After Wagon Wheel closure, ‘Wendy’s Closet’ finds new home in downtown St. Petersburg

And yes, she brought some ‘Mustang Drive-In’ signs with her.

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Heaping piles of dead stock high-waisted jeans lay next to endless racks of cowboy boots, single-stitch t-shirts, vintage Disney uniforms, and other gems from forgotten 20th century fashion trends.

This eclectic world of apparel is the life’s work of Miami native Wendy Barrett, who is tirelessly preparing to open her one stop-shop for all things vintage fashion—aptly named Wendy’s Closet— at 2107 Central Ave. in downtown St. Petersburg on August 5. If you were a regular at Pinellas Park’s Wagon Wheel Flea Market anytime between 1994 and its sudden closure last month—then you know exactly who Ms. Wendy is.

After all, she had the largest vendor stall in the entire flea market. Her 5,000 square-foot warehouse-like space was a playground for vintage diggers across Tampa Bay and beyond.

“This is my child,” the yoga loving 57-year-old tells Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. She refers to her business as a “thrift store boutique” rather than a typical resale store. “I don’t have children, but this has been my baby for the last 27 years.”

When Wagon Wheel Flea Market closed on March 15 in the wake of coronavirus concerns, Barrett had an inkling that perhaps its doors—which had been there since 1966—might not reopen again. The family-run flea market shared grounds with the Mustang Drive-In and announced its permanent closure on June 10 via a Facebook post. It also stated that all vendors had only two weeks to completely clear its grounds of merchandise.

Barrett tells CL that vendors received basically the same correspondence as Wagon Wheel’s Facebook statement, but as a text message—a succinct statement that ended her life of 27 years as she knew it. 

Immediately, she started looking for a new home for Wendy’s Closet, scouring commercial real estate listings throughout Pinellas County. Her experience as a property owner and landlord quickly led her to a 1,700-square-foot space in downtown St. Pete, which was previously occupied by Lucky Star Salon. 

“They [Wagon Wheel] were open for 55 years, and I got 27 years out of it. I can't complain,” Barrett says. “This was going to be my year to go on vacations and travel. But now I’ve locked myself into a 9-to-5 with this new store.” 

Unfortunately the dozens of other vendors who had their enterprises abruptly ended by the flea market’s closure don’t necessarily have the same financial means and inventory as Barrett to open independent storefronts elsewhere. And with flea markets a dying aspect of consumer culture in Tampa Bay—with Big Top and now Wagon Wheel and Mustang Drive-In both shutting their doors within the last few years—opportunities for small-batch merchants and boutique shops might be dwindling. 

Bailey Porter, 25, of Lucky Dog Graphics tells CL that the sudden closure of the flea market was both surprising and upsetting to her family’s business. 

“We were there for 16 years total. My dad grew his sign business into what it is today at that flea market.” Porter explains through an Instagram message. “But on the positive side, my dad finally has weekends off for the first time in over 15 years, so we’ve been able to do more things as a family.”

For now, Lucky Dog Graphics is operating out of the Porter’s home and taking custom online orders for signs and banners.

Nobody knows what the Wagon Wheel property will look like in the future, but Barrett says she won't be surprised if it ends up as residential real estate.

And for regulars that miss the scrappy ambiance of the flea market—like beer being spilled on you at 10:30 a.m., vendors smoking cigarettes one foot from your face, or hearing Hank Williams covers as you transition between stalls, Wendy’s Closet will naturally retain remnants of its beloved home of 27 years—except now, the thrift store will have air conditioning, which Barrett and her employees must be thrilled about. 

A large, 50-year-old sign reading “MUSTANG FLEA MARKET” sign resides on the back wall of the new Wendy’s Closet, which is almost half as big as its previous 5,000 square-foot space. Signs reading “BEER” and “CORNDOGS” that were advertised at Wagon Wheel’s many food stands found their new home on the walls above Barrett’s racks of shirts and cowboy boots.

Even the flea market’s trash cans, 50 gallon plastic barrels, will be repurposed into shoe holders where Barrett’s customers can dig through for some new-to-them kicks. Although shoppers might miss the loosely-priced items and relaxed nature of the flea market, Barrett sees this opportunity as a huge step forward for Wendy’s Closet.

“I love St. Petersburg; it’s very exciting,” Barrett says with a smile. “I went from rats and no air conditioning to a spot on Central Avenue.”

Although the unique retail experience of the flea market cannot fully be captured in any other way, Barrett’s balance of Wagon Wheel’s old-school charm, her hand-picked vintage collection, and her wide-smiled charisma will nonetheless appeal to the new customer base of downtown St. Pete’s window shoppers and tourists.

Not even the sweeping gentrification of downtown St. Pete which pushes out locally-owned businesses—similar to her own—intimidates her in the slightest.

Along with the beloved air conditioning that Barrett continues to rave about, shoppers will be welcomed with masks (if they don’t have their own), hand sanitizer, and no-contact temperature checks when her store opens. A non-coronavirus related service that she offers year-round is fashion advice—she doesn’t just sell the clothes, she’ll make sure you know how to wear them.

She boasts about her reputation of being welcoming, friendly, and helpful—and rightfully so. Barrett might not remember your name, but she’ll treat you like family.

“I recognize everyone’s face, but I’m terrible with names,” Wendy says with a laugh while organizing a pile of women’s jeans. “I think my head is too full of 70s lyrics.”

Keep up with Wendy’s Closet’s Facebook and Instagram for any further developments on the store’s opening.

UPDATED: 08/26/20 2 p.m. Updated because Oldsmar Flea Market was sold, not closed, as it said in previous version of this article.

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About The Author

Kyla Fields

Kyla Fields is the Managing Editor of Creative Loafing Tampa Bay who started their journey at CL as summer 2019 intern. They are the proud owner of a charming, sausage-shaped, four-year-old rescue mutt named Piña.
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