Box trucks, pickups and vans began lining up before dawn. Even normally traffic-choked Sunrise Highway was eerily quiet so early on a Sunday morning, the silence broken only by the occasional passing of a Long Island Rail Road train.
But there was a hive of activity below as vendors hustled to reserve a spot under the LIRR’s elevated tracks and assembled rows of tables to display their mismatched yet encyclopedic assortment of wares. This is how an empty commuter parking lot transforms into the greatest show on asphalt, a collection of buyers and sellers drawn together by the timeless question of trash or treasure.
Welcome to the Bellmore Flea Market, a seasonal, once-a-week phenomenon that attracts people from every corner of Long Island and beyond to a shopping experience unlike any to be found at a mall, big-box retailer or even eBay. While art, jewelry, sports collectibles, toys, DVDs and books all have a place at the Bellmore Flea, practical goods — kitchenware, tools and outdoor equipment — also go fast.
“People don’t want to spend $60 for a pan at Target when they can get the same pan here, a little used, for five bucks,” said John Jude, 59, of Stony Brook, a retired construction worker turned flea market hawker. “Customers fight over that stuff.”
The feverish rush of customers — it’s free to park and enter — followed by the dopamine hit they provide with each purchase is part of what attracts merchants to the commuter lot between Bellmore and Bedford avenues on Sunrise Highway.
For many of the dealers, an overwhelming number of them Social Security-eligible, the Bellmore Flea represents a dependable source of cash, a side gig selling whatever can be had — and whatever’s hot — at that moment.
Others, like Louie Lozito, 67, of Wantagh, consider the weekly market an extension of their businesses. Lozito owns Cabinet of Curiosities in Freeport, an antiques mall that effectively goes mobile during the warmer months.
Fueled by coffee and anticipation, Lozito is usually the first of about 80 vendors, arriving by 4 a.m. For more than a decade, he’s occupied the prime spot at the corner of Bellmore Avenue and Broadway next to the portable toilets and customer parking.
“Nothing compares to this place,” Lozito said. “It draws a lot of people and is right on the main drag.”
But he cautions that it takes a lot of energy to do it right. Easy money it’s not. But the payoff for hard work is real. And on a June Sunday, the packed lot was alive with cash transactions.
Open each Sunday April through November, weather permitting, the Bellmore Flea has operated as a charity through the Bellmore Lions Club and Bellmore’s Congregation Beth Ohr since 1992. The organizations run the flea market on alternate weeks, using proceeds from the $70 vendor fee — minus the Town of Hempstead permit, paying for trash pickup and, of course, the portable toilets — to fund a variety of service projects and initiatives, including scholarships and stocking a food pantry. The Lions donate to the student-run Bellmore-Merrick Community Cupboard at Brookside Junior High School in North Merrick, which supports 68 families, according to organizers.
Flea market ‘sheriff’
Despite the obvious garage-sale vibe, the market is a well-organized affair — and one person in particular is responsible for the seamless production. The regulars call Nina Lanci “The Sheriff,” a nod to her no-nonsense approach. But she’s more like the beating heart of Bellmore.
Lanci, 56, a longtime Bellmore resident, is treasurer of the Lions Club and its current flea market chairwoman. She’s also vice president of the North Bellmore School District Board of Education, outgoing president of the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District’s Board of Education and administrative services director for a labor organization in Melville. She explained that while the Bellmore Flea is immensely popular, the fact that it’s run by volunteers keeps it percolating with purpose and blocks it from becoming a full-time endeavor. And the commuter lot is full six days a week, so there would be no place for the market except on Sundays.
“We’re volunteers,” she said, reflecting a deep sense of service to her community. “You need a life. The vendors — if we could open all year-round — they’d have us out here in the dead of the winter.”
So would customers, an estimated 200 to 500 depending on the week.
Yolanda Santiago, 63, traveled from Westchester County to treasure hunt at the Bellmore Flea. It’s a passion her boyfriend, who lives in Amityville, introduced her to. She looks for Art Deco pieces, silver and glass. On this sunny June morning, the trek over the Sound paid off.
She scooped up a gold-trimmed deco bowl for $3. Santiago knows exactly where it will go, too.
“This is going in my upstairs living room,” said Santiago, who sees similar vintage pieces retail for $20 or more at brick-and-mortar shops. She offers sound advice to would-be hoarders: “If you don’t have a spot for it, don’t buy it.”
Purchasing power for Long Islanders has never been stronger. There is no shortage of options for bargain hunters these days, from the neighborhood antiques and thrift shops to such online communities as Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and Letgo. And this is the season for garage and estate sales.
There are still other flea markets to consider. The Empire State Market takes over the NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum parking lot on weekends, Westbury Market Fair transforms the NYCB Theatre at Westbury and the larger and more famous Brooklyn Flea dominates farther west.
These are places where everyone’s looking for a bargain. Even the sellers.
Flipping and shopping
“I’ve been selling here forever. It’s like an addiction,” said Helen Cammarata, 71, of Merrick, a former homemaker who hawks jewelry and bric-a-brac. “People come here religiously. They come every Sunday with their families, their pets.”
The first thing Cammarata does after setting up shop is a little shopping of her own. She freely brags about the wrought-iron white patio chair she picked up earlier in the morning for $5.
Lozito once bought a Rolex watch at the flea for $200, then flipped it for $3,000. “The guy thought it didn’t work, but it did,” he said with wide a grin.
A quick scan across the vast parking lot revealed bedding, fishing gear, bikes, shoes — even a suit of armor — but no Rolex.
Jude, meanwhile, laid out two mismatched tires. Why? Because they were new and everyone needs a spare. Talk to Jude and you realize two things: He can sell sand in the desert and he knows his market. Selling goods from the back of his truck is his retirement plan, after all. He needs each trip to be a success.
While much of Lozito’s merchandise comes from “cleanouts” — emptying homes before or after a sale — Jude said that people will come to him to discard otherwise good items. That said, he tries to get hold of as many lawn mowers as possible because they are bestsellers. He’ll pocket $75 for a mower that once sold for $400 new.
“Thank God for lazy people,” said Jude, who claims to make “four figures” from a typical trip to the Bellmore Flea. “They don’t want to take nothing when they move. They want to buy new when they get there.”
In a disposable world, that trash happily gets recycled into dollars in Bellmore.
The guy selling the armor? That’s Lou Brantmeyer, 88, of Amityville, who chomps on a cigar while wearing a stovepipe top hat. He, too, turned to reselling goods at the flea market out of his van after retiring from construction.
Brantmeyer and his helpers, including his tenant, an energetic and always smiling Kenneth Lane, 57, lay out goods that have been collected through the years or picked up at garage sales. “This is strictly a hobby for me,” Brantmeyer said. “I collect old tin toys. And I find something new every week.” His spread includes model trains, vintage tin toys, figurines of every size and material, lamps, a manual typewriter, various artwork, military jackets, even a globe.
Another fixture at the flea is Irwin Green, 82, of Seaford, who uses some of the proceeds from the vintage pins and other collectibles he sells to support the Dr. Manuel Green Scout Museum, part of the Theodore Roosevelt Council offices in Massapequa. He’s the curator there.
“I’ve been collecting for 70 years,” said Green, echoing a sentiment for so many. “Now I have to get rid of it.”