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Bargaining the Brimfield Way

Behind The Scenes at Brimfield, The Largest Outdoor Antiques and Collectibles Market in the United States

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Always willing to dicker, Joel Schiff, a dealer from New York City, seeks unusual cast-iron cookware. He is primarily interested in plain, black metal items that you can cook in or eat or drink out of. The internal designs of waffle irons and cookie molds really grab him, but trivets, mechanicals and stove parts do not. Despite having only one leg, Schiff scrambles around Brimfield in search of Griswold skillets, ice cream cone makers and fruitcake pans. Known as the Cast Iron Man at Brimfield, Schiff stands out even more at the Triple Pier Expo in Manhattan, an antiques show generally held each March and November that, although more upscale than Brimfield, attracts many of the same dealers. When he clambers along the piers in a tricornered hat with a stuffed parrot perched on the brim, it is nearly impossible to suppress the image of him as a peg-leg pirate. "The creature requires too much pollution for Brimfield," Schiff says of the parrot. "It's much too healthy there."
Less flamboyant dealers mainly use their expertise to land a bargain. Take Stu Bramble, who traded in his beeper, suit and marketing career to become a postcard dealer. Bramble, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland, spends a week in Brimfield buying and selling. He readily admits that he knows nothing about lamps or armoires: "I just do postcards. I specialize. Other dealers don't have the time to learn about them, so I can buy a $10 postcard from them for a dollar because I know what it's worth."
A certain camaraderie exists among the dealers despite their varied backgrounds, degrees of expertise and competitiveness. Dealers often rent the same booths seasonally in Brimfield, and strangers become acquaintances. Relationships develop, and soon it feels as if they are relatives who see each other three times a year. There is a tacit code of ethics. Dealers keep a watch out for the show promoters, making sure their peers don't get caught dealing before open hours or packing up prematurely. "I hate dealers getting hurt," one dealer says with emotion. Dealers share strategic advice on everything from booth appearance, to pricing (or not pricing) merchandise, to the viability of returning to the same show, or maybe trying another. If a dealer momentarily steps away from her booth, she may ask another dealer to mind the shop. Above all, dealers are salespeople who may lend a hand in the form of a pitch. Like a disinterested third party who happens to be an expert, the borrowed dealer may reinforce the original sales pitch. An even more devious ploy is to point out the defects of an item, which in the world of antiques translates into authenticity and therefore more value.
"I always think of ourselves as the last cowboys; a bunch of gypsies in the field," says Michael Bider, an auctioneer from Andover, Massachusetts, who is sitting in a cast-iron love seat on sale at his booth. He smiles in the shade of his baseball cap as if to say, "Really, I'm serious." Although his expression becomes sober, his outfit is silly. He and his associate, Paul Thurkelsen, both 44 years old, are wearing motley polyester sport coats and huge, tacky pendants. The outfits are good for business.
"There are many different types of dealers, many different personalities," Bider says. "Look at it this way. You go to a doctor's office. Doctors are more of a homogeneous group. They've all gone to high school. They all have [a degree] in medicine. Over here--just go down this field and ask a simple question, such as the educational background of the dealers. It's gonna be a real gamut. You're gonna have people who never finished high school. People who went to college. People with master's degrees. You can get into this business with $5, $500 or $5 million. And we all classify ourselves as antiques dealers.
"I hate to pick on doctors or lawyers, but I doubt very much that a doctor or a lawyer would let a plumber into their club. Do you understand? There could be a guy here dealing with a $50,000 oil painting, and a guy next to him could be dealing in Art Deco or low-end stuff, and they can have some type of relationship or have something in common to talk about. So, it's funny that you can get 8,000 people together with really diverse backgrounds and not have total mayhem. For some reason it seems to work. They may have a petty argument with each other. But under those conditions you'd expect more."
Despite efforts by the now defunct Brimfield Promoters Association, the thrice yearly events lack a central organizer and each show's promoter enforces his own rules and hires his own security. This may seem odd in a town of 3,000 that attracts mobs of fervid scavengers. Surely, some regulation is needed to handle the traffic jams, not to mention public safety concerns.
By 1985, Brimfield had become a two-week-long event. Problems emerged. Disgruntled locals could not drive home on Route 20, which was clogged with trucks, cars, RVs and tourists. The school bus was always late to school. Security was another crucial consideration. The field owners are responsible for hiring additional security and police, but just how many officers should be hired is difficult to assess, because attendance is hard to gauge. The town of Brimfield coordinates security; however, the show promoters foot the bill. Each show contributes a portion of the security bill based on the ratio of its size (dealers, hours and days) to the whole event.
Regulations governing secondhand junk dealers were written into the town bylaws as early as 1957, when dealers had to obtain licenses. In 1979, Brimfield passed comprehensive bylaws enabling it to govern the ever-growing flea markets. The most controversial act was an amendment, passed in 1991, that limited the shows to six days, including only one weekend, three times a year. While open dealing used to carry on throughout the night in Brimfield, today business hours are legally limited from dawn to dusk. Furthermore, the town has indelibly determined when the shows will be held: they must start on the second Tuesday in May, the first Tuesday following July 4 and the first Tuesday following Labor Day. (The remaining opening dates this year are July 8 and Sept. 2.)
When the town began regulating commercially zoned property, it upset some of the flea market owners, especially those with long established shows. James Hopkins, who owns Start-of-the-Mart, a postcard and ephemera show, called the legislation of the flea markets "back-door zoning." He adds, "When my father was around, we could run our show for as many days as we wanted," he says. "We used to run for 10 days. Then we were cut in half and told when we could operate. Our show was harmed, because our advantage was opening a few days before the other shows did. There's a lot of favoritism toward the larger shows in town." Last year Start-of-the-Mart moved indoors, enabling it to stay open for 10 days.
Back in the 1950s, when there were no flea markets to regulate, a local auctioneer named Gordon Reid decided to visit an open-air antiques show in Connecticut. Impressed with what he saw, Reid rounded up his dealer friends that he knew through auctions and established Gordon Reid's Famous Flea Market on his Brimfield property in 1959. People came in droves. His shows, the only shows in town at the time, were known for the quality of dealers and wares. Advertising was mainly word-of-mouth. Before long, Reid's field was full. "As we filled up our space and could not accommodate any more exhibitors, our neighbors throughout town started getting on the bandwagon, so they could ride our coattails," says Reid's daughter, Judy Mathieu.
Reid's success spawned imitators through the fields of Brimfield. Joe Hopkins, Reid's neighbor, whom one dealer fondly described as "a salvage man, a real honest-to-goodness junk man," owned 42 acres off Route 20. In 1961, Hopkins established Joe Hopkins Flea Market, now called Start-of-the-Mart. Lois Shelton, of Shelton Antique Shows, transformed her property, located across the street from Reid's place, into a makeshift parking lot in 1968 for Reid's overflow. By 1975, dealers were approaching Shelton, asking permission to set up booths on her lot. The once overlooked property lining Route 20 was soon acquired by local entrepreneurs hoping to cash in. Signs were posted on the fields adjacent to the highway advertising additional, less expensive rental space for dealers. Banking on the continued growth of Reid's show, Pam and Don Moriarty, promoters of Heart-o-the-Mart, bought an 11-acre plot on the strip. Heart-o-the-Mart's first show, in July 1982, drew six dealers; this spring the Moriartys were expecting 450 dealers, each of whom paid $260 for the space, for a total of $117,000.
Gordon Reid ran his Famous Flea Market until his death in 1974, when his wife and son took over for about a year. The market has since been renamed J&J Promotions Antiques and Collectibles Show, affectionately nicknamed "The Girls" by the dealers, in reference to owner-operators Judy Mathieu and Jill Lukesh, Reid's daughters. Today, J&J boasts 800 exhibitors, about 12 times the number that rented space for Famous Flea Market's premier show, and like its predecessor, consistently books shows.
For much of the J&J show, Judy Mathieu works in a barn next to the brown clapboard house where she lives. The barn and her house sit on the original field of the Auction Acres property, where her father held auctions before establishing his flea market. Minus the crowds and tents, the bucolic scene could appear on a postcard at Stu Bramble's booth. Like many show operators, Mathieu is a jack-of-all-trades, simultaneously directing traffic, ensuring security, solving last-minute problems and minding her grandchildren. Her workload is exacerbated by a lack of sleep--she goes to bed at 4 a.m., after checking in the dealers, and rises at 6 a.m. to open the gate for the public.
Back on the J&J field, a plastic Pez candy dispenser on sale for $32 is a reminder that society determines the value of objects. Nostal-gia sells. Kitsch also sells. And, of course, nostalgic kitsch sells. This may explain why a jelly jar/drinking glass from 1971 depicting a comic book based on a singing group called The Archies is displayed prominently at one booth. Or why there are several salt and pepper shaker booths at Brimfield. Browsing at Brimfield, you may stumble upon items you used as a child that are now considered antiques--not necessarily a pleasant feeling. It is easy to become a victim of nostalgia.
Nearby, two voluptuous ceramic breasts, one for salt and one for pepper, are part of a miniature mélange of weirdness. Alongside them sit other pairs of salt and pepper shakers: a personified fork and spoon dancing, a postman and a mailbox, a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, and ice cream cones. This booth is run by Steve Skorupski, from Plainville, Connecticut, a member of the National Salt and Pepper Club who has been collecting shakers for 15 years. "My wife and I collect [shakers from] Madison Wisconsin Ceramic Arts Studio," Skorupski says, lifting a pair off a shelf. His shakers range in price from $5 to more than $500. For his Popeye and Olive Oyl set he is asking $110; for the Donald Ducks his price tag reads $120. Skorupski describes how salt and pepper collectors subspecialize. "Blacks are very popular," he remarks, pointing to several pairs that are blatant caricatures: maids, cooks, a bellboy with two bags, Aunt Jemimas. Despite the conceivably insulting nature of these condiment vessels, antique African-American salt and pepper shakers are highly sought after by both black and white collectors.
At another booth, old military paraphernalia, medals, firearms, uniforms and trench art (objects created from shell casings and other material by soldiers during lulls in the fighting) attract several intense shoppers. A burly man with bushy dark hair and beard, huge tattooed forearms and a camouflage beret carries three swords, one with a dangling price tag. He inspects the display of military wares. According to one dealer, male collectors often seek what they wanted as boys--trains and guns--which may help explain why model railroading and gun collecting have long been popular in the United States. Sword collecting has also taken off, particularly since the late 1950s. Smashing weapons, which originated in medieval times and include such items as cudgels, flails and war hammers, may also appear on a weapon collector's wish list. Interestingly, many men who collect military relics have never served in the armed forces, the dealer says.
Dealers generally dislike publicizing their markups, which can be exorbitant, especially if their merchandise was acquired at garage or tag sales. Plus, it is self-defeating to educate the layman--often the dealer's wholesaler and customer--as to the market value of a discarded object. Fear of the Internal Revenue Service is another reason dealers avoid the subject of money.
Even if you have little interest in the fribble and furniture that abound here, Brimfield is fascinating for the chance to see haggling shoppers, conniving dealers and rummaging scavengers. On Satur-days and Sundays, another type is added to the mix: the amateur browsers and loiterers who wander from field to field, strolling down the market aisles and rousing the contempt of sellers. Dealers call them "consumers," "civilians," "lookers" and "retail." One dealer emphasizes that the word retail literally means "won't be resold." Another dealer gripes about the civilians' tendency to describe every stick of furniture their grandparents owned.
Lookers are generally searching for a bargain, which they have a better chance of finding at the end of a show, when the dealers are eager to unload. However, by this time the scope of merchandise is limited. Joseph Mayer, a department store retailer, spoke for many dealers when he wrote in 1939, "Regular patrons are the backbone of retailing--the bargain hunters are its spinal meningitis."
Late in the show, after most of the serious offers have been made, Arthur, a dealer from New Brunswick, New Jersey, sets down his newspaper to field questions from some lookers. Unbeknownst to them, they are testing his mettle. Bargaining is an art, and these civilians are novices. Admiring a French-style chair from the 1920s, they whine, "You can lower the price if you want to!"
"You can buy it if you want to!" Arthur retorts.
Upon hearing the exchange, a dealer across the aisle walks over and offers a simple solution for dealing with bargain hunters: "I give them my lowest price and I walk away from them."
"If a sofa is marked $300 and they ask me if I can do any better," says Arthur, "I say, 'Yeah, $375. That's better for me.'"
Moments later, another civilian approaches Arthur's booth. "Is this Steuben?" she asks. Arthur nods.
"IS THIS STEUBEN?" she repeats. She is loud and firm.
"Yes! I thought I said 'yes,' " Arthur responds testily.
"Well, I didn't hear you," she softens.
"My head doesn't make too much noise when I shake it," he says.
Two gold-capped bottom teeth bespeak Donn Antonia's expertise--precious metals and gemstones. Antonia is a jewelry dealer from Sheldon, Massachusetts, who has sold at Brimfield for 20 years. His five o'clock shadow is six hours early. A pair of lookers admire Donn's jewelry, commenting on a gold sailfish pin they especially like. Donn cries out, "Everything I sell is pretty! I am pretty!" The women then admire a diamond ring. "I worked like hell for that," he tells them. "Was singing in the street after that one." Behind each piece is a story. Donn rouses another loiterer who drifts past his booth: "I want your money! Whatever you have for money, I want! I know you're getting tired--it's the end of the week. But you've got to get rid of your money. You don't need it."
Most of the serious money at Brimfield is earned by selling to other dealers, usually within the first two hours of each show. Deal-ers expect this, and begin to unwind by late afternoon. Brimfield at night, with its RVs and Coleman lanterns, resembles a campground. Tarps are flung over piles of antiques to store them overnight. Buoyed with adrenaline that compensates for a lack of sleep, pockets stuffed with wads of $100 bills, the dealers' foremost thoughts are of food and drink. Several restaurants are popular, such as Rom's in Sturbridge and the Woodbine Coffee Shop on the Brimfield Common, where dealers talk about everything from Manhattan's 26th Street Flea Market to high-tech stereos.
For the dealers who stay afield, out come the coolers, the barbecue grills and the canned folk music. With many friendships formed from seasonal meetings at Brimfield, dealers party in circles. Some cluster in outdoor antique living rooms composed of unsold merchandise; under the stars, they resemble anachronistic stage sets. Others sit and smoke cigars in folding chairs or at portable picnic tables near their RVs. Wherever the dealers choose to rest, two things will pass--dealer stories and beer. Dealer stories are a mixture of bragging, gossip and downright lies. Brimfield comes alive in these raw, slang-filled tales. Mainly, the dealers gloat about their best sales or fume about impossible customers. Rumors circulate about the other antiques shows in town and about Brimfield itself. Which show has the best rush? Which show is the most lucrative? Which promoters are most sympathetic to dealers? Finally, the dealers share their expertise.
Brimfield is a spectacle, but one where the interaction between merchant and customer is direct and less predictable, the goods finite, the transactions in cash and the language inventive. Drained, the dealers anticipate packing up and heading home. Many will sleep in their trucks on the market grounds. Night falls and the pace slows. For a few hours the fields become still, a reminder that you are in a dark, wooded valley.
Melissa Milgrom has written for Travel & Leisure and other national magazines. Bargaining: The Bottom Bottom
Once you get the hang of it, haggling for a deal is the fun part of the flea market experience. So don't be shy. Dealers aren't called dealers for nothing. Just remember they've heard every line before, so hold back before you tell them what's in grandma's attic, and don't rattle on about what an item cost in 1973. Try to stick to the straightforward approach. Here are some tips:
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