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Bargaining the Brimfield Way

Behind The Scenes at Brimfield, The Largest Outdoor Antiques and Collectibles Market in the United States
Melissa Milgrom
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

(continued from page 2)

Located near the Connecticut border, Brimfield is a sleepy New England town of 3,000 residents that was founded in 1731, the year before George Washington was born. The community is bordered by Sturbridge, which is home to the touristy Old Sturbridge Village, a re-creation of an 1830s agricultural town. Brimfield's 35 square miles are situated in an open valley surrounded by wooded hills and apple orchards, near the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. The center of this agrarian town is the Common, a compact business district complete with a pristine white church. But it is this booth-filled thoroughfare that lures buyers and dealers of antiques worldwide.

Brimfield's population escalates dramatically when the more than 4,000 dealers and tens of thousands of buyers pile into town. They swarm to the segment of Route 20 that is lined with 22 privately owned and operated antiques and collectibles flea markets, also called shows. Local residents go to sleep in a village and wake up in a tented metropolis. Trucks filled to capacity clog the dual-lane highway. Hundreds of tents and tarps are pitched. A carnival of food stands miraculously appears. Hoards of rummaging tourists, from serious collectors to browsers, crowd the streets. The scene resembles a gigantic traveling circus.

Part of the excitement of Brimfield is that anything can turn up at any time. Naturally, this attracts a type of shopper with a tend-ency toward addiction--the collector. And whatever it is, you can find it at Brimfield: Shaker quilts, Persian rugs, Little Red Riding Hood objects, muskets, typewriters, baseball cards, passenger ship relics, penguin-motif anything, Stickley rockers, presidential memorabilia, jar heads, World's Fair souvenirs, toy trains, sterling flatware, cowboy kitsch and everything else imaginable that is antique or collectible.

People collect everything these days, and one person's junk is another person's reason to exist. Marc Gup, an artist from Portland, Maine, travels to Brimfield annually to buy cracked ceramics and dinnerware. Gup's business is MEMO, Maine Mosaics, where he turns ceramic and china scraps into mosaic designs. Printed on his business card: ALWAYS BUYING BROKEN, CHIPPED, CRACKED DINNERWARE, AND CERAMIC GOODS. Felix Farenga, an antiques dealer from North Plainfield, New Jersey, is thrilled to unload what he thought was worthless--two chipped Fiesta plates. The men exchange addresses and a business relationship has begun.

A New Zealand native, pulling a red toy wagon, buys old leather saddles to send back home. Two leather-clad men from Hagen, Germany, purchase a Russian candelabra circa 1890; they bargain with traveler's checks. Several European dealers and collectors are Brimfield regulars who, with the help of a favorable exchange rate, recover European antiques that Americans obtained in more prosperous times. Money is the universal language.

Brimfield's rural setting is reflected in the show names: Cheney Apple Barn, Central Park, Green Acres, Brimfield Acres North. Other shows use the word antique in their titles, such as May's Antique Market. The name Mahogany Ridge strikes a balance between nature and furniture, while Heart-o-the-Mart and Start-of-the-Mart reflect their locations on the highway. The flea markets accommodate as few as five dealers and as many as 800, who rent stands by the day or week. Most of the show promoters are also the landowners and live on site, enhancing the events' regional New England feel. Only a few promoters live out of state.

Shrewdly, the shows' opening days and times are staggered within a six-day period, so that anticipation builds for each show. This July 8, for example, Brimfield Acres North will open two hours after Dealers' Choice across the street. This is not coincidental, but prearranged so dealers can buy and sell at several shows.

Though the dealers with rented spaces arrive at the shows before the general public, they are often prohibited by house rules from setting up, buying or selling until the shows officially open. Despite stipulations, thousands of dollars will trade hands. This inter-flea market buying and selling is done by the dealers themselves--something akin to insider trading. Well before sunrise, the dealers are busy checking out one another's merchandise. Records are nebulous, as most transactions are in cash.

The staggered show openings produce a wave of "rushes" throughout the week--dealer slang for the adrenaline thrill at the start of each show: the gates open, the masses charge and an antiques frenzy begins--officially, that is. Brimfield's energy peaks during a rush. Once in motion, the fast-talking dealers dash from booth to booth belting out variations of the same question: "Anything Mission?" "Any Tiffany?" "Any lunch boxes?" In addition to yelling, some dealers wear T-shirts that state what objects they want to buy. Dealers are compulsive strategists who come armed for battle with walkie-talkies, cell phones, flashlights and heads full of esoteric knowledge about obscure objects. If all else fails, their pockets are stuffed with rolls of cash. Dealers report that May's Antique Market has the best rush in town, although Heart-o-the-Mart's rush is also impressive. This summer, the first seven shows open to the public on July 8, at daybreak.

Prices are seldom fixed at Brimfield, fluctuating like stock market shares. Some dealers omit price tags entirely, enabling them to feel out what a customer is willing to spend. Other dealers discover that an item they just sold is marked up and on display at another dealer's booth. One story that emerges yearly begins with a dealer who claims to have made a purchase, a painting for $2, say, and then sold it for $100. That same $100 painting is picked up by another buyer who sells it for $500. Later in the week, the painting resurfaces on another field for $1,000, until ultimately it fetches $20,000. The same painting has traveled all around Brimfield. Or so the story goes.

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