Susan Bobbitt describes her Overton, Texas, home decor as "classic garage sale." For her, buying used furniture and household items is a kick, especially when it means visiting the sprawling Brimfield Antique Show in central Massachusetts.
Despite the name, Brimfield is often viewed as one of the biggest and best-known flea markets in the world, since much of what sells here is not old enough (100 years or more) to fit the strict definition of antiques.
That's hardly important to Ms. Bobbitt, a real estate agent who's been drawn to Brimfield by its reputation for selling just about everything imaginable - from large armoires and rugs to vintage toasters, cameras, toys, and marbles.
Like many treasure hunters who scour the secondhand landscape, Bobbitt often waits until inspiration strikes to find that bargain or special item that gives character to a home.
This time it came in the form of a large ceramic crock and stand. She'll use it to serve ice tea during blistering Texas summers. Whether the $125 price was a good buy was secondary. "I really liked it," she says. And "with antiques and collectibles, if you get tired of whatever you purchased you can resell it and get your money back," Bobbitt says. "With new furniture you can't do that."
In an age of cookie-cutter department stores and fixed prices, flea markets have a special appeal. For those looking for a touch of individuality in their homes, these browsers' bazaars are among the last sources of truly unique artifacts. And they are one of the few places in the United States where haggling is acceptable.
Of course, there are flea markets and there are flea markets. Some cater to people looking to decorate their homes with old furnishings, housewares, and collectibles. Other markets primarily sell new merchandise - closeouts, liquidations, inexpensive imported goods, and collectibles.
"At many new flea markets, 50 percent of the merchandise is new," says Cuba Ford, publisher of the Flea Market News, published in Marion, N.C. This influx of new merchandise can turn off people who think of flea markets more as rummage sales than as discount mini-malls.
Some places fuse the two elements together. The Great Smokies Craft Fair and Flea Market in Sevierville, Tenn., has 230 vendors inside and 115 outside. Everything sold inside is factory direct, collectible, or new, says proprietor Evelyn Ogle. "Used" and "old" are the operative words outside.
Another amalgamated market is the 80-acre Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Swap Shop, owned by Preston Henn. He calls it the second-largest tourist attraction in the state, a massive complex with a three-story building, a food court, and free circus at its center. While much of the merchandise is new, the Swap Shop also hosts many garage-sale type vendors.
Finding treasure in such a mega-market is no easy task. "That's what makes the flea market so fascinating," Mr. Henn says. "You have junk, of course, but you have some things that are very valuable and you also have things that are in-between. That's the reason you need to spend time walking around."
Ford of the Flea Market News says there are more than 2,500 flea markets in the United States and an average of about 200 vendors per market.
Whether a flea market is set up in a deserted strip mall, a vacant furniture store, or a parking lot, sprawl is part of the package.
At Brimfield, where more than 5,000 dealers pitch a tent city in the grassy fields, a parking attendant reminds customers, "it's a quarter mile to the fair and 20 miles around the tables." The six-day exhibition occurs in May, July, and September.
A shopper can easily spend several days wandering this bazaar, and many do, especially serious antique collectors. For some dealers, like Joe Rupert of Hamlin, N.Y., this is the next stop on the summer circuit. He once owned an antique shop, but gave it up to hit the road.
"A shop involves a lot of overhead and it's very confining," he says. "If you come to a place like Brimfield and you have the right merchandise, you can sell more in four or five days than you'd sell in a whole month or two from a shop."
Unlike many dealers, who specialize, Mr. Rupert has a variety of goods, from washboards to lamps to glassware. This mix has already paid dividends, with a pair of 20-foot blue jeans, used promotionally, fetching several hundred dollars.
Ray Dapkus of Hartford, Conn., says selling at Brimfield is more hobby than serious business. He has a tent jammed with kitschy "junk" that often stops baby boomers in their tracks. "Oh, we used to have one of these" is a familiar refrain as browsers spy objects like a picnic jug, table hockey game, and an outmoded vacuum cleaner.
For those designing with a '50s motif, tacky sells. "The more outlandish the better," Mr. Dapkus says pointing to a pair of lime-green, genie lamps connected by a planter.
The belief that one man's junk is another man's treasure serves as a central tenet for flea markets. They supposedly were inspired by Le March aux Puces, a Parisian market that sold flea-infested sofas.
Today, the antique-oriented flea markets are more sophisticated than they once were, says decorator Rachel Ashwell (see story at left). "They are much more expensive than they used to be," she says, "but people put their things together now, quite often in a vignette form instead of leaving it as a pile of stuff you have to sort through. They've thought about it and possibly restored things, which is why prices are higher."
Another factor possibly pushing prices higher, says Emelie Tolley, is "Antiques Roadshow," a popular public-television program that does on-the-air appraisals.
Coauthor with Chris Mead of the forthcoming book "Flea Market Style: Decorating With an Edge," Ms. Tolley says the show has raised expectations of antique values, sometimes unrealistically.
It's become harder to find "good things," she says, because of a proliferation of markets and sellers. But she's also convinced that a corresponding growth in home decorating know-how is making for better flea-market shoppers.
"People have really developed a lot more confidence in their own taste," she says. This has led to more eclectic and innovative decorating. Part of the fun of attending flea markets is imagining the possibilities. An old window becomes a mirror frame, a rusty watering can a flower pot, and a jelly jar a pencil holder.
A transplanted New Englander, Holly Harris, has been delighted to find that California is fertile ground for secondhand shopping. "So many people buy new, buy bigger, buy better, buy often, and they discard things just as easily," says the editor of Rummaging Through Northern California, a Bay Area newspaper.
Her collection of used appliances attests to that. She picked up a practically new Cuisinart food processor for $5. It didn't work, but the company sent her a new one because it was under warranty.
Of course, everybody wants to go home with a bargain, too. And few are disappointed even if they don't find the stuff of their dreams.
"There's always something," Tolley says, "even if it's just another bowl for the kitchen or a lighting fixture that needs repair. It almost doesn't matter."
TIPS FOR FLEA-MARKET SHOPPING
* Be prepared to spend a lot of time looking and comparing. The search and socializing are part of the fun.
* Think about how you're going to get purchases home. Vendors don't deliver.
* Take paint samples, fabrics, and room measurements.
* Study price guides and other sources in order to assess current values and condition.
* Negotiate, but don't make an offer so low that it cuts off discussion. A 20 percent price adjustment is not unusual.
* Selection is best early in the day, but the best deals often occur near quitting time.
* Look beyond an item's normal use. A milk pail could become a lamp base, a game board a wall hanging, and old shutters a decorative screen.
* Don't carry around large purchases. Ask dealers to hold them until you're ready to leave. This may mean leaving a deposit.
WHERE TO SHOP
* Flea Market Guide of
US Flea Markets
Contains state-by-state directory of flea markets.
* Rummaging Through
Focused on the Bay Area, but an informative site on buying secondhand items. www.sonic.net/~rtnc/
P.O. Box 297,
Sonoma, CA 95476.
* The Nation's Attic
Don Creekmor, an antiques dealer in Wichita, Kan., locates items for prospective buyers. Once located, a description and price are sent, and when possible, a picture. If the individual decides to buy the item, the Nation's Attic tells the seller to hold it until the payment can be processed. The item is then sent to Nation's Attic for inspection before being sent on to its new owner, an extra step that helps head off problems caused by inaccurate representation.
* American Junk, by Mary Randolph Carter (Viking Studio)
* Flea Market Style: Decoration with a Creative Edge, by Emelie Tolley and Chris Mead (Clarkson Potter/Publishers). Available in late September.