The only elephants here are white

The words “Big Top” normally conjure up images of the circus, but with more than 1,000 booths, the Big Top Flea Market is more of a retail circus.

Located just east of I-75 on Fowler Avenue, the flea market boasts enclosed and outdoor booths offering shoppers something different from the ubiquitous chain-stores that make malls so indistinguishable.

For students and others with limited disposable income, flea markets offers ample opportunity to indulge in some retail therapy without blowing a hole in their finances.

Students can save up to 50 percent below retail, said Tiffany Hike, a Santa Fe Community college student.

“This is my first time here, and I am amazed at all of the money I saved during my time here,” Hike said.

According to some at the market, attendance at flea markets is a good barometer of how well the economy is faring.

“There are cycles in retail just like any other part of the economy,” said one vendor. “When the economy is good, people go to the mall. When the economy is bad, people go to the flea market.”

But flea markets are more than just a money-saving opportunity for shoppers. For some vendors, the venue provides much-needed revenue. Bob Hutchison has been a vendor at Big Top for four-and-a-half years. Running a little shop in the flea market is his way of semi-retiring. His collectible shop sells just about anything you can imagine. It is not quite an antique shop because Florida law stipulates that antiques must be at least 75 years old, and many of the items in the shop are only about 70 years old.

Some of Hutchinson’s goods may be a few years shy of antiquity, but the flea market is one of the few venues where antiques are on sale side-by-side with the newest trends in technology. It is this variety that attracts many shoppers. From collectibles to hard-to-find gear, many vendors offer items that are not available at most malls or department stores.

“There is a wide assortment of goods available that just about anyone can find that for which they are looking,” Hike said.

Phil and Lynn Smith from Zephyrhills are regular Big Top visitors.

“This place is an interesting place to spend a couple of hours,” Phil Smith said. “I can find stuff that I have always wanted. There is such a mix here. This is a good place to do price comparison.”

Shoppers can frequently find prices at Big Top that undercut stores even during sales. At Big Top, computer stores offer laptops for as little as a few hundred dollars or CDs for a few bucks.

“Some of those stores sell quality stuff,” Phil Smith said. “A lot of stores sell toys, computers, and stuff for people who like to collect things.”

One drawback of purchasing goods at the flea market is that receipts are not provided at many of the booths. However, with many computers or sound equipment some type of warranty is offered or may be purchased at an additional cost.

For some vendors, the market is an opportunity to promote their weekday businesses.

“It is cheaper to come here and advertise in person than it is to go through an agency,” George Tustin, a local vendor, said. “Eight thousand to 10,000 people come here on a weekend and if 100 people get my business card and address of our Brandon store, it is worth the money of renting a booth.”

Hike said that out of the four flea markets she has visited Big Top was one of the best and cleanest .

“You can find such great deals at the flea market that I oftentimes forget about the mall on the weekends. Plus, the malls are so crowded usually that it only makes sense to go to the flea market on the weekends and the mall during the week,” Hike said.

Like many flea market shoppers, it is the lure of finding something unique that draws Hike to Big Top.

“Most consumers can find things they are looking for and even stumble upon goods they did not even know about. In either case, the Big Top is a good find,” Hike said.