Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Flea Market Primer

I am a long-time lover of flea markets.  I suppose I get it from my mother who began taking me along with her at a young age.  Everyone in my family collects something, so, it was natural that I would become both a collector and a hunter myself.   Flea Markets are something I look forward to, miraculously get out of bed early for, and plan ahead for weeks and months to attend!  When I arrive I have a rush of adrenalin, and typically stay in good humor throughout the hours I spend there.  I like looking for stuff, finding stuff, talking to people at the market and talking about what I've found once I leave.  Odd, I know, especially considering how frequently I write about the filthy local flea that I attend most frequently!

One thing that keeps me interested is the fact that you never know what you will find on a given week.  Last week, someone had this great 1960's juke box!

Boxes of stuff that look like it was in someone's basement, garage or kitchen drawer for the past 60 years are some of my favorite things to poke through.

Sometimes tiny objects of beauty appear among the junk. 

I love just looking at objects from the past that represent another time.  I would not buy this vintage lawnmower, but certainly appreciate the beauty of its streamlined design. 

I decided to share some basic flea market tips with my readers as I realize there are things I find easy, or, take for granted that for others remain a mystery.  People often tell me they do not understand how flea markets work, where to find them, how to prepare, how to bargain and how to know what they are getting.  Of course, many of these answers are subjective to an individual's expectations and what is offered on a given day, but, I will plan to address some of the major topics below.

What is a Flea Market?

Photo of Farm Chicks Flea courtesy of
If you read magazines like Country Living and Martha Stewart Living, you might think all flea markets look like Farm Chicks or the Country Living Fair.  All sugar plums and lolly pops wrapped up in pink bows and housed in vintage atlas jars.  Ha!  I wish I had a flea market like that in New England.  My weekly flea market merchandises like this:
And I am not ashamed to admit I found some good stuff in there!  (and I am up to date on my Tetanus shot.)

Truthfully, flea markets take many forms.  From the weekly local flea to the monthly regional, to the annual state flea, there are many to choose from.  I am lucky enough to live an hour's drive to Brimfield and, although I do not need to attend it each of the three times a year it is open, I do find it a fun occasional excursion especially when looking for something specific, like architectural pieces for my historic home.  Personally, I am not a fan of the permanent "Flea Markets" you see in this area, usually in former mill buildings and usually selling the same junky stuff and new icky stuff week after week.  I do not consider those as Flea Markets.  To me, a Flea Market is something you cannot attend any old day; only some days, or, some times of the year, or, once a year.  This adds to the mystique!  Living in New England,  my local Flea Market season is from about April through October.  My friend who owns Pumpkintruck likes to torture me with tales of attending outdoor Flea Markets all winter in sunny California (Grr!).  A Flea is usually a gathering of different sellers, all set up in their own unique ways.  Some fleas charge admission and sellers merchandise things in beautifully enticing arrangements with actual price tags.  Others have a mixture of new and old, clean and filthy and you never know what you are going to find.

Booth at Brimfield, July 2008, specializing in Chocolate Molds.
 Personally,  like attending some local events sponsored by civic or social organizations that typically happen once or twice a year.  These events usually have a mix of frequent and new sellers.  Overpriced goods and fresh bargains.  Pretty and rustic.  I also simply enjoy being outdoors in the New England spring and fall, as each season offers its own regional and seasonal flair such as fresh plants or pumpkins to bring home along with your vintage goods.

The type of flea markets I am going to focus on here have three primary attributes.  1) Not neat  2) Most items not priced and 3) Sometimes intimidating sellers.  The reason I am focusing on flea markets in these categories is that a) 90% of all flea markets have these attributes and b) If things are neat, priced and being sold by cheerful sellers, who needs advice?

How To Approach the Day

1.  Arrive early.  Everyone who is anyone arrives early and if you arrive late you will find most of the good stuff gone and half the dealers packing up their stuff by 9:00.  Just set that alarm, pre-set the coffee machine the night before and get the hell out of bed!  Arriving early can also be practical for other reasons; summer fleas typically start off nice and cool and quickly turn hot and oppressing by 10:00 am.

2. Don't look at what other people have already purchased.  You'll make yourself crazy.

3. Dress practically and comfortably.  This means practical shoes (PLEASE no heels ladies!) and even in the summer I often opt for boots as opposed to sandals otherwise I come home with filthy dusty feet.  Layers make sense.  Sunscreen, hats, sunglasses are all practical in the summer.

4. Come prepared.  I usually have one or two fabric totes in my own bag when I start.  Dealers may or may not have bags and bringing your own just makes things go faster and more smoothly.  BRING CHANGE.  You would think dealers would come with change but many do not.  Having exact or close to exact change makes transactions go much more smoothly.  Dealers can get cranky when you whip out a $20 bill to pay for a $1.00 item, and, it makes it doubly awkward when you whip out a $20 to pay for an item you just bargained someone down to $4 from $7 on. 

To cart or not to cart? That is the question.  Some people think carts peg you as a "dealer" or hardcore collector, but, they can be practical at a large sale where your car ends up miles away.  Your choice, just don't forget you have it as I often do when I use it!
5. Choose your friends wisely.  I have a couple of friends and family members who I can easily attend flea markets with.  This usually means we completely part ways as soon as we walk through the door.  Shopping together with someone else seems like fun, but, can be distracting, or, even bad for business if you are buying for resale (i.e.: friends who point at the one item you are trying to be coy about and loudly ask in front of the seller "IS THAT THE TYPE OF ITEM YOU SELL?") or can cause friction in friendships when you both reach for the same item at the same time ("Get your mitts off, wench, I saw that 1981 Journey Concert Tee first!")  I usually go it alone.

6. Remember to eat and pee.  As with any event that traps people in a temporary space for several hours, food is usually limited in its offering and high in its price.  Sometimes you can get great local fare for a song at seasonal events, but, find out first what your options are.  If in doubt, pack a lunch and water with you.  And if your only toilet will be a porta-potty at the end of a 20 minute line, you may want to skip that extra large coffee on the drive over!


Money is an important consideration when you plan to attend a flea which is why I am giving it its own section here.

1. Bring Change.  We already covered this in the section above. This advice applies to dealers as well but since you cannot control them you need to take the initiative.

2. Don't Flash Your Wad.  Bad for bargaining and all around in poor taste.  Plus, can be unsafe.  I usually wear pants or shorts with secure pockets and keep a selection of my smaller bills, coins and one twenty in there.  This allows me to easily pull a small amount of money out of my pocket for transactions.  Keeps it quick and discreet.  If I purchase a big ticket item, I will go into my bag and get my wallet for the big bills.  I then put the change back into the pocket. While we are talking about bags, I always use a backpack type bag for the flea. Frees my hands and keeps it pick-pocket free...just sayin'....

3. Have a Budget.  Personally, I have a bad habit of finding, finding, finding stuff at the flea.  Unfortunately, I do not have endless pockets to finance this, so I find that deciding my budget for the day in advance helps me stay focused.  Sometimes you find THE PERFECT ITEM, like a Jacobsen Egg Chair for $50 and you only have $32 left. In that case, it is OK to hit the ATM, or, break into that "In case of Egg Chair break open" envelope at the bottom of your bag.  In other cases though, try to budget, trust me.

4. Bring cash.  This is so fundamental it seems to go without saying but please keep in mind that unless you are buying a cute set of throw pillows made from pink chenille and old feed sacks at the Farm Chicks flea, your sellers are likely cash-only.  If you want to shop, you gotta play by their rules.


One of the most common questions I am asked when people find out or know that I am a dealer is "How much is this (insert ANYTHING here) worth?   My answer, which drives people crazy, is, an item is worth what someone will pay for it.  It is true, however, that IS how much something is worth.  On-line dealers often use past sales on eBay when trying to gauge how much to value something for resale.  They look at items that sold, and what they sold for.  They do NOT look at what someone is asking for something.  Because Etsy items do not show the sale price once sold, I frequently have other sellers ask me what a sold item sold for.  I am always happy to help, and have asked the question myself in the past.

If you are buying for resale, know your market.  For instance, I took a photo of this nice old crock at the flea last weekend (above).  I do not specialize in this type of item and have no idea if it it worth $10 or $100.  Because of this, I stay away.  It is not in my own area of knowledge and having knowledge is a good idea when you hit the flea for resale.  Knowledge, discretion and focus are your friends.

If you are buying for yourself, value is not as much of an issue.  You should buy what you like and pay what you think is fair.  If you are buying as an investment you should do your homework, certainly, but, if you are buying simply because you like something and you have the money to spend why stress? You are there to have fun.  This cookie jar above is a great example of educating yourself.  Because this jar was cold painted (over the glaze) most of the details are missing.  Is the $30 price tag a good one or not?

Photo courtesy the Complete Cookie Jar Book, by Mike Schneider.
It just so happens that my new Cookie Jar Book has just this same cookie jar featured in its section on condition.  According to the book, the jar is valued similarly with missing paint as opposed to with most of the paint.  The jar above is missing even more than those pictured in the book, which are valued at $60 each.  If the Flea Market jar is in good structural shape and the only damage is the cold paint loss, $30, or, maybe bargaining to $25 would be a good price if you are a collector.  If you are a reseller, I'd say to steer clear unless you find this guy for $10 or less.

Always take time to check condition, take measurements and confirm your interest.
 I err on the side of being cautious and conservative and I still make mistakes.  It is highly unlikely that fantastic item is going to bring the $100,000 at auction you are imagining, so, if it is more that $10 I'd make sure you know what you are buying before parting with your money.   Buy books, research items on-line, read articles and educate yourself as much as possible if you are planning to collect or resell.

I looked at this pair of twin 1940's chenille bedspreads twice. I know this dealer and could probably have had the pair for $5.  Although I like challenges of cleaning, I was not certain I could reduce, never mind remove these stains, so, I passed. 

How To Bargain

Of all the things people tell me they are intimidated about at the flea, bargaining is number one.  Do you always bargain? Sometimes? When you do how do you do it?  I will attempt to answer some of these questions below.

1. Be respectful to the dealers.  I know flea market dealers can be a tough lot.  They have tattoos, they drink and smoke cigarettes, cigars and pot while selling, some will not get out of their cars, they swear, some lie, some talk your ears off, some ignore you.  At times, it can be tough to be nice to them.  BUT, keep in mind that this is often their livelihood, they found the stuff, packed their van the evening before, drove an hour, tried to sleep in the vehicle for a couple of hours before setting up at 4:00 am and now you are dickering with them for a $1?  Wouldn't you be drinking, smoking and cranky too? 

Cool dealer from the weekly flea I often swing by a few towns over.  He brings this box truck full of stuff weekly.  It is a family affair as his wife and son are both unpacking, setting up and bartering along with him weekly.  As I took this shot and chatted with him, his wife made sarcastic comments the whole time - priceless!  They are nice people and have very fair prices and I always try to be as kind as possible to them.
As I prepared this post I asked several dealers what they did and did not like about the Flea Market.  They collectively said pretty much the same thing, they loved the people and the interaction and disliked people who were rude.  So, if you are planning to barter, be nice!

2. Chit chat.  You don't want to talk a dealer's ear off if they are trying to sell, but, I find that a little friendly banter, and, light hearted flirting in jest can go a long way with getting a good price.  It is sort of an off-shoot of the above advice.  Be friendly.  Last week I was looking through a dealer's boxes and noticed he had several display cases of jewelry and coins that I figured he actually wanted on the table in front of him.  As I found them, I handed them to him and he was grateful as he'd become very busy while still unpacking.  When I asked him for a price on two books he said "$5 since I'd helped," he wanted to give me a good price.  See, be nice.

One of the two books purchased for $5 at the booth mentioned above?  Just this First Printing 1962 edition in the slipcase of Ted Saucier's Bottom's Up, that's all...
3. Don't Show Your Hand.  I'm all for being nice and everything, but, don't be silly!  Bartering and bargaining is a game between you and the seller.  It is possible to play it without being sleazy.  First of all, never act like you really want something.  If you see a great yelloware seaweed design bowl you do NOT say "Oh wow, how much for that great seaweed bowl?"  You say (indifferently),  "How much for the old mixing bowl?"  At which point, the dealer may say something like "The seaweed bowl? Thats (insert extremely high price here)."  Or, they may feel you out and throw out a price.  At that point you may pick it up, look it over, discuss a hairline with your friend in earshot of the dealer and either a) make a counter offer, or b) put it down and keep looking.  This is how the bartering begins.  No matter what, you want to play it cool. 

I paid $15 for this little pile.  It was way more than I wanted to pay, and I was frustrated that the dealer would not bargain, but, mentally adding up the potential resale and the fact that a couple of items would be gifts I decided to accept and he won the bluff.
The best story ever about "showing your hand" took place a couple of years ago at Brimfield.  My husband and I were walking into a booth that had some nice, older estate pieces.  Nothing was priced.  As we walked in we heard a loud GASP.  We turned, and the gasp was followed by a young woman dressed nicely enough to show she had money to spend (another no-no by the way!) approach a table outside the booth with her arms outstretched loudly proclaiming "THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I HAVE BEEN LOOKING FOR!"  We almost died trying not to laugh.  The dealer, with deadpan expression stood up to walk outside and interact with the customer.  That crystal punch bowl had just gone up $200 in price.

Want that pennant for a song?  Act indifferent.
4. Buying more than one item is a better bargaining position.  If you get a price on one thing, it is a tougher bargaining position than if then ask for a price on another and throw out a suggested combined discount.  For instance:

"How much is this hat?
"Great, thanks.  And how much is that scarf over there?"
"Would you consider $10 for the two?"

That type of simple exchange usually will get you somewhere.  That is pretty typical bartering 101 for the Flea.

These great garden tools were all together in a bucket.  Instead of asking one by one, I held them all up in my hand and asked for a price: $3 for all.  Deal!
5. If the dealer gives you an "in" take it!  Often times you will ask a dealer for their price and they will answer "I was asking $25."  This is usually an indication that they are willing to either a) bargain if you buy more than one thing, or, especially if later in the day b) accept a lower offer on that one item.  If a dealer phrases their answer this way, feel free to counter-offer on the spot.   (PS: Dealers are often quite willing to bargain much more freely on larger pieces at the end of the day when they do not want to pack them and take them home again.)

Every time I passed these guys told me I won the "prettiest customer award." Since I turn 45 this week and am not so hot, I wanted to say "You should really stop drinking in the morning." But since I had a feeling they WERE actually drinking in the morning I just said "Oh, thanks, you guys need more sleep."  Too bad I was not interested in anything they had for sale.
6. The walkaway.  One of the hardest things to do if you are really interested in an item but don't want to pay the asking price is to simply walk away.  This drastic measure can at times work.  Of course, you are playing double or nothing because if it does not work, and, you obsess about the item and return, you are making it clear to the dealer that you really really want that item!  If it works for you, the dealer may call out an even lower price, or, agree to match something you offered as you walk away.  I once had a dealer chase me two aisles down to meet my offer which I then agreed to.  Risky, but, can work.

I passed by this giant tin the first time without even asking the price.  When I passed by again later, I stopped to take this photo and she told me it was $5.  Five dollars?  Dang, I took it home with me.
6. Know the Language.  Bartering and bargaining is a battle of gentlemen and gentlewomen.  Try not to insult the person you are bartering with and you will get much further.  If the dealer tells you the price is $5 and you counter with $1 that is insulting.  Countering with $3 is much more reasonable.  I considered a badly stained tablecloth a few weeks back and the dealer wanted $5.  I countered with $3 and she came back with $4.  My response was "That's not a bad price if I were buying for myself but I am unsure of the stains and can't go more than $3."  We were at an impasse and I walked away.  I felt fine and she felt fine.  If  I'd said "Oh, come ON, it's covered with stains!" She probably would have raised the price to $8 because I was being a jerk!  As I walked though the flea last week I overheard a dealer answering what sounded to me like an extreme low-ball offer.  He said "I really appreciate your kind offer but I simply cannot go lower than (price)"  Wow, what restraint!  Now that's being gentlemanly!

My first purchase of the day and best bargain: this mannequin for $10.  It was the only female torso when I walked up and I bought it immediately.  When I passed by a few minutes later, half the male torsos and a set of legs were gone.  By the time I left, not one of the store displays were left.  I was glad I grabbed her when I did !  (6:30 am)
Hollywood card rack in original box.  Super fun to put in my Etsy shop when then weather cools.  This was one item in that $15 pile I showed above.
Awesome mid-century Manhattan Skyline cufflinks.  Also in the $15 pile.

One recent post from a colleague that got my own butt in gear to finally finish this one, was this recent post on "Six Flea Markets Worth Visiting" from Sammy Davis Vintage.  She not only gives great info on the six, but, encourages readers to add details on others making it chock full of great spots all across the country!

Country Living Magazine created this useful guide to Antique Shows which actually includes mostly Flea Markets with dates and links and photos galore...

A couple years old so check the links but a good summary at Budget Travel.

Another article from a couple of years back but lots of anecdotal info at CNN America's Best Flea Markets.

United States too limited for you? Here is a link to the World's Best from The Travel Channel.

A great composite site.  Check all links to ensure they are up to date but a great starting point from anywhere in the US!

My hubby at Brimfield.  He never reads this blog so will have no idea I've used this less than flattering photo of him.... (he's way hotter than he looks here!) 

All content and images copyright 2011 Christine Francis Barta unless otherwise noted.  Please feel free to link to this post but please do not borrow content without proper credit since I worked pretty darn hard on it, thanks!


  1. This is a GREAT blog with useful information. Now it makes me want to go to a flea market. :) I love the photos and captions. It really gives you a feel for what a flea market is like.

  2. Awesome post, Christine! If its ok, perhaps I will repost on Artifaktori and link back to you? We still need to do a post on our fantastic Carmen & Ginger dresses, too...we're just a bit behind! Be on the lookout though :)

  3. Thanks Amanda! Sure, you are welcome to share the link on your page! I would in fact be grateful.

    Still need to stop by the Beacon Hill shop but love seeing all your pics of happy customers!

  4. This is a fantastic post. I think it covers just about everything I could think of when going to a Flea Market. If I could just add something about when you are selling at a Flea Market: be prepared for all kinds of weather. We have had days that started out in the 60's and we ended up baking in the 90's and on another day we had our winter coats in the car< which we happily put on, while it was raining and hailing down large horse chestnuts from the tree we were under (this is in October).

    Happy Birthday!!!



  5. Christine! This is fabulous. Mind if I repost an exerpt and link back to you also?

  6. Thanks Mom! Hmnnn a future post detailing SELLING at the Flea may not be a bad idea either...lots of combined experience there...will keep it in mind!

    Ruth: of course! Thanks!

  7. Fabulous post Christine! I'm going to link on my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

  8. Posted link on my FB - nicely written and great advise!

  9. Thanks girls! It really means a lot to have such great feedback from fellow sellers and flea-addicts! Thanks also for the re-posts...

  10. Oh, so I'm not the ONLY one who posts unflattering pics of my Hubby; I think I'm starting a 'Save Bill' Blog, LOL. And, I would TOTALLY have bought that lawn mower (at the right cheap price) and just stuck it in my yard for a garden decoration!! Great educational yet fun post!

  11. You probably could have had the lawn mower for a song! As mentioned above a) it was only about 9:15 and the guy was already almost packed to go and b) it was a big heavy item he'd left out until last, presumably hoping to make a last minute deal. (Oh and PS: I do not think Bill is NEARLY in as much need of support as Kenny! LOL!)

  12. Such a great post about flea markets. I was at that particular flea market with the two men drinking in the morning. I think I encountered one yelling things out. Not to me but very funny. Love your blog and Etsy store.

  13. Those two are quite the pair, eh? One thing you can say about flea markets, they are NEVER boring!

  14. Flea Market looks great lots of unused things founded here with a little restoration they work fine and save money and vintage Lawn Mower looks great


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