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A Field Guide to Flea Markets

Martha Stewart Living, May 2004

So much stuff, so little time. If you frequently find yourself facing this quandary, you just might be a flea market junkie -- or one in the making. Lucky for you, the shopping season has begun. On any weekend morning from now through fall, dealers will be unloading and setting up their wares on grassy plots and in parking lots across the country. Furniture and Fiesta ware, clocks and clothing, dishes and oh-so-many doodads...who knows what the day will bring?

Still, picking through the pile can be daunting if you're unprepared. Our collecting editorial director, Fritz Karch, and two colleagues, Rebecca Robertson and Brian Harter Andriola, have amassed hundreds of hours on the hunt for treasures -- in fact, it's part of their job descriptions. Here, they share some secrets with you.

A Smart Way to Shop
"You can get high-quality goods that cannot be found on the open market anymore, for prices within reach," Fritz says. Often, the objects offered -- a solid-mahogany door, a cut-glass vase, an intricately embroidered tablecloth -- have been made the old-fashioned way, with superior materials, craftsmanship, and design. These wonderful leftovers from another era can lead a new life in your home. The challenge is to be discriminating; otherwise, you will simply end up toting home yet another lamp or chair you don't need.

The best strategy is to think about your desires before you go. Maybe you're after something specific: a long bench for the entryway or a mirror for the bathroom. Or perhaps you have more general requirements: splashes of color for the living room or objects to hang on the walls. Either way, keep a running list, and check off what you find as you go. But don't restrict yourself. "Be open-minded. Don't go out thinking about one thing you have to find -- you'll miss the best stuff," Fritz says. Consider what you're willing to spend overall on a shopping excursion, or set price limits for particular items. Sometimes it also helps to do a style assessment so you can narrow your focus. Do you obsess over Shaker-style furniture, or are you into Art Deco?

Starting a Collection
For a collector, there's nothing like the thrill of spotting a sought-after piece. Your collection might begin with a family heirloom (such as your grandfather's fountain pen). Or you might focus on something you'll use often (ironstone serving pieces or monogrammed napkins, for example) or that you'll want to put on display (such as first-edition novels or themed salt and pepper shakers). Try to be somewhat practical. "Pick something you love within your price range," says Rebecca, who collects vintage compacts, which rarely cost more than $20.

Consider your space constraints -- does your kitchen have room for dozens of cake stands? And before you start buying, ask yourself if you want to create a sizeable collection quickly (choose an item that's easy to find), or if the hunt is what excites you (go for something more elusive). Browse online auctions and talk to dealers to learn about objects that interest you.

Get Ready, Get Set...
"Be armed with facts," Fritz says. Few things are more frustrating than finding the perfect bookcase for an empty corner and coming home to discover it doesn't fit. So do your homework: Take measurements of all the places in your home where you might put new acquisitions. Jot these down in a notebook to take with you.

If you're hoping to come home with furniture and you don't own a truck or minivan, it may be worth renting one. Or if you live nearby, you may be in luck -- vendors will often deliver. With urban flea markets, this is a good way to go, especially if you arrive on foot.

"Remember," Fritz says, "this is not a regular store. It's a do-it-yourself experience." Your objective? To make wise buys and get everything home in one piece. Put together some supplies to carry with you or keep in the car. You might bring a measuring tape, a magnifying glass for close examination, packing materials (shopping bags, newspaper, bubble wrap, a packing blanket), supplies for strapping items to the car (rope, bungee cords), and a screwdriver (for removing unwieldy table legs so you can get the piece into the car). A collapsible shopping cart for transporting items from booth to car can come in handy, too.

One important rule: Always carry cash. "There are rarely ATMs on the field," Brian says. Few merchants will accept credit cards or checks, with the exception of traveler's checks. Bring plenty of small bills, so making change is easy. Also take a snack and some bottled water, wear comfortable shoes and clothing, and don't forget a tote bag for your supplies and small finds.

...Go! But When?
In general, the earlier you arrive, the greater the selection. The later you go, the greater the bargain. The shopping day may start before the sun comes up (as early as 5 o'clock for the most competitive markets), when vendors unload and dedicated collectors rush in. Merchants are less inclined to negotiate now. Furniture sells first, so go early if that's what you are seeking. By midmorning (around 9 o'clock), everything is unpacked, the energy picks up, and the bargaining begins. Toward the end of the shopping day, usually noon to 3 o'clock, things slow down and vendors start packing up. "This is when the surrender happens," Fritz says. Dealers may not want to bring everything home with them, so you're bound to get a good price.

Bargaining 101
As you wander through the market, don't rush. "Take another look around," Rebecca says. "Peek in, under, and behind things." If an item is not in perfect condition, think about how much effort you're willing to put into it. A lamp missing a shade is easy to fix, but a carpet that needs to be re-bound is an involved (and expensive) job. Exercise more caution with big items -- you can always make room at home for a trinket. But don't be too cautious. "Buy what you like when you see it," Fritz says. "Don't wait until the end -- it might not be there."

As for bargaining, good manners make for good negotiating. When you walk up to a table, say hello and be friendly. Never ask, "What's your best price?" (You're setting yourself up for the reply, "Best for whom?") Instead, ask, "Would you consider less?" In general, expect 5 percent to 10 percent to be taken off, but don't push it. Dealers are there to make a profit. You may insult them if you haggle for that extra dollar off. A good tactic is to play hard to get, even if you are smitten with something. If it's evident that you're excited, the dealer will think you'll buy the item at any cost. "Sometimes it even works in your favor to walk away," Brian says. "The vendor might call you back to close the deal."

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