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Business Spotlight: Treasure Hunters

Namesake of Mikes Unique flea market goes from laid off to entrepreneur to debt-free operations in decade’s time

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Mike Cook recalls the time he lost his regional manager job like it happened yesterday.

It was 2009, at the tail end of the Great Recession. He had built his career to regional manager for a major concrete supplier, Colorado-based Brundage-Bone Concrete Pumping.

“They said, ‘We don’t have a job for you.’ I said I’ll make my own,” Cook recalls, the determination and swiftness still in his voice.

To make matters worse, eliminating Cook’s position meant he had to lay off a friend in the business. But that’s where something sparked.

“I called him and said, ‘I have an idea; we can both have a job,’” Cook says. “He listened to me and laughed. He said, ‘Flea market?’”

And that’s just what they did.

Cook formed Mike’s Unique LLC and has been doing business with friend Richard “Red” Greene at the corner of Sunshine Street and West Bypass since late 2009. It’s not a small flea market, like those common in small-town Main Streets.

The shop, dba Mikes Unique Collectible and Antique Flea Market, has 250 vendors filling the 38,000-square-foot building at 3335 W. Sunshine St.

Cook says the store moves roughly 15,000 items a month – he knows, because he tracks each sale to the vendor and takes an 11% cut to cover building overhead. Vendors also pay $95 per month to rent a 4-by-8 booth, though some are larger.

Reseller Dawn Braham rents two booth spaces. She’s a veteran in the business – at Mikes Unique since 2010 – and also sells on eBay and Amazon under $avings4U.

“I’ve been reselling since I was 12,” Braham says, recalling the garage sales that taught her the process.

“Buy low, sell high.”

For Braham, it’s a secondary income stream. She’s also a real estate agent and owns rental property.

“The goal is to always double your money. If you can triple it, even better,” she says, though she notes it can be a delicate pricing game to make sure product is moving. “We’re not in the museum business; we don’t want the stuff to just sit there.”

Braham says vendors who work their booths by keeping inventory clean, tagged, organized and fresh can make a steady $300-$500 per month.

“I always tell my friends that friends don’t let friends pay retail. There are a lot of bargain hunters out there that want a good deal,” she says.

“It’s like a treasure hunt.”

Most items sold at Mikes Unique are furniture, antiques, home decor, books and collectors’ pieces.

Before selling, the vendors do a little treasure hunting of their own. Braham has a knack for purchasing full storage units. She recalls unpacking a war documentary DVD that fetched $400 in resale, and the latest find is a dollar bill with an autograph they’re still trying to identify and authenticate.

“We don’t have an idea of what it’s worth yet, because we just found that,” Braham says.

Cook says he’s usually in the market to buy household estates.

“Somebody will call up and the grandmother died, a lot of times the family lives out of state,” he says. “They don’t know whether to have an auction or an estate sale. We’re another option for them.

“The family doesn’t have to touch anything.”

Cook says estate purchases average $5,000, but he has spent up to $15,000. On the average homes, he might parse out the goods and gross $12,000 in resales.

Therein lies the risk and the reward.

The business itself was a financial risk. Cook gambled by taking on startup debt in the face of being jobless.

In the early years, Cook says he took out two U.S. Small Business Administration loans, totaling $190,000. For the past two years, Mikes Unique has operated debt-free, Cook says, declining to disclose annual revenue.

“It took me all this time, but I paid off every one of them,” he says. “I never missed a payment. There was a lot of times I was struggling, not knowing if I was going to be in business one day to the next.”

Coming out of those experiences, he makes sure to maintain a sense of humor: “You want to know how to make a fortune in the flea market business? Start with a large one,” he laughs.

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