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Cecil County Life

A new life for an old landmark

Oct 28, 2021 01:36PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By John Chambless
Contributing Writer

When you’re taking over a local institution, it’s best to keep what works and improve where you can. Nick and Sue Thrappas are doing just that with the landmark red barn on Jacob Tome Memorial Highway near Perryville, known by generations of bargain hunters as Hunter’s Sale Barn.

There have been big changes there over the past year, and anyone driving past will see the bright banners, huge steel entrance gate and landscaping that is marking the debut of the Sonetta Community Market. It’s a bright new chapter for an auction and flea market business started by Norman and Carol Hunter in 1975 and run continuously until 2019.

“We purchased it in October 2019,” Nick Thrappas said during an interview in the new lounge area of the market. The Sonetta name is an amalgam of their daughters’ names, Sophia and Annette.

Nick has decades of experience with his own businesses, both in commercial real estate and demolishing and removing materials from hundreds of industrial buildings and homes. So he knew how to renovate and he knew what to pick and resell, making the purchase of the Sale Barn a fairly easy decision. Then, just after the family took possession of the property in January 2020, Covid-19 shut down everything.

“That allowed more time for cleaning the buildings and making renovations,” Nick said, putting a positive spin on what could have been a disaster for the fledgling business. “Fortunately, my other businesses thrived, so that money funded the takeover of the new building.”

When Norman Hunter decided to sell the business, he had marked decades of auctioneering and reselling “salvage goods” – items from stores with damaged packaging but still perfectly usable. Customers knew they could find a bargain, and always see something new at the flea market tables set up on the property.

The Thrappas family wants to keep that atmosphere of “you never know what you’ll find,” but upgrade it to spotlight repurposed vintage items as well as new products from around the world. Since opening the doors in the spring of 2021, they have kept a garden shop on the lower level of the landmark red barn, filled the long market building behind it with an eclectic mix of salvaged furniture and industrial antiques, upcycled items, local crafts, new and used tools, and fun, unusual crafts and products sourced by Sue from fair trade companies.

The bright, clean space has a coffee station, a comfortable lounge area with mid-century sofas and chairs, a section for faith-based items, a huge area with tools, a range of pet accessories, stone sculptures and garden items, military memorabilia, and another large room for used furnishings picked by Nick and others. General manager Keven Feser works side by side with Nick, finding unusual items to add to the constantly changing stock.

“The front counter’s vertical boards are made from the outdoor tables that used to be in the flea market area,” Nick said. “The countertop is part of a recycled bowling alley.”

Inside, there are distinctive decorative features, such as a large wall made of tools welded together by retired local welder and blacksmith Jim Baldwin. Outdoors, visitors can find a fire pit Nick made from the shovel of a backhoe, and a huge steel sculpture combining two other buckets hanging over a boat that he salvaged. “I’m still running the demo business, overseeing it,” he said. “I’ve done that for 35 years.” An Air Force veteran, he relishes “the thrill of doing demo and hazmat removal in all kinds of buildings” as far away as Virginia and Washington, D.C. “Now I get to stay here for the most part,” he said. But his skills and creativity are getting a chance to shine.

“I have a passion for this,” Nick said. “We like local businesses and being an incubator for them. We want to build a relationship with people, with local makers.”

Sue has enjoyed sourcing art and crafts from Haiti, Vietnam, Africa and elsewhere and showcasing it in Cecil County. Everyone involved with the new business adheres to a phrase repeated many times by Norman Hunter: “Buy it when you see it, because you might not see it again.”

That philosophy sometimes resulted in some strange items. Like the thousands of rubber bands found by Nick that were being sold slowly at $2 a bag. “Just recently, a guy came in and bought them all,” Nick said, laughing, adding that he didn’t ask what the man intended to do with them all.

With Hunter’s having a long history as a place to buy and sell, people come in to sell things, and the Sonetta team is always looking for quality consignments or antiques at estate buyouts.

Nick and Sue are testing the waters by showcasing a wide range of stock – pottery, yard sculpture, military decorations, a range of products for dogs and cats – to see what people might want more of. There are plans to renovate another long building toward the rear of the 13-acre property and using it as a shop exclusively for local artists. And there’s plenty of space for new construction once permits are approved. “We want to do some major construction in the spring,” Nick said. “We’ve been operating here about six months and haven’t had a grand opening yet.”

He points to the eventual addition of the Great Wolf Lodge, just over five miles down the road in Perryville, as a magnet for future customers who will be looking for things to do in the area. “A lot of the traffic for Great Wolf will go right past here,” he said. “We’d like to be a place for families to visit while they’re here.” Projections call for some 800,000 visitors a year at the new resort, which will be the largest Great Wolf facility in the country when it opens in about two years.

Nick foresees a snack bar being put into the main level of the signature red barn, while uses for some of the 40,000 square feet of building space on the property haven’t been determined yet.

Sue is wearing several hats at the market, working a couple of days a week inside, but also constantly researching products, doing marketing, and building up vendor relationships.

“We’d like to emphasize the ‘community’ in the name, not the flea market angle,” Nick said. “We want to be more of a maker’s market.”

“Mr. Hunter ran this business for 44 years,” Nick said, “and it sure has a site identity. We still use the ‘at Hunter’s Sale Barn’ phrase so people will know where to find us. But we’re very excited to offer something new for people.”

The Sonetta Community Market is at 2084 Jacob Tome Memorial Highway, Port Deposit, Md. For more information, call 410-658-6400 or visit www.sonetta.net.

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