Part of a series of occasional articles highlighting summer destinations and activities along several Massachusetts highways.
WELLFLEET — Just off of winding Route 6, past the motels, clam shacks, and myriad beach shops that line the Cape Cod byway, sits the decades-old Wellfleet Drive-in Theatre.
Its massive asphalt parking lot often fills up by 10 a.m. during the summer. But the trailers, trucks, and vans are not packed with movie buffs out for an early matinee. Instead, they are laden with clothing, antiques, and knickknacks.
Popcorn and soda will have to wait for later.
Four mornings each week, the theater devotes nearly a square mile of parking lot to one of the Cape’s largest and most legendary flea markets, where are many as 200 vendors line up to sell homemade jewelry, baseball cards, music, movies, and nearly everything else under the sun.
The drive-in first opened in 1957 and vendors say the market — open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday — has been taking place for at least 40 years.
For $1 admission, a crowd that includes vacationing college students, families, and locals can park their cars and walk the market in search of treasure buried amongst the piles of items for sale.
“There seems to be plenty of selection,” said Susan Fleming, 52, of Eastham, who despite living nearby, was visiting the market for the first time this week. “My friends are regulars here, so I decided to give it a try.”
Vendors say the bulk of the traffic during non-holiday weekends comes from repeat customers and those who have grown up coming to the theater and flea market.
“I first came here as a kid, to the movies,” said Roger Drysdale, of Eastham, who, along with his son, sells wooden plant hangers, homemade soap, and gold-plated golf ball markers at the flea market.
“It’s great because you talk to your customers every day,” Drysdale said. “It’s one of the best markets in New England.”
Drysdale, a retired teacher, has been a flea market vendor for the past 10 years, splitting his time between the Wellfleet market and another one in New Orleans. After cleaning out his family’s basement and cellar, he and his wife began searching for new products to sell.
The soap, which comes in fragrances such as peppermint and lavender, they buy from a man in Iowa. The golf markers come from North Dakota. The plant hangers, Drysdale said, are an original design crafted by him and his adult son, Brandon.
“Quality people shop at quality places,” said Drysdale, who said much of the market’s draw is due to the community feel. The vendors, most of whom have set up shop in the parking lot for years, come from across the country and direct shoppers as if they were all a coordinated sales team. Most know dozens of the other vendors by name.
“We build tremendous friendships,” he said.
On Thursday, a scorching day on Cape Cod, many of the vendors walked booth to booth, chatting with each other during times when customer traffic was sparse.
Pat Franzese of Provincetown, who has sold her homemade jewelry at the market for the past seven years, said she often begins her days at 3:30 a.m. by organizing and loading her jewelry and taking inventory of the previous day’s sales. By 8 a.m. she’s ready for business, tucked under a portable tent to keep her cool during the 12-hour workdays.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “You’re essentially packing and unpacking a small store everyday.”
Hot, sunny days are generally the worst for business, she said, since most vacationers head to the beach.
But on cool, gray, and cloudy days, it is not unusual for the market to be swarmed by hundreds of shoppers picking through bins and baskets of merchandise.
“On Sundays, they are like vultures,” said Linda Brown, an antiques collector and dealer from White River Junction, Vt. “The antique dealers unload along the back fence, and it is just a free-for-all.”
Brown, who frequently prowls the market for antique pieces to add to her collection and sell at road shows and who also sells some of her collectibles at the market, has been a regular at the Wellfleet market for 11 years.
Most regular vendors and shoppers agree that business has slowed over the years, largely because of the state and national economy.
While the aisles were once packed with well-dressed shoppers carrying $100 bills and looking for big-ticket items, most say the bulk of their business now comes in $5 and $1 transactions.
“I’m really taking a hit,” said Francisco Joseph, an artist from Atlanta who is selling paintings he creates on the glass of recycled window frames at the market for the first time this summer.
Joseph, who said he heard about the market from another vendor in Georgia, said business boomed around the July Fourth holiday but has trailed off since.
“I love selling at this market, but I’ve got to feed my kids,” Joseph said.
Vintage-music vendor Mick Lawless, whose stand includes hundreds of CDs, cassette tapes, records, and even a few vintage eight tracks, said business has certainly slowed over the years.
Despite the economic slow-down, some of his merchandise still flies off the shelf.
“The Beatles, their stuff will always, always sell,” he said, “from 5-year-olds to 100-year-olds.”
Best sellers at the market also include music and posters from the punk-rock era, especially bands such as The Clash or the Ramones.
“The kids love this old punk stuff,” Lawless said as he accepted payment for a Who album from a college-aged woman.”
“I can’t keep enough of it.”