If You're Looking to Score Big at the Flea Market, Take a Few Tips From the Pros

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Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Flea

Combing the best flea markets can yield insanely lucky finds, but it takes a little knowledge to make a visit worth your while. We spoke to professional pickers, dealers, and managers at three of America’s top treasure troves for the scoop on how to shop.

Brimfield Antique Show & Flea Market Brimfield, MA

Brimfield is called a flea market but it is really antiques and collectibles,” Don Moriarty tells Yahoo! Makers. “The goods are high end.” Moriarty and his wife Pamela own Heart-o-the-Mart, one of the best of the 20 fields at Brimfield, the grande dame of the flea market antique shows (http://www.brimfield.com).

The shows are held three times each year, in May, July and September for six consecutive days each time and the openings of the fields are choreographed and staggered. The seasoned shopper knows when to arrive just in time for the opening of each particular Brimfield Flea Market and shop before their competitors beat them to it.  

“The beginning of the week offers the best opportunity to canvas the fields that have not been picked, and Saturdays are better than Sundays,” Moriarty says. “Usually people in the trade shop during the weekdays and retail customers arrive on the weekend. Six of the fields are fenced in and charge admission. The others are free. When you step on to a field, ask for that field’s literature,” he advises.

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Photograph by Mark Fleming

At Heart-o-the-Mart there are over 450 dealers. The field is known in particular for hobnail glassware and intact grain sacks. Two other top fields are Dealer’s Choice, known for its quality rustic furniture and J&J Auction Acres, flush with high-end items like colonial cherrywood chests and convex mirrors. The Brimfield show is replete with New England collectibles like weather vanes, decoys, and Nantucket baskets and maritime accoutrements such as brass lamps and ships’ wheels. Even the food has a regional bent: Try the generously-sized $10 lobster rolls, the fresh-popped kettle corn, and the Pilgrim Sandwich, an extra soft roll layered with roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mayo.

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Image courtesy of Brimfield

“Mornings can be chilly, so dress in layers and dress down. Looking fancy will not help you here. Quite the opposite,” Moriarty tells Yahoo! Makers. Brimfield has a very savvy group of sellers. The dealers generally cater to other dealers and depend upon a large wholesale business. Prices are negotiable, and cash is king. “Bring a cart that you can put items in. And pack water.” For larger items, there are shippers right on the fields. “Don’t try to do all the fields in one day. Spend at least two,” Moriarty advises.

He also suggests parking toward the middle, as opposed to taking the first spot offered to you. “If you park at the end of the fields, hawkers will get you and you’ll overpay.” 

The best time to get to the Heart-o-the-Mart field is at 9 am on May 13. “You can pre-buy tickets,” says Moriarty. “When our field opens, it’s so exciting, like the running of the bulls.”

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Photo (At the Dullsville booth at Heart-o-the-Mart, beaded cherries, apples, lemons, and grapes from the 1950s.)

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Treasure Mart, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Fodor’s recently voted Treasure Mart, an emporium of beautiful vintage goods in Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan, one of the top ten fleas in the country. “What’s really different about Treasure Mart is that we’re open Monday through Saturday, unlike a traditional flea market, which may only be open on the weekends, and even then not every weekend,” owner Elaine Johns tells Yahoo! Makers. “Treasure Mart is actually a consignment shop, not technically a flea market,” she explains. That means that her staff meets with 10-12 people a day who put on average of 50-100 items each on consignment. In addition, they send out a truck for larger items. To customers, this translates into about 1,000 new finds every day. 

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Image courtesy of Treasure Mart

Treasure Mart has been in Johns’ family since 1960, housed in an historic building that was once a mid-19th century planing mill for lumber. The shop contains 8,500 square feet of delightfully curated and highly organized mid-century home furnishings, vintage clothing, costume jewelry, ceramics, dish ware, and loads of small, inexpensive kitsch. It also has an outdoor area filled with vintage patio furniture.

“We get the highest flow of new items in spring and summer because that’s when people are moving,” says Karen Ikola-Marin, the store manager. “The weather in this part of the country makes winter shopping a bit less competitive, though there’s more competition now in winter than there used to be.”

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Image courtesy of Treasure Mart

“When people come in with goods for consignment, we usually put them on the floor within an hour or two. For a big estate sale or a big pick up though, it can take a few weeks,” Isola-Marin says.

“We are seasonal, so if you’re looking for a particular item, come in the right season. For example, we are just putting out patio furniture now,” she adds.

The shop is a great place to go for mid-century modern furniture. “There was a time when I was hesitant to take on mid-century pieces, but now that’s a hot ticket item, and it’s the Victorian-era and country furniture that doesn’t move. Everything comes in waves,” says Johns. “We recently sold a Paul Evans, mid-century modern three-piece bedroom set for over $4,000. A dealer drove all the way from New York to pick it up. It had that industrial look that people want now.”

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Image courtesy of Treasure Mart

Brooklyn Flea Brooklyn, NY

After opening in 2008, Brooklyn Flea has become the preeminent spot to score vintage furniture, décor, clothing and handmade goods. Eric Demby, co-founder (with Jonathan Butler) tells Yahoo! Makers why Brooklyn Flea is different than others. “The vendors are (mostly) friendlier. Plenty of regular folks shop there, as do buyers for local coffee shops, big chain stores, and interior designers. The quality of goods is curated by vendors, which can mean higher prices—because they’ve sifted through all the crap and carried the best stuff to you. But feel free to name the price you’re willing to pay, they won’t be offended.”  

Starting the first weekend in April through November, the markets take place outdoors: Saturdays in Fort Greene and Sundays in Williamsburg. The Flea also operates Smorgasburg, a giant all-food market that launched in May 2011 and happens Saturdays in Williamsburg and Sundays in Brooklyn Bridge Park. From November through March, the market moves indoors to a single location. Click here for a map and directions to all locations.

To get the best price, Demby says, “Do a loop to see all the vendors, as many sell in the same category, and you’re likely to zero in on one or two who clearly share your taste. Rather than feign disinterest hoping for a discount, I find that enthusiasm for an item grabs a vendor’s attention and makes them more likely to want it to find a good home, meaning you might get a better deal.”

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Image courtesy of Brooklyn Flea

As Demby sees it, the food at the Flea is like an added attraction. “Of 140 vendors, maybe 20 sell food, so it’s a shopping destination first and foremost, but the decision to swing by is made much easier knowing there’s a lobster roll/brisket sandwich/pupusa/donut waiting for you.” The Flea keeps the food area off to one end of the market, with seating behind it, to keep the focus on goods and shopping. Of course, folks who just want to eat can always go to Smorgasburg!

Demby refers to the Flea vendors with deep affection. “They’re our family. They also know our customers so well that they can shop around during the week and know exactly what will sell that weekend. We still bring in 4 or 5 new vendors every weekend, and our longtimers are always adapting and switching up their booths to keep up with the times and give the people what they want.”

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Image courtesy of Brooklyn Flea

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