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Jonnet commemorates 25 years of bargains

| Wednesday, May 2, 2012, 7:49 p.m.

BLAIRSVILLE--Many of today's "super stores" offer one-stop shopping--a place to buy both milk and a garden hose, if need be.

Residents of the Blairsville area have had a bargain "super store" right in their backyard for the past quarter of a century.

Jonnet Flea Market will celebrate its 25-year anniversary Saturday and Sunday, with a weekend full of prize giveaways and even greater bargains than usual.

Whether its a new gravy boat, an antique lamp, collectible coins or a favorite vinyl album from yesterday, it's liable to be at Jonnet's.

The indoor flea market boasts anywhere from 65 to 80 vendors, depending on the time of year. During the warmer months, sellers will line up in the parking lot, taking advantage of outdoor vending spaces.

"Outside on a summer day, it's jam-packed," said Shirley Bertolino, who, with her husband, Al, has run the market for most of its 25-year run.

Owned by the same Jonnets who operate Jonnet Development in the Pittsburgh area, the flea market opened to the public the first weekend of November 1982 along Rt. 22 just west of town. It was managed then by Jimmy and Doc Evans, but six months after the opening, due to unexpected health problems, they turned the reins over to the Bertolinos.

The Blairsville couple already had a love of flea markets and yard sales. "My dad had a junkyard, Shannon's Junkyard, all of our lives, so I came by this naturally," Shirley Bertolino said with a laugh. "It runs in the family."

When the Evanses approached them with the management position, they were interested right away. "We were both out of work," said Bertolino. She had recently been employed at a clothing factory, and her husband had worked in sportswear. "It was a way to earn a little money."

And business was good. The Evanses had already built up a fair amount of clientele. The vendors--all 11 of them--were set up in a small section of the building, which previously housed an auto dealership.

The vendors grew and spread out, taking over the main "showroom" section and, in the last few years, most of the building.

It's simple economics. The boom in vendors is the result of a steady interest from buyers--people looking for a bargain. "They're addicting," Peg Nolf remarked of flea markets.

She and her husband, Charlie, are from Ford City, but every weekend they're in Blairsville, peddling wares such as glassware, furniture, dolls and other collectibles in a rented room at the Jonnet market. They've been coming for about 23 years, starting as customers. The couple got started in the flea market business after Peg Nolf found some bargains at an auction that she couldn't pass up.

"The deals were so good, I bought everything," she stated. "Then I said, 'Now what am I going to do with all of this?'"

She found the answer in flea markets.

"Everybody collects something," Bertolino said, noting she has a collection of stained glass houses she displays every Christmas while Nolf collects Fenton glassware.

Jonnet's offers a little bit of everything for a variety of shoppers. Men prefer to peruse the tools, old car parts and farming equipment, while women are drawn to the collectibles, glassware and kitchen utensils.

There are two different coin vendors and others who specialize in wood crafts and customized painting. Some retail sellers peddle brand-new tools, gloves and socks.

For those who want to please their taste buds, homemade baked goods are offered at one stall and two snack stands serve a changing menu with everything from eggs and sausage to soups and sandwiches.

For the anniversary event, Bertolino has many giveaways and drawings planned, Vendors are providing prizes, including a basket full of Steelers stuff and an antique doll. The Nolfs are giving away a free turkey, just in time for Thanksgiving. There will be extra refreshments on hand, and many vendors are planning to discount prices for the weekend.

Bea Zedick, of Blairsville, sells antiques and collectibles in a space she shares with Dr. Bob Gaylor, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. They're offering gift certificates that can be used at their lots.

The Bertolinos use a few of the market spots for themselves, selling items Shirley has accumulated through the years, including finds at auctions and estate sales.

She's often asked to raid the attics of estates and remove what may be "junk" to some. Not to Bertolino, though. She reasons, though a set of dishes is missing a few items, there may be someone searching for that exact pattern, wanting to replace a few broken pieces.

"You never know what you're going to find in the next box," she noted.

Bertolino has seen many trends in buying come and go. Beanie Babies, huge with the younger crowd for a while, now are forgotten. Antiques, baseball cards and movies also sell in cycles, falling in and out of vogue.

One of the most unusual items she's seen sold at the market was an antique paddle boat.

In an age where eBay has people scouring their attics for treasures to sell through the online auction, Jonnet's is still going strong.

"We sell to a lot of people who say, 'I'll buy that, I'll sell it on eBay,'" Zedick noted.

The economy can affect traffic and sales, and weather and Sunday afternoon Steelers games can be the bane of existence for Jonnet's vendors. Yet sales have remained steady through the years.

But some people thought the idea of having an indoor flea market in Blairsville wasn't the brightest of ideas.

Deb Short was one of Jonnet's very first vendors. But he originally wasn't convinced an indoor flea market at the Rt. 22 site would work.

"He said, 'It's a good building, but no one will ever cross Rt. 22 to get here,'" Bertolino recalled. "I'll see him here on the weekends now and tease him, 'So this won't work, huh?'"

When the flea market opened, it shared space first with the Jonnet dealership, then with Vale Tech school, which offered some classes there. In the mid 1980s, Vale Tech moved out, and the flea market began to spread out.

The market has closed only briefly in its 25-year history, after an arsonist burned out the first four bays of the building and the rest received smoke damage. After a brief span of time used to clean up the debris and cordon off the charred area, the market was back up and running.

"We were operational, but on a small scale," said Bertolino. "It took us a few years to get back to full operation" after the Jonnet company rebuilt sections of the building.

Bertolino's own flea market obsession began in 1968, when she went to visit to her sister in Denver, Colo.

"We spent two solid weeks running from flea market to flea market," she recalled, noting that the trend of trash to treasure hadn't yet caught on on the East Coast.

She returned to Blairsville and started hosting her own yard sales. After the flea market fervor had made its way to the area, she began setting up her own tables at an outdoor sale that started up in front of the former Hills department store in Indiana, and at Runzo's in Homer City.

It costs $7 a day to rent one indoor or outdoor lot at Jonnet's. That fee is increased for room rentals, which are hard to come by.

The outdoor vendors tend to set up for a weekend or two, while the indoor vendors usually camp out for a season or more. Many have been at the market for more than a decade.

"This is a family here," Nolf stated. "You get to know the people here, and they get to be like family," she added.

The flea market has brought in vendors from Johnstown, Greensburg, Delmont, Indiana, Apollo and Vandergrift. As for customers, they've been attracted from other states and on tour buses, Bertolino noted.

"We had a busload of people come in once," recalled Nolf. "When they left, they didn't have an inch of room left inside that bus," once all of their purchases were loaded.

This past spring, Erik Estrada--perhaps best known as Officer Frank "Ponch" Poncherello on the 1970s television show "CHiPs"--was in the area to throw out the first pitch at an Altoona Curve baseball game. On his way back to the airport, he stopped at the Jonnet market and purchased a few miniature Hot Wheels cars for his collection. Recognized by a few people, he agreed to take pictures with some of the vendors and customers and sing autographs.

"He was so congenial," Bertolino said. "It was great."

In the early 1990s, a limousine full of famous professional wrestlers at the time pulled into the parking lot.

"They were passing through and wanted to look around," Bertolino said. "You never know who you might run into. But we're always glad to see new faces."

Jonnet Flea Market is open every Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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