Flea markets where it pays to dicker

At 9 O'clock in the morning--an hour before official opening time -people are already filtering into the huge indoor Squantum Antique and fFlea Market at the Boston Harbor Marina. Among the acres of handcrafts, secondhand items, and just plain junk they may find a golden oak bureau or art nouveau vase at a bargain price. Or they may not.

But they will find a morning's worth of entertainment.

It is hard to say which is the chief reason that up to 10,000 people pay the one roof resembles not so much a marketplace as a giant carnival where the barkers are hawking everything from comic books and used motorcycles to grandfather clocks and rolltop desks.

Some of the dealers run shops elsewhere, some work at other jobs during the week, and some are here just to clear out their overloaded attics and cellars. But for an increasing number, doing business at the flea market is a full-time concern and a way of life.

One such dealer is Bill Dowling, who left a fulltime job last fall to preside over his spot at the Squantum Market. As at the other market booths, few of his wares meet the true definition of antiques -- items that are over 100 years old. Most of his stock is what is known in the trade as "collectibles," items that have a certain value to collectors and, for this reason, sometimes fetch higher prices than real antiques.

One such collectible on Mr. Dowling's counter caught my eye: a World War I soldier's field kit that contained a shaving brush, comb, buttons, and a shaving mirror that could also be used to signal during battle. It was marked $15.

"But I'd let it go for $7.50," he told me. "That's the joy of the flea-market business -- there's nearly always room for bargaining. Never, never offer to pay the full price. Most dealers have marked an item higher than they really intend to sell it for and expect to do some dickering."

The best times to shop at a flea market, he says, are either just when it opens or just before it's about to close. "The really choice items go fast. The good antiques at bargain prices are snapped up at once -- sometimes before the dealer can unload them from the [TEXT ILLEGIBLE] When it gets near closing time, dealers often want to move merchandise that hasn't sold and will often come way down in price."

The prices at a flea market are nearly always lower than those at an antique show or shop. "We don't have to mark things up as high," says Rosemary de Vita, who operates "Secondhand Rose," just across the aisle from Mr. Dowling and pays business is to dealers themselves. They buy from me and then resell the items in their shops at sometimes double the price."

Miss de Vita has another job during the week but finds the flea market business is a good supplement to her income. A lot of shoppers browse among the quilts, old jewelry, stacks of early 20thcentury sheet music, and bric-a-brac she has on display. " I think today's economyhas something to do with the current surge in popularity for old things," she says. "People are looking for usable goods at a reasonable price, for something that will go up in value and not down."

William Schryver, whose booth is crammed with the nautical antiques that are his specialty, agrees. "People are getting tired of buying new items at a furniture store that go down in value by half once they get them home. An antique, besides being both useful and beautiful, constantly goes up in resale value."

Mr. Schryver used to have a shop, but finds the flea market way of business more profitable -- and fun. He has been at the Squantum market for six months and looks forward to traveling on his self-designed "summer circuit" which will bring him to a different flea market every week for eight weeks. It is a lifestyle that he thrives on.

"I love always being in a new place and meeting new people," he says. "I love haggling with people over prices. And there's no business like the flea-market business for doing that."

During some of the haggling, he finds it is good business to let the customer win once in a while. Pointing to a large gleaming brass bell on his counter he says, "That's marked $45, but I'd let it go for $30, which is little more than I paid for it. I've found if you give someone a good deal, you've not only made them happy, but they'll come back and do business with you again."

The Squantum Antique and Flea Market is only one of dozens in the Boston area and only one of thousands in the US. Although New England is famous as a prime source for American antiques, it lags behind other regions in what has been a nationwide boom in the proliferation of flea markets.

"In other areas of the country there are now flea markets that are open seven days a week -- especially in New York, New Jersey, and the Midwest," says Paul Feldman who has managed the Squantum Market since its opening in October 1979. It didn't take long at all for the new market to attract its 350 dealers, many of them regulars who return each week, an a multitude of bargain seekers.

"The dealers love it because for only $30 a week they're guarenteed a crowd of 5,000 to 10,000 people each weekend -- far more than would walk through a shop," he says. "And the public loves it because, for just $1, they can experience the thrill of the hunt."

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