows you to print your own barcode to cover the existing one. Most can’t refuse the deal. 😉 I set up a booth draped in crime scene tape, and readers literally run to my table, all excited about my latest releases. Or they bring friends who’ve never read my books. It’s awesome! Not only have a gained a loyal following, but I leave with a nice bankroll.

    The trick is consistence. If you continue to show up year after year, two books turn into ten, ten turn into twenty, etc…

    • Like the crime scene tape idea. LOL! That would definitely attract attention.

    • Sue, your great experiences at fairs inspired me to try this. Nothing like that personal connection between author and reader. Wonderful idea about bundling books. I’ll try that next time.

      Tourist season is terrific. I plan to use “local author” stickers for people who want a souvenir of their Montana vacation.

      Yes, I use crime scene tape–probably also stole that idea from you!

      • Local author stickers work great, Debbie! When you sign each book, add the location and date. The book becomes a keepsake from their vacation. I’ll either write the name of the fair or “Newfound Lake” since that’s why they came to my area.

    • Have you tried tying your bundled books IN crime scene tape?

      Or cutting strips of for bookmarks?

      Just Curious… George… 🐵

      • Oh, yeah, George. I’ve done that, too. People loved it, but I went through so much tape the local chief of police asked me to stop or he’d shut me off (he supplies the tape, police signs, evidence tape, crime scene gloves, etc. to deck out my table). LOL

  8. What great ideas, Debbie! Personal contact is so much better than online marketing. And there’s lots of opportunity to meet people who will end up as characters in your books. Sounds like you had a few of those!

    When my first book was released, I was encouraged by some folks in our small writing group to set up a table at a local senior center during a weekly lunch event they had there. I did and it was delightful to meet so many people who were supportive and pleasant. I can’t remember how many books I sold, but it was a good day.

    There are plenty of art fairs and community flea markets around here during the summer. Maybe I’ll try to get a table at one of them. (I’ll need a big umbrella and lots of ice water, though.) Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Kay, I definitely learned lessons from the jewelry-selling vendors–shade and a cooler full of water.

      Rich territory for characters, all right!

      Good luck with your summer appearances.

  9. I’ve sold a few books at the local science convention, and the library used to have a pre-Christmas local author book sale.

    One of the authors at my first publisher, Hard Shell, wrote Westerns based in his area. He made a poop-ton of money at events from flea markets to rodeo events. Sadly, none of my books were so specific.

  10. Debbie, I love your account of selling books at the local flea market. How awesome that a non-reader gave you ten bucks to help. I encountered people like the Lexus lady in my library career, refusing to pay a 25 cent fine on a late library book even though it was clear that they had returned the item late.

    The ten dollar pricing strikes me as perfect for hand sales. An easy denomination to come up with money for, and to make change.

    As for me, I have yet to hand sell any of my books. I’ve sat with friends at their tables at conferences, conventions and fairs, and watched them sell. I know a couple of local authors who have done that at our Rose City Comic Con, which gets tens of thousands visitors each day for it’s three day run in September.

    Clearly I’m going to have to try it–we have home and garden shows with book tables, antiques fairs, and book fairs here.

    Have a wonderful Tuesday!

    • Thanks, Dale.

      Observing how other authors hand-sell is a great education to discover what works (or doesn’t work) for when you strike out on your own.

      Wishing you good success with your own appearances.

    • I too, like the idea that someone gave even though they weren’t purchasing a book. I think about that in terms of purchases–whether it be books or visual art–I live in a small space, so while acquiring more stuff sounds great on the surface, it’s another thing entirely trying to find space for it. So giving just to give is a nice alternative to support their work.

  11. Great adventures-in-marketing story, Debbie! I’ve visited fairs and flea markets in Florida, and don’t remember seeing an author with their own books. Creative idea!

    Regarding “a Minnesota snowbird named Kim who looked exactly like my main character–a tall, slender redhead with a French braid.”… are you sure you didn’t invent your character BASED ON Kim? 😉

    • Thanks, Harald.

      Actually my main character was well established in four books by the time I met Kim. That’s why I was so surprised to see her in real life.

  12. Thanks for the sale, Debbie. Now my Lindholm collection is complete… 🙂

    I once spoke at my Dad’s retirement center, sold a few books, and was also allowed to shelve them in their small library.

    The sales weren’t spectacular, but the chance to brighten a few seniors’ eyes? Priceless.

    • Hey, thank you so much for your support, Deb!

      Several author friends and I gave regular talks at senior communities until Covid. But we plan to start up again. You’re so right about brightening their eyes.

  13. Our neighboring town has a farmer’s market with a craft section. I’ve never seen anyone sell books there. I haven’t asked how much of an investment it would be to give it a try. I’ve gone to local library events, but people who frequent libraries aren’t the best customers; they go to libraries to get their books from the shelves.
    I’ve got one coming up next month, and I’ve always done the $10/book pricing. Trying to decide if requiring cash would be viable, as if there are 40 authors selling books, people might prefer cards. Until this year, the Friends of the Library handled all sales. They took a small cut, but it sure was convenient. My little Square thingie is out of date.

  14. My debut takes place on a yacht, so I sold books at a boat show. I only averaged two sales per hour, but I had a good time and met people who shared my love of sailing.

    • What a cool venue, Jeffrey. Always great to chat with those who share a passion.

      A Florida fan is a trans-oceanic sailor. He takes one of my books on each cruise and has someone snap photos of him holding the book in exotic locales, like Croatia, Greece, the Mediterranean, etc. He sends the photos to me which I post on social media. Fun to see how far my books travel.

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