Flea Enterprise

Anything goes at Jack Frison's throbbing Mecca of merchandise, the region's largest indoor bazaar

Apr 14, 2004 at 4:00 am
Push a buck underneath the Plexiglas barrier to doorman Kevin Houston and he'll smile, offer thanks and wave you through the single turnstile and into a massive indoor flea market. It resembles a ramshackle Wal-Mart after the revolution, this swarming den of low-rent capitalists. Here a ragtag collection of independent retailers spend weekends peddling an odd assortment of items: from cut-rate hip-hop fashion to jewelry to hunting knives to brass knuckles to sweet scents to used stereos. Welcome to Frison Flea Market, a veritable ghetto Galleria.

Anything goes: knickknacks, Von Dutch and FUBU fashion, framed reproductions, screws, books, bongs, mattresses, nunchucks, DVDs and VCRs. If you're lucky and have a keen shopper's eye, you might stumble across Cindy Sherman's oddball feature film, Office Killer, at Dollar Bill's video store. Or maybe you'll walk out of Jack Frison's market with a fabulous pale green Fred Belay bling-bling watch, all aglitter with a hundred tiny zirconium nuggets. Perhaps before the day is done you'll be wearing a $2,000 diamond cross around your neck.

Within these sprawling confines, 100-plus vendors spread their wares inside a windowless, single-story, yellow-and-maroon building that covers a six-acre slice of Pagedale. They come from all over the world: Korea, India, Gambia, Memphis, Vermont, Wellston. Clocks above the main entrance reinforce the international flavor by offering West Africa, Paris, Korea, New York -- and Frison Flea Market -- time.

Moving and mingling, full of merchandizing ideas spawned by a desire to eke out a profit, vendors test the waters, learn, experiment, share. Some merchants will lock onto your eyes and work the hard sell. Others cast quiet, expectant gazes as they stand behind vast tables awash in throwback jerseys, jackets and the latest Sean John, G-Unit, Hilfiger and booty-poppin' Apple Bottoms apparel.

On a busy spring Saturday voices rumble throughout the makeshift grid that fills the mercantile arena with little avenues and byways. The 2,000 customers who roll through on a typical Friday, Saturday and Sunday scrounge and browse. Vendors haggle. Discounts are cut on the spot. This isn't the Galleria, where cash falls like rain; marketing campaigns consist of new hand-scribbled signs and not much else. It takes ingenuity and hard work to squeeze money out of Pagedale, where disposable income is scarce.

"We provide for these people in this area because they are low-income," says owner Jack Frison. "There will never be a Famous-Barr in this area, because there's nobody here that can afford that."

Every few steps at Frison's, there's a new sensibility; every few paces, a new personality, a new character. Start with Kevin Houston, who owns three Cadillac limousines and was once on the Jenny Jones Show because of his talent for voice manipulation. Answering his phone, he'll sometimes mimic an old granny, and people fall for it. At peak hours Houston's a machine, making change, distributing re-entry tickets, answering the phone and paging over the intercom.

At 98 Ways proprietor Mike Cube occupies a 100-square-foot makeshift unit. Cube has been building model cars since he was seven years old. These days he deals miniature die-cast iron low-riders and luxury vehicles; a few dozen glisten in display cases. He's all thugged out, and the disconnect between his tough exterior and his delicate, introspective craft is palpable. The miniatures are all chrome and sparkle. Cube's partner Reggie has detailed them, balanced the spinning hubcaps, buffed and waxed the luxurious paint jobs and, finally, posed little Homie figurines around each ride.

Turn down a lane and walk past some clothes stalls, and you'll run into Xtra Wholesale, which occupies the largest single plot of land at Frison, about the length and width of four bowling lanes. His hand resting on a rectangular jewelry box, salesman Phil Maestas smiles and asks, "Excuse me, sir, do you have a girlfriend? Does she like pretty things?" He opens the box and inside sits a combination watch, bracelet and earring set with a flying dolphin motif. Famous Barr sells the same set for 60 bucks, he says, but he's prepared to sell it for $40.

With an excitable rasp, Maestas celebrates the deal and urges you to seriously consider this exciting opportunity. He can even throw in a second set for free. And, prince that he is, he'll lower the price to $29.99 because he can tell that you have good taste and appreciate a good deal when you see it. In fact, after a non-committal pause, he can give you both for $19.99.

Walk a few yards more and you hit the fashion zone, which has suffered its share of scrutiny over the years. In 2000 FBI agents, along with police, seized thousands of pieces of this merchandise after an undercover investigation revealed a few vendors trading in counterfeit goods -- cheap FUBU and Hilfiger knockoffs. It happened again on December 15, 2003, after a similar probe was initiated by the Recording Industry Association of America. RIAA, the trade group that represents the major music labels, made charges that four Frison merchants were selling counterfeit music CDs.

With arrest warrants in hand, eight or nine uniformed county cops, a couple of plainclothes detectives and representatives of the RIAA walked through the turnstile and made a beeline for the bootleggers, who were trading in dubbed copies of hit hip-hop records. Jack Frison showed up while the police were confiscating 29,000 CDs, 3,500 DVDs and CD burners that churned out made-to-order crunk mixes. The recording industry believes that Frison must have known about the illegal activity. It's his building, they figured, and he operates the flea market. How could he not know of the illegal activity?

"I haven't done anything," Frison insists. "They have threatened me several times. What have I done? I haven't done anything. How are you going to lock me up for selling something when I never sold anything? I'm just the landlord. I'm not the salesman."

Jack Frison drives up to his flea market on a recent Tuesday morning in a white Mercedes. He's wearing a tan leather jacket patterned with Gucci logos. He's tall, lanky and wears a neatly trimmed combination mustache-and-soul-patch. He won't say how old he is but looks to be in his early fifties. Frison served as a Marine draftsman in the waning days of the Vietnam War, and soon afterward the former Captain Frison designed Richard Nixon's helicopter landing pad in San Clemente. You can hear the remnants of his military service in the occasional "yes, sirs" that pepper his dialogue. He walks like a Marine, with poise and discipline, even when he's winding his way through the darkened, off-hours corridors of his market.

After his Vietnam stint, the Memphis-born Frison headed to Joliet to work as a draftsman for the oil industry. He ended up in St. Louis when Amoco relocated him to Wood River, where he settled. Frison started shopping in his spare time and ended with far more stuff than he could possibly use: The inveterate pack rat would converge on Grandpa Pigeon's, Venture and Central Hardware, and whenever he saw a deal, he bought -- and then bought some more. After a few years Frison's closets, basement and garage overflowed with merchandise. He decided to sell what he didn't need, which turned out to be plenty.

He loaded it all into his trunk. "I had a lot of Mary Kay cosmetics," Frison recalls, "and I just took it out to a flea market here in the north-county area, rented a table and the exact amount I made was $332 in three hours' time. I went back again, and everybody just kept asking me for this and that, and whatever they asked for, I said, 'I'll have it for you next week.' I'd been in sales, and Mary Kay taught us that selling is all about asking and not telling."

He went shopping for his own building in the early '80s and found one in the former Ontario discount store at 8025 St. Charles Rock Road, which had been abandoned six years earlier. Frison had saved his money and constructed a solid business plan, which he presented to the building's owners. They liked what they saw and agreed to sell Frison the building, which sat on eight acres, for $1.29 million. He then started recruiting vendors to set up shop. The entire operation moved indoors in 1992, around the time he sold off two acres to Metro (then Bi-State) for $250,000.

Most vendors pay him weekly, usually every Saturday. Others pay daily or monthly. Frison charges $18 per week for a bare-bones 100-square-foot booth, but it's extra if you need a table or an electrical outlet or want to store your merchandise on the premises during the week. Each time a merchant pays, he or she signs a contract that lists the flea market's ten rules in large capital letters -- rules about space cleanliness, merchandise prohibitions (selling firearms, TNT, stolen goods, ammunition, explosives, food, beverages or live plants is not permitted), display guidelines and insurance restrictions. Scribbled in as Rule No. 11: "No trademark-enfranchment [sic], bootleging [sic]." This, Frison says, absolves him of responsibility for misdeeds that vendors might happen to commit on his property.

Married with children and a home in Town & Country, Frison is a born-again Pentecostal who plays organ in churches throughout the area. On the day of the December bust, Frison was returning from church when he saw the county police cars in front of his flea market.

Frison has expensive tastes. He has no interest in the fashion that his vendors hawk, which he denigrates as "ghetto clothes."

"I have put some expensive clothes on my back, you better believe it," Frison says. "This shirt I got on, you know how much it cost? This cost three hundred. It came from Sam Cavato's, out at [Plaza Frontenac] next door to Neiman Marcus. That's the kind of clothes I wear, sir. If shoes don't cost three hundred a pair, I won't buy them." He wears Italian suits, and his diamonds sparkle.

On any given day Frison is likely to show up in one of his three cars: a Rolls Royce, a Mercedes and a Hummer. "I've built myself up to that," he explains, by saving and investing his money. It wasn't always that way. Growing up in Memphis, he says, his family was so poor that sometimes all he had was a pair of cutoff jeans. "Sometimes I didn't even have a T-shirt. I went around with no shoes, just with shorts on. No underwear, no socks, no shoes and no T-shirt."

A conference room connects the market proper with Frison's office. In the room Frison has hung five photos of men he admires greatly: John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan. The fifth photo, which hangs in the middle, is of Jack Frison. When asked about the placement of his portrait on the wall of fame, he humbly explains that he keeps meaning to remove it but just hasn't gotten around to it. Many photos of Jack Frison adorn his flea market.

Given his 81,000 square feet, you'd think he'd give himself a bigger office. But the office occupies only a tiny corner of the space, a postage stamp on a refrigerator box. Striped wallpaper is checkered with plaques; on shelves behind Frison are a set of World Book encyclopedias along with psychology, economics and office management books. Frison is a hands-on owner, even though he's often out of town on business. His cell phone number is listed on the Frison Market voicemail message, and he answers it regardless of where he is -- Little Rock, Washington, D.C., or Cape Girardeau.

Bootlegging music has both evolved and devolved in the past decade, as duplication costs have plummeted as quickly as sound quality has skyrocketed. Where copyright thieves once had to fiddle with clumsy twelve-by-twelve-inch squares of cardboard and round slabs of vinyl, now they only need to drop blank discs into burners, double-click, eject, scribble "David Banner Mississippi" on the labels and pop them into paper sleeves.

"Most of them were just dupes," says St. Louis County detective Sergeant Rick Battelle, who headed the investigation of the property seized at Frison's last December. "[They were] just blank discs, and on the outside they have the music artist's name and the songs that are on it. They're all over the place, and it's a major problem for the music industry."

Battelle says the RIAA landed at the Frison Market last summer and passed out warning letters to the vendors, then contacted county police. "They came to us and told us that this was a problem at Frison," Battelle recalls. "They as a corporation went to Frison's and gave [alleged bootleggers] a letter that gave them an opportunity to cease and desist, and the persons involved in this activity disregarded that letter."

Jack Frison offers a different account. At the market, he says, he was greeted by "about twenty" county police officers and two recording-industry representatives. One agent spoke to him but didn't identify himself. "He was portraying an FBI agent. That's what he was doing," Frison remembers. "Then when I questioned him, he let me know that he wasn't an agent, he was a representator, he said, from this organization. I'd never heard of them before."

Frison says the RIAA threatened to seize all the merchants' equipment unless they signed the cease-and-desist letters. "They kind of bullied the people, and threatened the people into signing. And he tried to get me to sign something, and I said, 'I'm not signing anything. You don't have no authority to get my signature on anything.'"

Frison complains that the county police undertook their investigation without any help from the Pagedale police, who are present nearly every weekend patrolling the market, and who, a month prior, arrested a peddler offering counterfeit DVDs.

"We've made a few arrests up there," says Pagedale chief of police Brian Young. "If we'd been with [the] county on that, we probably could have gotten a whole lot more. But they were so hush-hush on the thing that even my officer who, upon seeing all those county cars up there, went up there to see what was going on, wasn't even invited into the case. It bothered the hell out of me."

Sergeant Battelle of the St. Louis County Police Department says that it's their policy to work independently of municipal police departments during investigations. "We generally don't notify anybody else about an undercover investigation," he says. "It jeopardizes my officers, and it jeopardizes the investigation."

Counterfeiting is a constant concern at Frison. Fake designer clothes, bootleg DVDs of yet-to-be-released movies and duped music CDs are all common fare at flea markets throughout the nation, and these are the kind of things that have been seized at Frison. After the counterfeit clothing bust four years ago, the faux clothes disappeared for a while. But they're re-emerging. In the nooks and crannies of the market, vendors trade in cheap Louis Vuitton knockoffs and bargain-basement Sean John sweats.

"I heard that there was a problem," says Samba Bah of JJ's Clothes, "particularly [with] some of those who sell the clothes. Also there was some counterfeit clothing, and the police came down and confiscated what they had. They were warned, and still they were stubborn and kept doing it. Not everybody is obedient, and not everybody is disobedient."

"There's definitely pirates there," adds Robert Ounanian, an Xtra employee. "[But] it's none of our business. Some people get their merchandise -- who knows how, whether it be crooked or straight, and until someone does something about it, I mean, it's not our place. Everything we have is from wholesalers around the nation."

The counterfeit CD booths were some of the busiest at the flea market and were hard to miss. Brad Buckles, an executive in the RIAA's anti-piracy unit, thinks owners such as Jack Frison should be paying more attention to their vendors. Although Buckles isn't familiar with the specifics of the Frison case, he says the industry association has a history of going after owners. "If they don't police it," he says bluntly, "they can continue to be held liable for what happens. In some cases the things that are being sold at these flea markets are so obviously and blatantly infringing that anyone that takes even a cursory walk by the booth would be able to tell illegal activity is going on."

Jack Frison isn't buying it. It's right there on his merchant contracts. "I make them sign it. And they don't sign it once a year. They sign it every week -- that they're not supposed to have that, and we're not responsible for the things they sell. I cannot be responsible for everybody obeying the law -- only for me obeying the law."

Battelle says that his office just turned last year's case over to the county prosecutor's office. No one has yet been charged.

"We do mostly impulsive merchandise," explains Phil Maestas, the dolphin-jewelry hawker and wholesale distributor at Xtra. "The type of merchandise that people can pick up, can touch, feel. And a lot of novelty items, children's toys, jewelry." Specifically, Delicious Feelings and Royal Secret cologne kits, laser strobes, toy American Muscle hot rods, replicas of early Coca-Cola signs, sling shots, remote control helicopters, radio walkie-talkies, high-speed paper-folders and telephones.

A fast talker, Maestas is an archetypal salesman whose disposition lies somewhere between the Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin characters in Glengarry Glen Ross. He speaks in paragraphs, walks the walk -- and talks and talks and talks. When he's on a roll, he'll use "boom" as an exclamation point. "I teach, I train, and I motivate," he says of his job at Xtra.

"I train people every day to move merchandise in the field. That's what we do for a living. That's who we are. We're organized peddlers; that's what they call us." Maestas harbors a particular affection for door-to-door sales, which he considers to be the purest form. He's been chased down the streets with guns and knives while in the field, he says, and has been put in jail for selling in neighborhoods where ordinances prevent solicitation. "The whole world was built on solicitors," he says. "We built this planet on people selling stuff door to door. We're salesmen. It's called freedom of speech."

In a sense, places like Frison are capitalism's Petri dishes. They breed businesses such as that of clothier Samba Bah, who also started at Frison and now has a shop on Cherokee Street as well. Born in Gambia and raised in Munich, Bah, who speaks with a smooth French and German accent, moved to St. Louis because his wife was here. He went on to earn a degree at Saint Louis University.

"The rent is not high," explains Bah, "and we who sell clothes and anything else there are able to pass the savings toward the consumer." He says that the low overhead saves money for everyone, especially a clientele that, in Bah's estimation, have a few children and little money. Bargaining is allowed. "I don't know if it's because [many merchants] are from a Third World country," he says, "but they seem to understand the concept of someone who doesn't have enough money but wants to spend some for the kid. I'll negotiate on the price."

Then there's Fran Roush, sporting short gray hair, sitting at a table surrounded by her Avon products. She's retired and has set up this table at Frison on weekends since 1992. She sells Avon for the whole family -- "stuff to make you feel good, like your lotions and hand creams." Her table overflows with product, save for a large rectangle directly in front of her, which is reserved for solitaire. "I get a lot of customers with playing solitaire, because they'll come up [and say], 'Oh, let me show you a card trick,' and then they'll look around and they'll buy." She shuffles her cards and says, "I like it here very much."

Evelyn and Alonzo Griffin sell and install car stereos and alarm systems, and they dabble in legitimate CDs. "We got the old school," says Alonzo. "The oldies-but-goodies. We don't sell no rap, we got strictly blues, jazz -- old school."

The Griffins stay away from the CDs like the ones their neighbor was selling. "When they took him out to jail we got his space," explains Alonzo. "It's better; it's in the main flow of things." He says people haven't been spending the way they used to. "The way the economy is, they don't seem to have the money that they had when we first started in here. Now when people come here, they spend $100 or $200, but it used to be--"

"It wasn't nothing for people to spend $3,000," Evelyn joins in.

"But due to the economy," says Alonzo, "they think it's a free market instead of a flea market. I thought maybe Bush would turn it around, but he didn't. He made it worse. Don't get me started. I voted for him."

A few steps further down, Delia Ingram sells fragrance oils. "100 percent pure oils," she says, "and they are the types of popular commercial fragrances you find. But I also have what we call the earth fragrances, like sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh." She also sells oils for incense. A plastic bag on the counter holds pencil-size twigs. "Chew sticks," she explains. "You chew on them and they've got enzymes or something that is good for your teeth and gums, and then when they get brushy on the end, like a little broomstick, then you use them to clean your teeth with."

There are dozens more vendors up and down the indoor avenues, all of them selling something you might want or need. All of them gathered together trying to squeeze out an extra buck in the lowest-common-denominator market.

"People over the years, and over the centuries, when it comes down to it, started at flea markets," says Phil Maestas. "Before Sears was Sears and Wal-Mart was Wal-Mart, these guys would come in and set up and sell on the streets. Those were vendors, those were solicitors. And that's what America was brought up on -- solicitors."