During a career spent hunting home-decorating treasures at flea markets, Rachel Ashwell has learned numerous lessons - sometimes the hard way. Such as the time she bought an armoire that fell off the back of her Jeep on the way home.
"It's just so tempting," she says of flea-market finds that lead to a lapse of reason. "For the most part, vendors aren't in the business of delivering, so as a practical matter, spending $30 or $40 to rent a pickup truck can be a worthwhile investment."
Ms. Ashwell is in the business of scouring flea markets, since they supply inventory for her two home-furnishing stores in Los Angeles and Chicago. These are the retail hub of the Shabby Chic decorating style that Ashwell introduced with a bestselling book in 1989 and has since trademarked.
Her latest book, "Rachel Ashwell's Shabby Chic: Treasure Hunting & Decorating Guide" (ReganBooks), is inscribed to "Mum and Dad," an acknowledgment of her parents' influence. As a child growing up in England, she would often accompany them on flea-market hunts for rare books, teddy bears, and dolls.
This early exposure ultimately emerged as Ashwell's Shabby Chic style, which utilizes recycled goods to create a casual, eclectic look she calls "very soft and quite flowery in a very subtle way."
This airy, light appearance provides her with a focus for her flea-market rounds, otherwise, she says, sorting through the jumble of wares can be overwhelming.
She concentrates on color, character, and workmanship. "If I see anything pale pink, pale green, white, or pale blue it kind of catches my eye and I investigate it," she says. Her practiced eye is also an asset in seeing pieces she can transform with paint.
To illustrate the importance of maintaining focus, Ashwell cites a challenge in finding used lamp bases to go with new shades sold in her stores. When efforts to find suitable manufactured bases failed, she started looking for a limited variety of old ones - milk glass, alabaster, marble, and clear glass. "If I had decided to mix those in with 10 other kinds - brass, jade, copper, etc. - the lamps would look absolutely dreadful," she says. "As it is, people who come into the store can't believe that these bases were picked up at flea markets. It's just focus."
Character and workmanship are more important to Ashwell than antique value. Most of what she buys was made between the 1920s and '40s. Often what gets her attention is fine detailing that lends a piece a certain elegance, be it raised floral molding, some small medallions, or fluted legs.
Two words heard over and over again at flea markets, Ashwell says, are "old" and "French." She cautions against getting hung up on these adjectives, which vendors sometimes use to establish the value of a piece. The main thing, she says, is what it's worth to you.
"Before I ever get in a price negotiation or even look at the price tag, if there is one, I work out in my own mind what I want to pay for a piece," Ashwell says. Then she'll ask the price, and if the two parties are close at all, negotiations can begin.
Even if they're miles apart, though, she's careful not to end the encounter on a sour note. "There's a diplomatic way to suggest what it's worth to you and see what happens." One strategy is to leave a phone number. Then, if at the end of the day the item still hasn't sold, perhaps the vendor will come down in price."