Column: Another Pinellas landmark fades into history

The Zumpe family enjoys a Saturday morning trip to Wagon Wheel Flea Market in January. The trip turned out to be one of their last visits prior to the closure of the flea market due to the pandemic.

I made the call around 6:30 a.m. and the Zumpe family grudgingly tumbled out of bed Jan. 25, with some muffled complaints about having to get up early on a Saturday morning after a full week of school. As usual, I had been awake since before 3 a.m.

By the time I had rallied the troops and we were in the car and headed toward our destination, the objections had turned into enthusiasm and excitement. Little did we know it would be the last time we would get to search for treasures at the Wagon Wheel and Mustang flea markets.

I can’t give the precise date of my first visit to Wagon Wheel. I recall running into one of my teachers once, and the embarrassment that ensued when she recounted the meeting the following Monday in her classroom. That incident would have taken place in 1979 or 1980. Even then, the flea market appealed to me as an avid collector of comic books and Star Wars merchandise. And even then, I realized that the experience was different than going shopping at a department store or browsing the various businesses that called Tyrone Mall home.

At the flea market:

• You buy from directly from the small business owner, not a timeclock punching sales associate

• Prices aren’t necessarily fixed

• It’s easy to find recycled goods

• You can walk through an antique store, a bookshop and a produce stand in just one row

• You always have a chance of seeing something utterly unique

• People-watching is a compelling pastime

When I was a teenager, I would ride my bicycle to Wagon Wheel from Oakhurst Road in Seminole. In those years, my interest had shifted to music and I could easily lose myself picking through vast inventories of vinyl records or haggling over the price of a bootleg concert T-shirt. I bought plenty of those low-quality shirts — from Black Sabbath to Pink Floyd — to wear to school, before the Pinellas County Schools dress code became strict. The Velcro Ozzy Osbourne wallet I bought at a stall far back on B Row lasted well into my 20s.

My obsession with non-sports trading cards began with the very first, blue-bordered series of Topps Star Wars cards in 1977. By the mid-1980s, my collection had grown exponentially and I became a regular of one particular dealer at Wagon Wheel: The Trading Card Guy.

A quick side note: Over the years, I made personal connections with a number of vendors at the Wagon Wheel and Mustang flea markets. Unfortunately, because of the place’s longevity, I never bothered to learn anyone’s name! Instead, my family referred to vendors as “The Trading Card Guy,” “The Toy Man,” “Glass Lady” and “Paper Ephemera Woman.”

Talk about longevity: The Trading Card Guy I met in the early 1980s was still a regular vendor as of my family’s Jan. 25 trip to the flea market. He quit selling trading cards long ago, though, in favor of becoming a used bookdealer. Mountains of books piled precariously high on wooden tables crowded multiple booths in the middle of J&K Row — books stacked in crooked towers that always seemed seconds away from structural collapse. The collection had no apparent rhyme or reason to it, but whenever someone asked for a specific title, the seller sprang to his feet and started burrowing until he located a copy.

The Toy Man was a more recent arrival, and moved from place to place in the open-air Mustang annex. Over the last five years, he slowly became familiar with our interests: He knew I looked for vintage toys, such as Marx and Mego. He knew my daughter collected Disney Tsum Tsums as well as Vinylmation figurines. He knew my wife liked Disney princesses, but I don’t think he’d yet realized Sleeping Beauty is her favorite.

When Wagon Wheel Flea Market announced June 10 that it would not reopen following the forced closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my first thought was that I would miss seeing all these vendors whose names I never learned.

The Toy Man will survive the end of the flea market. He fills up his van and travels to other weekday flea markets around Florida, and is probably active in toy shows. He also sells on eBay.

Some vendors such as The Trading Card Guy turned bookdealer may relocate to another Tampa Bay area flea market or open up a brick-and-mortar shop.

It’s The Glass Lady that I’m worried about.

From what she told me during one of our many conversations, The Glass Lady had been a Wagon Wheel dealer from way back — probably before my first visit. Once, she sold comic books. She said the kids who used to buy comic books from her grew up and had kids; and their kids had kids. She often sees second and third generation customers stopping in her booth to say hello.

At some point, she stopped selling comic books and started selling off her personal collections. She and her husband spent years collecting glassware, beer steins, puzzles and other memorabilia. When he passed away several years ago, she kept going to the flea market. Why wouldn’t she? Some of her best memories were made there, sharing her love and knowledge of collecting with novice buyers. Over the last year, her health declined. When she went into a rehabilitation and health care center following a fall, a friend kept her booth running. When she returned, one of her sons accompanied her to handle the heavy lifting and to keep an eye on her.

The Glass Lady has many special customers — customers to whom she sells her most valued collectibles. She wanted to be sure those items went to people who will appreciate them as much as she and her husband did. My family was privileged to be among that elite group.

The sudden end of Wagon Wheel means we probably won’t ever see The Glass Lady again, and that breaks my heart. Missing out on the opportunity to buy more collectibles from her isn’t what bothers me: It’s that we’ll never get to talk about old times, share stories and wish her well.

The closure leaves customers and vendors scrambling to stay connected. It leaves dealers with the nightmare of clearing out accumulated inventories on short notice. It is a disruption in income for many, and an inconvenience for more.

For those who spent decades peddling their wares at this Pinellas County landmark, the tragedy of leaving all those final goodbyes unspoken must be devastating.