09 Sep

We are fortunate to live just over an hour from Brimfield Flea Market, the oldest and one of the largest outdoor antique and flea markets in the country. Brimfield happens only three times a year—May, July, and September for less than a week at a time, but for the downsizer it’s an eye-opening experience as well as a learning opportunity. 

I decided to go to July’s Brimfield, the slowest of the three time periods, because I had arranged to sell my collection of New Yorker covers to a dealer who came up from the South to show there. “Luke” and I had had a couple of previous lengthy phone conversations about his collecting interests. 

When I saw his “booth”, a huge area under one of three more permanent structures in this particular “show field,” I was blown away by the variety, not just a whole section with New Yorker covers, but others with maps and prints and tables with military and patriotic related paraphernalia, globes, and assorted other items I couldn’t quite categorize. Prices were clearly marked. 

After completing my transaction with Luke, I explored only the show field where Luke was located. Brimfield Flea Market is spread out over many acres, with 16 different show fields. It would be impossible to visit all these in one or even two days. My goal was to see what kinds of things people sell and how much they charged. 

In Luke’s structure, I talked to a woman who sold unusual framed art. She had some beautiful decorative pieces designed by high school students in the 1920s as well as other paintings. I wondered to myself whether there might be a market for my mother’s art from the same period. I didn’t pursue the topic with this dealer because she seemed a little too eager to hold me in conversation on topics that strayed far from collecting and selling. One of the downsides of this kind of venue is that during a slow period a dealer may be only too happy to have a captive audience. 

I thanked her and moved on to a woman selling vintage jewelry. My own collection of vintage jewelry, primarily my mother’s, had not done well under consignment, so I needed to find a new site for it, preferably with someone who specializes in this kind of thing. There were many jewelry dealers at Brimfield, but this person’s wares seemed closer to what I owned. I ascertained her interest in looking at my collection at some later date and took her card. 

Not all booths had a singular focus, nor even a curated approach.  Some appeared to spew forth the random contents of an attic—furniture, housewares, toys, linens. Some were decidedly upscale, displaying fine antiques; and others were more down market. I came across one particularly frightening collection of old dolls, tossed like unwanted bodies in large bins. My three Madame Alexander dolls would have been appalled at such company. Is this what people want, or does this dealer have a warped sense of humor? I could see that dealers here were as varied as their goods; some are serious business-minded people, and others just hope that their junk will bring in a penny or two. Like real estate, maybe everything sells at the right price. Indeed, some buyers pulled around large carts filled with their finds of the day. 

My greatest learning moment came with a dealer of old postcards. At home, I had a box of postcards—both used and new, and I was curious what they might be worth, if anything. I noted that many of these 3”x 5” paper items were going for $5 each. The dealer said he would give me a quick lesson in postcard sales: some holiday-themed, especially Halloween and Christmas; scenes of particular places, but not closeups of buildings, no reproductions of art; can be new or written on. For cards with good selling potential, I might get a dollar each from a dealer. I concluded I didn’t have enough postcards to make it worth my while, and many of mine didn’t fit the prescribed standards. I will repurpose them or give them away. 

I visited another both selling old books and saw a binder containing old Beatles’ memorabilia that matched some I had, various images of the Beatles on small cards, selling for $3 each. I picked up a flier about an upcoming antiquarian book fair. After tromping around in the heat for a few hours and eating a surprisingly good lunch (the choices at Brimfield are impressive), I called it a day. I’d sold a chunk of ephemera, pocketed some good cash, made a couple of contacts, and learned some useful information, all for a half a tank of gas, a $10 parking fee, and a small road toll. 

My takeaways for visiting flea markets as a downsizer: 

  • Flea markets abound. A Google search will get your started.
  • For a large flea market, especially one at a distance, make at least one good connection ahead of time if possible.
  • Plan ahead if you want by researching dealer websites but count on some serendipity as well. Not all dealers have websites. My New Yorker cover guy doesn’t have one, for example.
  • Take some small collections of items you could sell to a dealer, just in case, but keep expectations for selling low. You are here to learn!
  • Browse and observe. How does your stuff match up to what’s out there? How are comparable things priced? (Remember, when you sell to a dealer, you can expect only a fraction of the selling price.)
  • Talk to dealers in slow moments to get the real lowdown. What sells, what doesn’t? What do they see too many of? Tell them what you have and ascertain interest. Collect cards. Ask for other contacts. (Do your research and follow up the good ones.)
  • Tune out the fantasies about getting your own booth and selling your stuff. This is time-consuming hard work. Do you really want to manage a business, with all its headaches?
  • Have fun.
  • Above all, resist any urges to buy anything other than a meal or a trinket! Remember, you are downsizing.
* The email will not be published on the website.