LONDONDERRY — It opens with a bell and ends, most often, with a bargain.

Just don’t sneak into the sprawling Londonderry Flea Market earlier than 8 a.m. or you’ll have the owner, 72-year-old retired Air Force Lt. Col. Pete Sapatis, to deal with.

Case in point: July 1, 7:45 a.m.

Two older gentlemen meander from the crowded starting line to cut a deal at a nearby booth selling century-old books and magazines.

Sapatis spies the men and runs them off, firmly reminding it’s against the rules to circulate the grounds before the bell rings at 8.

He tells the vendor not to do business until then, either.

But before the prospective buyer leaves the booth, he whispers: “Put them in the truck. I’ll be back and take all of them.”

“I know this goes on,” Sapatis said later from his office.

But that doesn’t mean he likes it.

Sapatis has been operating the Londonderry Flea Market for more than 15 years. Set on 30-plus acres on Avery Road, the market is open Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m., when the crowd assembles at the entrance with ears piqued for the bell’s bong, to 3 p.m., from late spring to the last weekend in October.

It draws 400 vendors and huge crowds of bargain hunters on a typical day, so it’s important to sustain order.

That’s why Sapatis is such a stickler for fairness and procedures — like not bending the rules about the start time. It’s the only way he knows to run the operation with its diverse cast of characters, and to keep people from lining up at 5 a.m.

With 17 years of military management training and experience, he’s certainly up to the task of enforcement.

Just prior to retirement in 1976, Sapatis bought the Avery Road site with thoughts of running a farm. Later, his daughter suggested he create a flea market instead, which he opened in 1991.

The first year, the market drew 10 vendors. Now with 400, those days are gone.

Visitors come for fun and great deals — something different and something inexpensive, he said.

Count many flea market trollers as treasure hunters, and that even includes the vendors.

Sapatis recalls one vendor who bought a beat-up saxophone for less than $50, then cleaned it up with the intention of reselling it.

He figured he’d make a bit of profit, but could not have been prepared for a buyer’s offer of $15,000.

The vendor hollered the offer out to his wife.

“Sell it,” she said.

Ultimately, Sapatis says, people come to the flea market for entertainment.

They like to walk the grounds in the sun with a hot dog and bag of popcorn, and check out not just booths, but also the people and the scenery.

Sapatis has planted more than 1,000 trees on the grounds. He grows colorful plants, like eye-popping sunflowers.

On July 1 before the brass-colored bell rang, men, women and children chafed at the starting line. A fair-haired dog named Lilly barked.

Lilly’s owners, Dave and Kendra Garabedian of North Andover, Mass., have been coming to the Londonderry market most every weekend for 10 years. Their best buys were a $200 trailer and a $75 generator.

The market is Lilly’s favorite place in the world, they say. She starts barking when they turn onto Route 102 in the morning, and doesn’t stop until the bell rings.

At that point, “she runs like a greyhound,” they said.

On this day at the sound of the bell, Lilly and the others bolt to pathways named for fruits and nuts — Apple, Orange and Cherry lane among them.

Tables hold hats and toys, electronics and plastic iPod cases; fruits, vegetables and kettle corn.

Then there are baseball gloves and fishing poles, and specialty items ranging from commemorative plates to Three Stooges Beer, sporting Moe, Larry and Curly on the labels and carton.

Howard McCarthy, 80, sells military hats, cold drinks and ice cream. He chats up customers and sings — both old-time songs and the praises of his ice cream.

He offers up free samples.

“I always say, ‘Try before you buy,’” McCarthy said.

He jokes that he has good junk and bad junk for sale.

“Just be careful of the bad, and only take the good,” he said.

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