South on Highway 101, just beyond that lush eucalyptus grove outside of Gilroy, there suddenly emerges a gimongous, hugantic blood-red barn on the left side of the road. Can’t miss it.
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Emblazoned on both sides of its arched trussed roof are these words: “Disneyana. Flea Market. Mall. Antique Shops. BBQ. Food.”
This big red barn, which I would later learn is officially called Big Red Barn, is so hellaciously big that I half expected it could house a condo complex and nine-hole golf course, as well.
Not that I ever took the effort to stop and check it out. I must have driven by this curious landmark in the burg of Aromas (perfect name for an ag town, huh?) for years, decades even, and never once sated my curiosity.
Several times, my timing proved bad. The BRB is only open Sundays. A few times, I drove on by after seeing a conga line of cars stretched halfway up the hill on 101’s exit lane.
But, last month, in a rare fit of journalistic responsibility, I stopped.
And I found the BRB … closed. Shuttered, padlocked. Yellow-flagged by Monterey County’s code enforcement officials.
Fear not. The flea market on the sprawling, oak-studded grounds was in full swing, just as it has been every Sunday for the past 40-odd years. At least a thousand people picked through the wares offered by maybe a hundred vendors as the Corona beer flowed and mariachi music rang out from tinny speakers attached to poles. Kids cavorted, chasing bubbles they blew from the plastic wands they’d nagged their parents into buying. Moms and teen daughters rifled through racks of embroidered jeans; dads and sons checked out the Messi and Ronaldo jerseys, hanging next to T-shirts of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Old men challenged their dentures at the steaming Corn King cob booth, as their grandkids stuffed their faces with $1 bags of chilli duros.
Everywhere, such deals were to be had. In one tent alone, you could buy perfume, pipe fittings and inflatable My Little Ponies (Twilight Sparkle, if you must know) – all for under 10 bucks. There seemed to be an intense capitalistic battle being waged among socks vendors. One guy touted “5 x $10,” another upping the ante with an all-caps sign “6 PAIRS FOR $8” and yet another offering “10 for 10.”
Still, something was missing: no Disneyana, no BRB admittance.
As Donald Duck would say, “What’s the big idea?”
Eventually – once I pulled myself away from socks shopping – I found my way behind the sprawling outdoors market to a lovely ranch home set back in the foothills.
That’s where the owners of the BRB, Fran Ellingwood and Ken McPhail, keep an eye on things from on high. They gave me the low-down on what laid their barn low in a folksy, put-on-no-airs manner. McPhail was so laid-back he didn’t bother changing out of his Sunday morning attire, a natty ensemble consisting of, in toto, beige short-shorts, held up by red suspenders, and no shirt to inhibit his rounded midsection. Whereas the elegant Ellingwood donned a sweat shirt the same shade of red as the barn and khaki slacks with ironed creases. Both expounded greatly on the BRB, long a labor of love as well as means of solvency.
“I painted it red,” Ellingwood said. “It was me. I got a lot of flack for it, let me tell you. From everyone.”
It certainly gets your attention, I ventured.
“That’s right,” she said, beaming. “You got it.”
Then she turned wistful.
“People from all over the world came here to buy Disneyana,” she said. “They’ve been disappointed since it closed.”
But about the closure …
“The barn’s been closed a few years,” McPhail said. “Put it this way: We had some problems with the county. It was a couple years ago. A big political thing. Twenty-eight inspectors came in over three days. They wrote us up (because) the barn needed a sprinkler system and some of the stores in there didn’t have a permit; we just built ’em. Yes, we should’ve gotten a permit. We could’ve gotten one if they’d given us the opportunity. But they made us close the barn immediately, and we had to take everything out of there. They’re stored (in containers) in the parking lot.”
It pains Ellingwood to have crated her beloved Disneyana. The inside of the BRB was her masterpiece. Ask her to describe the setup, and she lights up, saying, “Oh my, it was like a cowboy town, Western themes. People loved it.”
The good news is, perhaps as soon as this fall, the sliding doors to the barn will be unlocked and those precious Disney figurines and knickknacks from Ellingwood, as well as other antiques, will be back on display inside the cavernous, 52-foot tall, 22,000-square-foot edifice built in 1945 for the Ellingwood Hay Co.
“We’re ready to finalize the sprinkler system and cross the t’s on the permits,” McPhail said. “Thank God, all our customers stayed with us.”
Indeed, folks kept coming each Sunday even after the barn door was closed, once the inspectors were gone.
Many of the vendors depend on the BRB flea market; it pays the mortgage.
Guys like Luis Ramirez, who drives from Merced each Sunday to set up a huge, multi-tent display selling, among various and sundry items, shoes ($5), Mexico World Cup jerseys ($10), something called “party snaps” (a relatively harmless novelty firework, 3 for $1), cellphone cases (including an adorbs Hello, Kitty model) and multihued cords for iPhones.
“The barn’s been here a long time,” he said. “I remember I used to come here when I was a kid, and I’m no kid anymore. It’s changed a lot. Before, it used to be more garage-sale type of things. Now, you got new stuff. It’s one of the best (flea markets) around.”
Or a guy like Jerry Vasquez, who lives in Concord but eschews the giant flea market at that city’s drive-in movie theater in favor of the two-hour drive south to Aromas to sell his array of women’s tights – which he displays on mannequins with, ahem, ample derrieres – and fancy skinny jeans.
“There’s a lot of competition here,” he said, “I try to sell a little more cheaper. I want the money coming in. These jeans, man, $12. Get ’em for $28, $30 in a store. I do all right here.”
So, too, do Ellingwood and McPhail. But they see the BRB and the flea market as more than a business enterprise; it fosters a sense of community, bringing people from disparate ethnicities and classes together. “We have Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, Italians, white people and, of course, Hispanics, just about every nationality you can think of here,” McPhail said. “They all get along. Never a problem. Everyone here realizes they’re in this together.”
It’s a beautiful thing: The Big Red Barn, even padlocked, is big enough to hold a veritable United Nations of bargain hunters.