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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 5)

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.

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