To its patrons and vendors, who are predominantly Hispanic, the Buckhorn Flea Market in Efland provides an opportunity to buy and sell goods and groceries from handmade cowboy boots to homegrown tomatoes.
To Orange County inspectors, who condemned the building earlier this month and are now fighting to shut down the outdoor booths as well, the market presents an opportunity for public endangerment.
Owner Tommy Ellison says the numerous regulatory complaints, which began more than a year ago, are simply a smokescreen.
"It's a booming business, and people love it. But it's not big politicians shopping out here; it's people who need a bargain," Ellison says. "The county doesn't want Hispanics in their area."
The busy market may not last long at 508 Buckhorn Road, and its 300-plus vendors and thousands of loyal shoppers may have to relocate.
Fondly dubbed "La Pulga," or "The Flea," the market's building was condemned June 1. The vendors continue to operate outdoors next to the shuttered building, but the fate of their business hangs in the balance in the courts.
Orange County Planning and Inspections Director Craig Benedict says fire safety issues were the most troubling of Buckhorn's violations.
"There was concern about the gas heaters and flammable materials that were in the building," Benedict says. "A lot of those issues have been corrected over time, but the size and construction of the building still doesn't meet the code."
This month wasn't the first time the market had been shut down; an April 2006 report documented numerous safety and traffic complaints, and the structure was found to be in violation of building, electrical and fire regulations.
Market owners managed to reopen last year while zoning issues were being resolved based on several conditions, including an arrangement with the Mebane Fire Department. Under a verbal agreement, a fire engine and two certified responders staffed the market each weekend to provide immediate assistance in emergencies.
Mebane Fire Chief Bob Louis says he originally agreed to help out for only a few weeks, but the assistance continued for 13 months.
"As the year went on, it got difficult filling the positions," Louis says. "I didn't have people raising their hands anymore, and I had to beg to get two people to go out there."
Louis says he made contact several times with Orange County officials to ask about progress in resolving the issue, but he could never get an answer. The fire department's executive board voted unanimously May 1 to end the service, and since the fire protection agreement was a condition set by Orange County Inspections for Buckhorn to remain open, this month's condemnation of the flea market was soon to follow.
But Ellison, the owner, insists Orange County officials just want the market gone, and the specifics of zoning issues and fire codes are simply bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through in order to achieve this ultimate goal. Ellison says the first wave of complaints was traffic-based and arose when a new truckstop was built across the street a few years ago.
"We've been there for 24 years, and we've had the same amount of traffic ever since we've been there," Ellison says. "The people at the truckstop were trying to close the flea market before they even finished building. They said they were trying to alleviate traffic on Sundays, but they built there knowing we were there, and that there would be traffic on the weekends."
Ellison says he even offered to build a bigger parking lot to help the congestion, but the county didn't want him to do that. "That would help us," he says. "They don't want to do anything to help us."
Ellison also purchased a fire engine himself and staffed the truck with volunteers once the Mebane department's assistance ended about a month ago, but he says even this effort didn't ripple the waters much; the fire safety dilemma is still working its way through the courts.
The bigger obstacle, Ellison argues, is the county's push for big business development in the area. When he first brought his flea market to Orange County, Ellison says he thought the area wanted homegrown, mom and pop operations like his.
"I didn't think I was coming into a Wal-Mart area," he says.
The ensuing reality, however, has proven very different from his original impressions. The Buckhorn Market is not state supported and gets no financial assistance, and Ellison complains that every county brochure he picks up advertises farmers' markets and Raleigh flea markets, but that none ever mentions his.
"And ours has more people than those do," Ellison says.
Ellison continues to fight. At this point, county officials have succeeded in shutting down only the building itself; the maze of tables vendors set up outside is still "busy as a bee."
"Shutting the building down is just another way to keep closing off the profitability of the flea market to try and erode it away," Ellison says. "We're still in court because they say we shouldn't have tables out there in the yard either."
James Maxey, a Hillsborough resident, says those tables in the yard are some of the most alluring attractions the market has to offer. Maxey's fondest Buckhorn memory involves a bargain purchase of catfish at $3 a pound and a bag of limes that resulted in a mouthwatering batch of ceviche.
"There was a definite sense that my five-minute drive from Hillsborough had deposited me someplace deep inside a South American country," Maxey says of Buckhorn. "There was a lot of Spanish being spoken around me. I've lived in the South all my life and have gone to a lot of flea markets, and normally they're about as lily white a gathering place as you can imagine, so the Buckhorn Market was a definite culture shock, and a welcome one."