As the daughter of one of the five original Hillsville Flea Market vendors, Debra Parsons Buchanan has actually been coming to the annual show since 1964. That may sound odd to some in Hillsville considering this year marks the 51st Annual VFW Labor Day Gun Show and Flea Market.
“The buttons are off by a few years. Mom had her original receipt from 1964. The first several years they didn’t think it was going to make it. It wasn’t getting the traction to get it going,” said Buchanan, who owns Debra’s Antiques in Martinsville. “When they finally said it was going to make it, they started with button one instead of starting with the years when they were trying to get it going.”
Now considered one of the biggest flea markets east of the Mississippi, it’s almost unfathomable to think of the humble beginnings of the annual Hillsville event. But sure enough, Buchanan was there with her late parents, Walter and Jean Parsons, when they were one of just a handful of vendors at the original event. At the tender age of seven, Buchanan was allowed to set up and operate her own table – something she has continued to do every single year of the Hillsville event.
“Mom and dad were one of the original five. That year my sister and I were there, too. Because I like to be into everything, mother had to figure some way to keep me occupied,” Buchanan said. “She gave me a card table and a bunch of things she thought maybe I could sell. She said, ‘Debra, you will have to deal with the people, price it and make the change.’ And I said, ‘Okay,’ because by that age I could read, write, add and subtract. From then on I have had a table every year since.”
When Buchanan turned 18, she set up her own spot just across from the reception area inside the VFW lot. She said her father put in the metal shed – trading the materials and labor and continued upkeep in return for always being able to keep the same spot. Buchanan’s mother passed away in 2013 and her father passed May 23 of this year. Even so, she said she and her sister will continue coming to the Hillsville Flea Market for a variety of reasons.
“I like antiques. It is a hobby I just enjoy. I was born into it,” she said. “I enjoy the people. There are a lot of people I see year after year and I have learned about the families. We have become friends. I still see family from cousins I have from Independence that still come and we are still making new friends every year. I enjoy talking to the veterans, too. It was so interesting this past year. A drain was clogged up right below us and two veterans, probably in their eighties, were down on their hands and knees trying to clean out that drain.”
A certified appraiser, Buchanan said she has always worked with antiques. To make it easier on her, now she brings mostly “smalls” to the Hillsville show. She specializes in gold and silver jewelry as well as vintage and older costume jewelry. She still brings glassware and always has old comic books, windup toys, pocket watches, pocket knives, and of course, a “lot of metal signs.”
Buchanan’s sister, Peggy, sets up on the other side of the family stand, where she sells antique inventory from their father’s and mother’s collection. The stand at the Hillsville Flea Market has featured a picture of Jean Parsons since her passing in 2013.
“We leave a picture of my mom and a book in front of it. People would sign the book and put what they remembered about mom or dad and the booth. And then when we got home, we would read that to dad,” Buchanan said. “He got to where he could hardly walk and he had macular degeneration. But dad would remember a lot of the customers after all these years. I feel like what we will do this year is have a picture of mom and dad there now that he has passed.”
Antiques have been such a passion of the family that Buchanan says they have about 15 buildings full of antiques. American Pickers, the popular television show on the History Channel, has called Buchanan and her husband a couple of times about “picking” their buildings, but both times the timing didn’t work out. Despite the large inventory, the Hillsville Flea Market is the only show Buchanan goes to, although she has recently branched out to the Hillsville’s Memorial Day Flea Market.
“We have made so many friends over the years with not only customers, but dealers too. You see the same people year to year. And I tell people down here if you are looking for something in particular and you can’t find it in Hillsville you might as well give up on collecting that. I tell them if you want to see it all, come three days, because the flea market has put Hillsville on the map,” Buchanan said. “Over the years I have had regulars. There was a gentleman in his eighties who would drive in from Indiana and he would buy good jewelry from me. A few years ago there was a guy that flew in from London, England and he bought jewelry from me. You just meet people that you remember.”