Driving south on Route 130 in New Jersey used to be like a trip backward in time. As soon as you cleared South Brunswick and entered the depths of Mercer County, you began to see glimpses of what old New Jersey roads once looked like. Instead of shiny strip malls, flea-bitten motels; instead of malls, farmer’s markets and stalls; instead of Wal-Marts, grimy-looking auto shops and bars that could have doubled for ancient jook joints. Old farmhouses with mangy siding and front doors that were only a couple of feet away from the buses and cars whooshing past. The feeling was not quite rustic but certainly not suburban and definitely not urban. To adapt the title of one of Greil Marcus’s goofier Bob Dylan books, it was The Old Weird New Jersey.
The inexorable southward march of progress is homogenizing the Route 130 corridor and will eventually turn it into another fast-food belt like Route 18. There are still pockets of the savory old weirdness, particularly in the vicinity of Roebling and Florence, but one of its major outposts on the southern portion of 130 just went dark this past weekend: the Pennsauken Mart.
The funny thing is, I can mark the passing of this grimy 35-acre indoor flea market without feeling particularly nostalgic. Think of an Arabian bazaar jammed into a big concrete-floored Quonset hut, only instead of Persian rugs and concubines the vendors were selling crappy samurai swords, the complete works of ZZ Top on eight-track tape and overpriced, Soviet-vintage electronic gear. It had a moonscaped parking lot, a dance hall, and a titty bar where the girls danced under black lights that made their pasties and G-strings glow radioactive green (the perfect spot for young Tom Waits fans to soak up some atmosphere).
There were record stalls where, after much digging, you could find long sought-after treasures: I scored Roxy Music’s Stranded at the PennMart, a big deal in my high school days. There was also a small cinema — kind of a proto-multiplex made up of a couple of twin theaters, if memory serves — where after four tries I managed to get in to see Star Wars three weeks after it opened (yes, sprouts, in that pre-multiplex era you could gear up to see a popular movie and find the theater sold out, particularly if the distributor had no faith in the movie and only booked it in flea-bag venues like the Pennsauken Mart). But unless you were seriously into ptomaine poisoning, exotic fungal disorders or playing Pac-Man in a plastic-sheeted stall surrounded by guys who looked like they’d bombed out of a casting call for the sequel to Deliverance, it’s hard to imagine squirting any tears for the passing of the dear old Pennsauken Mart.
And yet, I do think it’s sort of a pity. I never went to the Route One Flea Market in New Brunswick, either, but when it was torn down to make way for a super-duper cineplex, a bit of Old Jersey was lost to make way for a chain theater showing the same 10 movies being shown everywhere else.
The endless steeplechase race for tax ratables does to towns what Alzheimer’s disease does to people. On the other hand, if redeveloping the site is part of what helps get Pennsauken back on its feet, who can complain? Farewell, Penn Mart. We hardly knew ye — nor, for that matter, spent any money at ye, neither.
Originally published in The Opinion Mill.