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Cowgirl Queens of the Flea Market

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Illustration of a cowgirl on horseback shooting at a snake.

I was leading a workshop last week and one of the students asked if they could purchase a copy of my novel. I was thrilled. I signed it and everything. However, I had not been given the clearance to sell books at the location where I was workshopping, so we transacted in the parking lot. With the help of an app on my phone, I found myself selling books out of the back of my truck.

Just like mama taught me.

Since that day, I have been deep in my outlaw country music mode – songs about cowgirls making their way, and at times messing up. Getting by is not always pretty and conventional. Sometimes it’s messy and strange.

But I was raised to be a cowgirl even if I wasn’t real good at riding.

While my mom loved to talk about riding horses when she was younger – lamenting about the good ole days of heading off to the rodeo every weekend – but, by the time I came around, she had turned in her saddle.

My dad, my brother, my sister, all my cousins … these were all people who put on Wranglers and saddled up horses for the day in their spare time. My dad was a rodeo clown for a while, my brother rode bulls, and my sister took a turn with goat roping.

And while they were doing that, my mother and I were on the road, hitting the flea markets, making that money.

We had no horses, but she drove a Bronco and hauled a trailer behind it full of our wared. My mother could back it up on a dime, impressing the gathering of men who waited for their queen to arrive.

She was the queen of the flea market. She knew everyone. She could tell what would sell and what wouldn’t. She offered advice. She had the corner spot next to the back door, grabbing the patrons when they’d been there long enough to decide they would spend money after all, but before they made the choice to slip out the back door to take a smoke break.

Working a flea market is not like working at the mall. I’ve done both. The mall opens at ten am and closes at nine. It’s relatively clean. You use a key and open the gate to a store that had been cleaned and organized by the people who closed it the night before. The clientele is suburban and pedestrian.

The flea market doesn’t open, it starts. Sellers arrive at sun up and build their store using tables, tents, tarps, concrete blocks, planks of wood for shelves, and lattice to hang shirts or wreaths. The money is not stored in a cash register but in a money box hidden out of sight or in a money belt around someone’s waist. There is no electricity unless you pay extra and siphon it from a nearby security light with orange industrial extension cords. I gave myself a shock when I tried to disconnect the dew-wet cords before disconnecting it from the main power. And the customers are as diverse as the community we’d invaded – river folk, southern urban, lake dwellers taking a break from their boats, antiquers, beachcombers, or silver sneakers.

Sometimes there would be rainouts where we threw everything in the trailer before it could get too wet, then dry it all out as soon as we got home. At baseball games when the people tending the field roll out the tarp to protect the dirt with the precision of Beyonce’s dancers, I always recall our own response to the wet call to action of a quarter-sized raindrop.

We’d leave the flea market around five, sometimes later. Sometimes we’d cover everything with a tarp and other days we’d need to pack everything up like we’d never been there before. We’d sleep at home, hotels, campers. We’d drive in the morning, in the afternoon, in the dead of the night. We’d leave at 11 p.m., grab a few Subway subs before they closed, and drive for hours until we could crash at a Super 8 outside the park or camp where we were planning to set up in a matter of hours.

And once the weekend was over, the money had changed hands, we’d go home. I would shower and take a needed break in my room alone. Other times, my dad would have made fried chicken, stew, or chili for us. My mother would sit in her chair and count out the bills, the glorious *fut, *fut, *fut sound of twenties being assembled into a stack.

We brought home the dough. But the “real” cowboys always got the glory.

Cowboys and cowgirls were praised for how rugged they were, the risks they took, the classic nature of their uniform of tight jeans, boots, and button-up shirts. The shirts protect your arms from rouge ropes or leather reins, a barrier between you and the dirt if you’re bucked off. Same with the jeans. They need to fit your form so they don’t get snagged on a fence or bryers. They protect your legs from the saddle and the wear and tear of being in the saddle. And the boots, their heel, keep your foot in place. The hats keep the sun and dirt from your face. All form and function. And it all looks pretty good put together.

My mother and I had no such dress code. We had to look approachable. I knew I needed to look nice, but I was resistant to looking cute. I refused to wear anything we sold – glitter-adorned knit pantsuits, hand-painted shirts, chunky silver pendants, basically anything that a teacher or bank teller would wear to work. I was a minimalist when it came to my look: eyeliner and mascara with my hair pulled back from my face.

Looking cute was too much of a challenge anyway because we needed to carry heavy things, the temperatures would be variable, and much of the time I was getting dressed in the dark. We kept Secret spray deodorant in the console of the Bronco so we wouldn’t carry the stink of our hard work to our customers, who wandered and browsed looking for a deal.

I still struggle with looking cute. The nicest compliment I received recently was a fellow instructor in my building who said I always looked, “put together”. To me, that is high praise. Because I think I still dress like someone is going to ask me to help them unload a trailer real quick.

There is a level of authenticity that one has to reach before one is accepted into a cowboy community. Sure, you wear Wranglers, but do you ride? You ride, but do you trail ride? You ride, but do you compete? How much land do you have? Who are your people? Are you from other rodeo stock?

Me and my siblings were legacies in a sense. Our grandfather rodeoed. Our dad won buckles in high school. Around this time, my grandfather welded some bucking shoots and plowed down a track of dirt to create his own rodeo arena. Local teen boys rolled in droves to work on their bull-riding technique. We were like the farm league for local rodeo. But I was the sibling that drew a question mark whenever they saw me. I was the spit of my parents – clearly carrying both their features – but I didn’t fit in. The black sheep aren’t always trouble-makers. Sometimes they’re nerds.

While father and siblings spent the day at the rodeo, while the local boys bucked out of homemade shoots on the backs of bulls hoping to hold on for eight seconds and the local girls raced their fast horses around barrels trying to beat their last time, my mother and I entertained hagglers trying to bilk us down to eight dollars from ten.

Our philosophy was some money was better than no money, but we weren’t price-matching like WalMart. Some people came swaggering in hoping for that haggle, looking for that fight, looking for those bragging rights of walking away with a deal. And we entertained it, to a point. Because no matter how badass they thought they were, we always had the upper hand. We knew how much it cost, how much the comps were, and how quickly we could resupply. They would stand there implying how our stubbornness and our resistance was foolish, how no one else would be willing to pay what we were asking, how they could head down the road and get the same thing cheaper somewhere else. Either they relented or we shooed them along, only to have them return later with the money. Most of them never had a chance because they didn’t know the secret: you always have to be willing to let them walk away.

After our long day, when my mother and I drove off into the sunset heading for home, we listened to the country music station and sang along with every song they played. So many of those songs were about the cowboys and the wide open spaces and the women who kept the home fires burning while the men went out to work. No one wrote songs about the cowgirls at the flea market bringing home the spoils of their hard work. For lack of that, we settled for Reba McEntire.

Despite all the digital advancements and so-called marketing opportunities, there is nothing quite as real as hand-to-hand transactions, there is nothing so sweet as seeing a happy face then they walk away with their purchase, and there is nothing more outlaw country than riding out and bringing home the dough.

If you see me out in my black truck, trust I have a book in the back that I’m happy to sell you in the middle of the Kroger parking lot.


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