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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 3)

A man dressed in hooded rain gear methodically shines his flashlight, scoping tent after tent. Without hesitation he signals his base on a walkie-talkie, "No. Nothing here." He moves on. His actions are repeated by other scavengers; the most well-prepared have strapped coal miner flashlights to their foreheads, freeing their hands to forage.

At 5:45 a.m. the rain lets up long enough to allow a prowler to peek into the back of a paneled truck and make a secret purchase. Soon, the field is overrun with flocks of people in yellow raincoats who briskly rummage through piles of dusty goods.

"Nothing?"

"Let's go."

"C'mon. Make up your mind. The road's down here."

Frantically, a man runs from person to person demanding, "Anything military?"

"No."

"Anything military?"

"No."

"Anything military?"

"Any Japanese swords?" a woman begs, sounding like a 33-rpm record played on 78. She evaporates in a flash, but her echo, "Any Japanese swords? Any Japanese swords?" can be heard above the clatter, as she darts down the road.

"Fireman items?"

Nothing.

"Any Bliss dolls? Bliz dolls? Bliz dolls?" a woman with a German accent asks.

Nein.

"Lunch boxes? Lunch boxes? Anybody have lunch boxes?"

"Sorry, not here."

Finally, a man sights a late-Victorian cast-iron buffalo head, quite possibly cast by Alexander Calder's father, Alexander Calder. "This is totally out of my area," he says with a sigh, "but it is lovely."

Three times each year, tens of thousands of people from all over the world cram onto a one-mile strip of highway in the farmlands of central Mas-sachusetts. This highway pilgrimage is not based on spirituality; it is based on pure, unadulterated materialism. A quest for stuff, objects, things. Most antiques collectors know that Brimfield, Massachusetts, is home to the largest collection of outdoor antiques and collectibles shows in the United States. The elaborate recycling of wares that takes place at Brimfield is intense, especially among the dealers.

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.

Felix Farenga, who used to rent a booth at J&J Promotions Antiques and Collectibles Show, is a case in point. "It happened so fast," Farenga says. "There were three people behind me that wanted these columns. If I didn't buy them, they would. So I bought them for $400 and sold them to the lady that was right behind me for $700. Later I see this guy carrying these columns. And I go, 'Oh shit! There's those columns--the lady sold 'em!' And she said, 'No. They're going back to Belgium. That's my husband carrying them.'"

The ever-changing consumer market determines the value of antiques. Nevertheless, it is still advantageous for dealers, much like archaeologists, to inspect the item for artist or manufacture markings, determine the quality of craftsmanship and materials used, and try to date the piece. With this in mind, it may seem odd that Farenga sold the columns before finding out their worth. Perhaps they were rare or valuable?

"I didn't want to carry them around," he says bluntly.

Pickers are another link in the antiques food chain. Selling to dealers rather than to the public, pickers have low overhead, perhaps only a van and some cash. Some pickers arrive at Brimfield with nothing but pockets full of cash, buy all their merchandise there, sell it later in the week and return home with nothing but pockets full of even more cash. One dealer sold the remains of his entire booth ("a nice portion, about 15 banana boxes' worth of stuff") to a picker for $6,000. Before the picker could resell the merchandise, he had to ask the dealer to help price items.

Rug dealers are the worst," a furniture dealer says to Ted, a rug dealer who comes to Brimfield from Pennsylvania. "Yeah, rug dealers are the sleaziest," Ted adds in agreement. "They'll dicker you and dicker you for an hour for $10 off of a $5,000 rug. And then you better watch what they write on the check." Without skipping a beat, Ted scans a rug another dealer parades before him, buys it and continues: "One rug dealer I know will promise someone $7,000 on the phone so that they won't sell a rug. When he gets there he'll point out the 'defects' and buy it for less. But he'll be the one who buys it!"

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."


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