I stole some time away this spring to make the trip to the Barrie auto flea market. It was sort of an express trip this time—I did everything in one day and was back home in time for the news. When you live in Ottawa, that’s no small trip.
I chatted with Terry Ellsworth before I even left my campsite. As coincidence would have it, we were next-door neighbours. I was on my way to the shower and couldn’t talk for long, but he suggested that I drop by Dick Patterson’s site at noon, since that’s where he’d be. He said he had something very, very rare to show me… something that was probably a one-of-a-kind item in any collection.
Things open up at 7 am, and completist that I am, I want to get every minute worth of value for my admission. However, there’s not a lot of value to be had at 7 am. Many vendors are still asleep in their trailers, and there are lots of great deals that go unnoticed because they’re enfolded in the safety of the tarp that covers the table. So it goes, I suppose. There’s no way for one guy to comb the field and find absolutely everything, which is why it’s fun to meet up with folks you know to see what they found that you may have missed—so I fully intended to meet Terry at noon to see what I myself might have missed.
My first purchases were for run-of-the-mill Ontario pairs in nice condition for a decent price. There were various years to be found at various vendors… nothing too special. I overpaid on one of the pairs because I was convinced that it would clear for the YOM program. I suffered through some buyers’ remorse even before I checked them to see if they were clear. Why did you do that, I thought. It wasn’t worth it to pick these up. You’re crazy. As it later turned out, I was indeed crazy. My normally encyclopaedic knowledge of plate codes was not infallible after all—they weren’t clear.
Last fall, I ran into a vendor with a really nice ’72 Impala who had a bunch of plates in crates, including some interesting out-of-province plates and some YOM possibilities. I was trying to track him down again this year because I intended on giving him more business, and I had stuffed my wallet with twenties from the bank machine the previous day so I would be ready. I found his site in the same location of the blue field, as indicated by the slick Impala, but there was nothing else there but a camping trailer—evidently, 7:30 am was too early.
I roamed around the fields for a while longer, browsing here and there. There seem to be more vendors now with plates than ten years ago, but many are rusty, and some are jammed into boxes so tightly that you can’t flip through them. I found a few vendors with King’s Highway signs, another interest of mine, but I figured I’d hold off, because buying a sign would mean that I’d have to make a trip back to the car to stow it. I didn’t relish that idea, but things would soon take an unexpected turn.
I passed by Mr. Impala’s site twice more before I saw it opened up at about 9 pm. He was talking to a man with a french accent who looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. But he then recognized me, and it turned out to by Guy Thibault, the author of the new book on Quebec plates entitled L'immatriculation au Québec. I couldn’t see any of the vendor’s plates anywhere, but Guy introduced me as a plate collector, and the vendor promptly walked us over to a pickup truck with about nine milk crates of license plates in the back. I was ready to spend half an hour going through them and taking my pick, but then that unexpected turn happened.
“I’m selling out,” he said. “I don’t want to take these things back home. You want them? You can take them all for $200. There are probably 800 plates there, so if you’ve got the time, you can more than make the money back.”
I knew right away that I had to reply with a “yes” because I was already prepared to spend quite a bit of cash on leftovers from last fall that I didn’t take the first time. I didn’t want all the plates, but those I did want were easily worth $200. I pulled out the cash and he closed up the pickup truck until I could come and pick them up.
So for the first time, I made use of the free parts pick-up service. I flagged down an old Econoline van-turned-flatbed that was lumbering around the field. The driver looped around the field on his route before making a slight detour and stopping to do my pick-up. A couple of fellas just stepped up and gave me a hand lugging the nine heavy crates onto the flatbed—I didn’t ask anyone for help, and didn’t know if they were employed by the market, or maybe they were with the vendor who sold me the lot. I any case, I was grateful for the help and we had the crates loaded within a couple of minutes. I hopped on the back of the truck with my crates, along with a couple of other people and an exhaust manifold of some kind. The truck ferried us off the sales grounds, across the local concession road, and into the parking field. We pulled up to a supervised drop-off tent where I could safely leave my loot while bringing the car over. It’s times like these that I’m glad I drive a wagon. I managed to find enough space in which to shove the crates. Boy, that was thirsty work, especially with a 35 degree humidex (95 degrees for you Fahrenheitsters). I had a cooler full of ice-cold Cokes, and I downed two right there.
Between the limited browsing I did while hunting for the flatbed, and the parts pick-up itself, time had slipped into the future and it was already noon. I made my way back to the field and headed for Dick’s site, where Terry said he’d be. Indeed, there they were, so I sat down with them and shot the breeze. While word had it last fall that Repaint Roy was retiring, he was back this spring for one last go-round, and apparently, his entire stock is for sale. Given Roy’s somewhat steep prices, I didn’t imagine he’d come down too much for a bulk sale, and even if he did, I’m a teacher, not a plate dealer (at least I wasn't before visiting Mr. Impala that morning). I imagined someone will buy him out and we’ll continue to see remnants for years to come.
Terry then threw some clues at me and asked me to guess what his new-found treasure was. I think I guessed correctly, but all I really remember was the feeling of my eyes popping out of my head when I saw what he picked up.
Talk soon turned to a really weird 1911 Manitoba porcelain plate out on the field. It was black, instead of the usual blue, and had a strange number ending in L. The question from Dick: What did the L mean?
“Livery?” suggested Terry.
I took a look at Terry’s picture of the plate from his digital camera. There was only one L-word that came to my mind.
“Lucrative,” I said.
Lucrative indeed. The price tag on the plate was half a gee. I ventured an opinion as to whether it was a fair price.
“Well,” I said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “An Ontario porcelain in the same condition might go for $400 or $500. But Manitoba has a smaller population, and therefore, fewer plates. Add to that the fact that it’s a type no one has ever seen before. I could see a completist paying close to $1000 for it, especially if he/she knows what the type is.” It later occurred to me that if this was an Ontario plate, not a Manitoba, and it represented a previously unknown type, all of us might have considered ourselves lucky to have it for that much (little).
Terry and I took a stroll down to see the plate, and we were joined along the way by Martine Stonehouse, who also was at a loss to explain the plate’s origin. The vendor didn’t know either—it simply came from an estate somewhere. I think Martine was planning on calling a couple of Manitoba collectors, but we all parted ways before the call was placed.
It was two o’clock, the heat was beating down, and the humidity was drowning me. I had $40 left in my budget, and I spent it on a small Dora the Explorer school desk in new condition for my two-year-old daughter, who absolutely loves Dora. I managed to carry it back to the car, but had to take it apart to fit it inside. With my money spent, I headed back to my campsite to begin the inevitable task of separating wheat from all the chaff I had bought.
It took a couple of hours—the majority of the plates there were Ontario bus plates in the form of March quarterlies with expiries in 1967, 69, 70, 71, 72, 74, 75 and 79. I could keep a handful of each year and still flood the market (not that it isn’t already). These plates were essentially worth scrap value only, but I wasn’t prepared to lug them around and actually find a scrap dealer who would take them for a token amount. So I did something that has ignited a lot of debate amongst the online plate geek forums—I brought them to a dumpster and left them there (for those who think “green”, there were recycling bins, but they only contained aluminium cans, and the weight of the plates alone would have been too heavy for a plastic bin, so I actually left them all on the ground between the recycling and the dumpster. Besides, some kid might come along, score some plates, and experience “the moment” we’ve all had when we decided to start collecting).
Anyway, having dumped two-thirds of the plates, my load was much more manageable, and I still had enough plates to keep me busy and my trade box full for a while to come. I pulled my tent down and packed up the car (would have been impossible had I kept all the plates). I was on the road before five o’clock, which made this the shortest time I’ve ever spent on the Barrie grounds during a trip there. Of course, it’s also the biggest haul I’ve ever brought back. My wife has only seen the three milk crates I brought home. I haven’t shown her the pictures of the five I left behind.