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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 4)

"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.

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