Just about any day of the week you can find Yard Birds vendor Jerry Roper plunked in the middle of an aisle, fishing pole in hand, waiting for a customer to come by.
When one does approach, he waits for a nibble.
“They say ‘catch anything?’ I say ‘yeah I got a sucker,” Roper said laughing.
The Raymond man, 71, has a deep voice and a roguish laugh. Most days, he wears a T-shirt and suspenders.
His store, Roper Valley Sales, is one of the largest in the 88-lot Yard Bird swap meet. Roper presents his wares, mostly used tools, appliances and men’s clothing, in heaps on long card tables.
When he’s not hooking customers he likes to play solitaire — “keeps my hands busy” — and read poetry. With every purchase comes an autobiographical poem penned and recited on the spot by the store owner.
Roper says he and his wife got into the business to get rid of the junk cluttering their house.
“But we went to an auction and made the mistake of buying more stuff,” he said.
Selling became a hobby. He dabbled in the Yard Birds swap meet in the late ‘90s, and now has been here permanently since 2009.
If you could float above Roper’s store, you’d see a vast maze of square, rectangular and L-shaped lots locked into rows that snake across the floor.
Over the last five years, roaming vendors who previously hit a different market every weekend have set up shop permanently.
All of the ground levels lots are filled, and, in fact, there’s a waiting list to get in.
Yard Birds, the largest swap meet in the Northwest, is considered by some to be dusty, too bright and overwhelming large — and it’s still growing
Like Lewis County’s own weird phoenix, Yard Birds has risen from the ashes countless times.
When it opened, it was a small town encased in a warehouse, 310,000 square-feet of self assured sprawl.
Founders Bill Jones and Rich Gillingham had wanted to create something never seen before.
They started with an army surplus store, which eventually grew into Lewis County’s only one-stop shopping destination, a place where a man could have lunch, get his hair cut, buy a motorcycle, get that motorcycle washed, deposit his paycheck and have a drink, all in an afternoon.
By the mid 1970s, Jones and Gillingham had an empire worth millions.
But, as it turned out, the friends’ choice of location was spectacularly bad.
At the very bottom of a flood-prone basin, 2100 N. National Avenue experienced repeated flooding, which grew increasingly severe.
Yard Birds changed hands several times before going bankrupt in 1995.
Three years later, Shop’n Kart owner Darris McDaniels bought the mall.
“They went from a thriving thriving enterprise to myself and five other tenants. The place was virtually dark,” McDaniels remembered. “It began affecting my grocery business. I wanted to keep the character — Yard Birds has been a name in this area since the 1940s and my vision was to restore it — but the overriding factor was self defense.”
So McDaniels began to clean up the mall, and a few big-name businesses returned.
But in 2007, the mall was hit with a flood unlike any other.
“We were caught completely with our pants down,” Manager Dave Briscoe said. “We were devastated.”
Shop ’N Kart, and then later the mall, rebuilt. But within months, the economy had tanked.
Just two years later, Yard Birds was again ravaged by high water.
Box store competitors that had nibbled at the complex in the past finally devoured it.
“Kmart, then Walmart — they killed us,” Briscoe said.
“They are what the Yard Birds was,” McDaniels said. “Just at much lower prices.”
The mall stayed empty for months.
Briscoe and Darris played around with events, home and garden shows and auctions.
Then, in mid-2011, the duo ran the numbers and decided a swap meet was their best option.
Briscoe got to work constructing lots divided by low, moveable walls, secured with picket fence gates, and before he had even finished, he had rented five of them.
The new Yard Birds is, in many respects, the anti-Walmart.
It’s chaotic and messy and not a single thing in the booths looks like it fell off an assembly line. Most of the vendors can tell you a story about each of their items.
Yard Birds is cheap— cheaper-than-Walmart cheap — and has unique gems that could cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars new. A sturdy iron pasta maker, gold panning equipment and an antique potato peeler all have recently been plucked from the market.
Basic, practical items are popular too.
Rick Carlson, owner of Rick’s Relics, a large border store, says he sells a variety of functional and novelty items.
His $5 kitchen in a box is one of his most popular items.
“The economy is coming up, but it’s still crap,” Briscoe said. “People are really bargain shoppers these days. Even for people that have extra money, they’re going to come in and see if they can’t get a better deal on a couch for the man cave, or whatever it is.”
A walk through Yard Birds is a dizzying experience.
Head north from Roper Valley Sales, toward Shankz Glow Golf, and you’ll find Nancy Hernandez and her mother Rosa Romo selling handmade tutus and tortilla warmers.
Their shop is bordered with yellow walls covered in clinging, incandescent butterflies and tinsel. In the middle stands a kiosk like the ones you see in malls. This also is covered in handmade, brightly colored decorations.
The mother-daughter team has rented the space for about a year, and like most of the vendors, they are seeing a modest profit margin.
“Mom’s tutus are most popular in the fall, around the time of halloween and ballet shows,” Hernandez said. “It’s not really a booming business, but it’s enough to pay the rent and to continue buying more things for the shop.”
On one of the larger corridors, is Bert’s Bartering Corner, a long rectangular store that faces an Avon kiosk.
Owner Bert Carver, a former gold panner, still is looking to get rich quick — or, if not get rich, at least get rid of some junk.
Last Thursday morning, his first morning as a Yard Birds vendor, Carver was well on his way: He’d made two three-digit sales and was enjoying a trickle of browsers.
Carver ended up with most of his merchandise after it was given to him by his father, who suffers from dementia.
But the Lewis County man — he was born in Morton and now lives in Centralia — is skeptical.
“Dad has good days and bad days, and it seems like he gave it to me on a good day,” Carver said, laughing. “I think it’s selective.”
Carver has rented the stall for a month and is determined to not extend his lease.
And yet on Friday, just over a week since he opened, he seemed to have even more things.
Rabbit-fur cat and dog miniatures lined his shelves. Boxes of Osbourne family bobbleheads and a ventriloquist's dummy named “Willie Talk” sat on his picket fence.
Carver said he has sold many of his tools, but admitted he’s also gained a few items.
“I’m gonna be mad if it’s still here,” he said laughing. “It’s all gotta go.”
To say that every item in Yard Birds is a treasure would not be entirely honest.
“Most of the stuff here is garbage,” shopper Matt Griesse put it bluntly.
Griesse, 41, was shopping for records on Monday at Cowlitz River Antiques.
He came to Shop ’N Kart to pick up groceries, but somehow ended up sorting through the records and cassette tapes.
That happens a lot to Griesse.
“It’s right next to the store, so it’s convenient,” he said. “I’m a junker — just like a lot of people.”
He’s tempted by the possibility of finding a hidden treasure.
“I hate to talk about this because then other people will know to find records here,” Griesse said. “If you want to find the good stuff, you have to spend the time.”
“I could waste all day if I didn’t have other things going on,” he said.
Many businesses in Yard Birds seem to inspire this cult following.
Close to the National Avenue entrance and across from Rick’s Relics, there’s an army surplus store which might have the most loyal customers, or perhaps customer, in the history of Yard Birds.
Last week, the store was cavelike, covered in green tarps and full of well-maintained military gear.
Then, on Monday, it was gone.
The owner — he asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of his work — had sold every item in his store. It’s the third time he’s done so.
Outside the swap meet, Los Costenos keeps customers coming back for its supreme burrito.
Owner Alicia Camba chalks it up to quality.
“We cook all our food fresh each day in the morning,” she said. “It might take a little longer than other places but it’s healthier for you.”
In fact, the store, which faces Kresky Avenue and sits outside the main building, is actually helping drive traffic, according to Briscoe.
“I’m from California and trust me on this,” Briscoe said. “She has the best authentic Mexican food in town.”
It’s one store in a modest but growing Hispanic presence at the mall.
Briscoe estimates that about 25 percent of his space is rented by Hispanic vendors, and he’s increasingly renting out the party room adjacent to Shop’n Kart for Quinceañeras, or 15th birthday parties celebrated by some Latin American families.
“This year I have three weekends in July booked, and you never know,” Briscoe said. “Last year in June I had all four weekends.”
Briscoe theorizes that it began with the grocery store.
“Shop’n Kart caters more to hispanic community,” he said. “They have stuff Safeway and Walmart don’t have.”
Briscoe now charges rent anywhere from $75 a month for a single lot to $1,000 a month for the large shops that encircle the swap meet.
If 2014 is as successful as 2013 was, Yard Bird’s sprawl could bust outside; McDaniel earlier this month said he hopes to add an outdoor component to the swap meet.
“We want to bring in those portable containers and they can set up and be open Thursday, Friday, Saturday then close up, or if they want to be open all week they can do that,” McDaniel said.
“We have a vision and a plan,” he said. “We continue to grow.”
For now, large stores have shown little interest in returning to Yard Birds, but even if they did, Briscoe isn’t so sure he’d want to them back.
“Of course it’s mostly a matter of dollars and cents, but Yard Birds has always promoted the little guy,” Briscoe said. “As long as we’re paying our bills and keeping our floor filled with local people I’d just as soon keep it that way. I don’t think I’d force out our vendors just for big names.”