Un-Fairgrounds.

As a coin collector one of my best sources is the monthly Nashville flea market. For decades it’s been held at the state fairgrounds, but its future is uncertain because the fairgrounds is being closed down and sold to private developers. I feel like a part of my childhood is being taken away; I remember going to the flea market when I was four or five with my grandparents and an aunt. My grandfather would always joke, “We need to go. Your aunt is running short on fleas.” That was before I started collecting coins, and I don’t think I ever bought anything at the flea market then, but it didn’t matter. Plenty of people did–and still do.

The Nashville City Paper’s report on the closing asks, “Did elitism doom the fairgrounds?” And there may be some point to the suggestion that “the folks who make these types of Metro-centric decisions aren’t interested in stock car racing, fairs or flea markets.” Yes, there is stock car racing at the track that’s adjacent fairgrounds, but claims of elitism should be made carefully. The City Paper’s article starts with a comment about the city’s most prime real estate being its golf courses and parks, acreage “that is utilized by relatively few citizens, maintained by tax dollars, returns little or no profit and would be an absolute gold mine for developers”. I think it should be noted that parks and golf courses are more environmentally friendly than racetracks. And while the City Paper points out that the state fair drew 209,131 visitors (that’s more than 20,000 people per day) it doesn’t provide figures on stock car race attendance. Maybe closing the fairgrounds and its adjacent racetrack is part of a vast conspiracy to “shed the city’s perceived Hee-Haw image”, but it could just as easily be about the money.

Let me emphasize that I’m not in favor of closing the fairgrounds or the racetrack. It’s not just for flea markets and state fairs, after all. The annual Lawn And Garden Show has been held at the fairgrounds for several years, an event where spaces inside the drab buildings are turned into elegant gardens where you can find plants ranging from rainforest specimens to cacti. A friend of mine who’s a member of the Orchid Society of Middle Tennessee has helped put together spectacular displays that are worth the price of admission. I’m not sure where they’ll be next year–or if there will be a show at all.

The fairgrounds also hosts everything from gun and knife shows to bead and jewelry shows to computer sales. The Nashville Comic and Horror Festival and a dog show were held at the fairgrounds on the same weekend, proving just how versatile the space is.

And then there’s the flea market, where you can find tube socks, tubers, and tapeworms. You can find just about anything there. Unlike eBay, which is fine if you know what you’re looking for, the flea market is a place where, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re bound to find something. Admittedly most of the time I do know what I’m looking for and I head straight for the coin dealers, most of whom now recognize me even though they must see hundreds, if not thousands of different people. There’s a wonderful couple who, every month, drive up from Florida just to set up a booth at the Nashville flea market. They’ve been making the trip back and forth for more than twenty years. I wonder what will become of them when the flea market ends. Maybe they’re close to retiring anyway, but they’re not the only coin dealers–and not by any means the only small business owners who come to the flea market to sell things.

Flea markets aren’t unique–although every flea market is different, and lots of places have racetracks, but then again lots of places have fairs too. That doesn’t make them any less of a source of local pride and interest. The closing of the fairgrounds and racetrack is being compared, with good reason, to the closing of the Opryland Theme Park. Opryland was torn down and replaced with a mall that’s no different from malls across the country. The City Paper story is illustrated with a picture of an antique merry-go-round similar to one that Opryland had. While you could find roller coasters and bumper cars and, for that matter, merry-go-rounds at every theme park, Opryland’s merry-go-round was unique, more than a century old and restored to working order after fifty years in storage (information about the history of Opryland, including the merry-go-round, can be found here). A true work of art, that old merry-go-round has been returned to storage and may never run again. And now another landmark is going the same way. Tourism has been a very big part of Nashville’s economy, but I don’t see how it’s going to continue to be if the city keeps moving toward being like everywhere else.