WELLFLEET — A cool wind blows across the drive-in parking lot, and the flea market is a frenzy of sellers simultaneously talking to customers, packing up, and glancing at the sky, which threatens rain.
Nobody, it seems, has a moment for a reporter. “Sorry, I’m working right now!” they say. Or, more intriguingly, “If you’re gonna use my name, then no can do.” They’re moving rusty hammers, ziplock-bagged Pokémon cards, sailboat T-shirts, and anchor-stamped rings.
Maybe this is evidence of these sellers’ skepticism of the press. Or just their desire to never take their eyes off a potential sale. Either way, there is something almost comforting in their protectiveness — this is their place, their plot of pavement, where they’ve been setting up their stands for decades. No bright-eyed recent college grad and obvious washashore is going to capture what makes them return year after year.
Drew and Deborah Stinson of East Dennis specialize in hand tools made in the early 1900s and have been coming to the flea market for “probably 20 years.” They come because they are “looking to pare down,” Deborah says. But it is certainly more than that. Her eyes light up when she describes her parents: “They were both antiques dealers. My father dealt in antique cars, and my mother had two shops.”
Sanoussy Berete, originally from Liberia, has been coming from Boston for the flea for over 25 years. He stands next to a table covered with exquisite masks and sculptures from West and Central Africa that he says his relatives send him. Many of the pieces are 80 to 100 years old, he adds. It is strange to see these ornate pieces, once used in ceremonial rituals, being sold among sunglasses and key chains. Maybe that’s what the flea market is all about.
Mike Abney, the self-proclaimed “Cape Cod Carver,” is part of what makes the Wellfleet Flea Market a magical place.
His stand is in the farthest corner of the market, almost under the movie screen. His hand-carved sign depicts a winged and crowned lion with the words: “King Moonracer: Gallery of Misfit Art. Please Give a Home to My Loyal Subjects.” On offer are hundreds of mystical and magnificent wood carvings of birds, mermaids, crashing ships, narwhals, and polka-dotted fish. Abney sits on a lime green fold-up chair with a tattered Truro shirt, dark sunglasses, shoes that cradle each of his toes individually, and a carving tool in one hand.
“I’ve been wood carving since I was a little kid,” Abney says, though he used to make a living as a carpenter. After getting Lyme disease 14 years ago, he stopped doing carpentry and turned to selling his carvings.
“I like carving naked ladies,” he says, “but they don’t sell, so I don’t do that too much.” He is in the market to please. “People want mermaids and whales and birds. Whatever they ask for — I make it.”
A sea scene with toothy narwhals and skeptical-looking blue whales is a fine example. Dashes of white paint above the green-blue background create the rushing sea. It is playful, well done, and priced at 30 bucks. “If you got it in P’town it would be $200,” Abney says.
Abney’s most unusual items are wooden books that tell stories from his life; there is also a series depicting smashed ships and harpoons and various scenes from Moby-Dick.
You’re not going to see Abney’s work at any of the local galleries, but amid the tides of made-in-China nautical whatnot for sale on Cape Cod, his seascapes are a breath of fresh air. His work looks like it could have been carved on the deck of a ship during a months-long whaling voyage or found hanging on the wall of the American Folk Art Museum. The Wellfleet flea market gives Abney and his art a place to be appreciated.
Abney says he has sold thousands of his carvings at the flea market over the years. But, he says, he has only just begun. “The best piece I ever made?” he says. “I haven’t made it yet.”
“Up to 150 vendors sell it all,” says the Wellfleet Flea Market website. The selling goes on from 8 a.m. to “approximately 3 p.m” every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday through August.