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You can find it at the Red Barn


Where can you find vinyl records, flea combs, Wisconsin cheese curd, Asian produce or an early edition of Charles Dickens' "Little Dorritt"?

The Red Barn Flea Market rebounded from a disastrous 1996 fire. More than 2 million visitors check out the market every year.

The Red Barn Flea Market is the daily destination for shoppers to find not only what they want but to discover unexpected treasures and treats.

Every year, more than 2 million natives and tourists gravitate toward the festive atmosphere of c otton candy, popcorn and music.

For 27 years, regulars have made their pilgrimages, looking for clothing, bicycles, shoes and hard-to-find items. You wouldn't know the nation is experiencing an economic meltdown when you enter the busy 125,000-square-foot retail space under one roof.

You are greeted by the scent of hot dogs and curry, plus with the squeals of children, screeches of parakeets and the joyous conversations of friends.

When Carl Shepard established the 20-acre Red Barn at the intersection of U.S. 301 and U.S. 41 in Bradenton in 1981, little did he know he was creating a magnet tourist site in the middle of celery muck.

Even a raging fire in 1996 that totally destroyed the 103,000-square-foot structure did not ruin the Shepard family's zeal. To demonstrate the family's indomitable conviction, in less than two years the Red Barn was resurrected from the ashes into a bigger flea market.

"Our customers and venders are family," says Dan Shepard, who succeeded his father as general manager when Carl died of a stroke in 1994. "The biggest challenge we have is to evolve with the customer's habits. There was a time when flea markets were just places to find household junk. Then antiques were popular until they were sold on the Internet. Working as a team, we adapt and are now offering construction services, insurance and autos."

Since the Red Barn opened, Linda Sterrett, the company's marketing director, struggles every day to keep a complete list of what all 400 vendors are selling.

"The inventory changes, and that keeps us on our toes," she says. "But it's a fun challenge."

Red Barn Flea Market

Where: 1707 First St. E., Bradenton

When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday; open on Wednesday from November to April; plaza area open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. 

Phone: (941) 747-3794

Web site: www.redbarnfleamarket.com

For 28 years, Lois Ploegstra has been the vending manager at the flea market, and has that skill of an emergency room nurse, triaging emergencies of vendors' demands and buyers' requests.

"We try to have venders feel there's a continuity to our market," Ploegstra says. "This is more than a job. "This is my life and is the most wonderful place to work."

Each morning, acres of fresh fruit and vegetables are spread out before customers eager to get the choicest citrus, lettuce, plantains and tomatoes at low prices. For many buyers it's a nostalgic tour of a time when farmers' markets stocked the pantry.

Maria, the owner and operator of Maria's Restaurant, comes out every day to inspect and prepare the vegetables and fruits that are the foundation of her Mexican cuisine. In her hand-made tortillas, Maria creates her award-winning tacos of spiced pastor (pork), nopales (cactus) and succulent barbacoa (barbecued meat).

The full market is open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. From November to April it is also open on Wednesday. The plaza area, which includes 35 stores, restaurants and produce areas, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.


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