Marketplace · The Good Life

Flea Rules

Sunday morning, 10 a.m. at The Elephant’s Trunk flea market. On my way out, I spotted this teapot in a jumble of naked baby dolls, chipped dishes, and faded plastic flowers. The beat-up Ford Escort behind the folding table was crammed with wretched cardboard boxes stuffed with more loot, ready for a quick getaway.

My heart stopped. Could it be?

I turned the teapot over carefully. The frowsy redheaded woman leaning against the Escort called “Eight bucks!” Glittery cat eyes on her stained sweatshirt winked.

And there it was, the hallmark. I held a 1940s Hall teapot, excellent condition. A similar one enjoyed prime shelf space in my home. Her path to me had been a different one, with careful polish by the antique dealer, thoroughly vetted with a calligraphed card, and nestled in a pink box lined with purple tissue paper.

When I got home, I researched the teapot. Its market value hovered around $40. I felt so guilty at paying so little that I searched for the seller in later visits to offer her more money. She was never there. I must have blundered into her one desperate day at the flea market.

Another time at the flea market, I found a long-out-of-print book of Bob Dylan’s song lyrics. That pink-covered book got me through the slights and miseries of high school. I checked it out of the library again and again — I practically owned it. I happily paid a reasonable price for a book that cannot be found for sale anywhere else.

One of my favorite finds is a small silver-plated bowl bought for $5 in a tired market in an obscure town. I’d held out $5 to my friend for coffee and a doughnut, holding the bowl stickered $10 in my other hand. The dealer strode up to me and declared “Sold!” Stunned, I handed him the $5. My friend and I left, drank coffee and enjoyed doughnuts, admiring the bowl destined to join other silver-plated beauties in my home.

Flea market rules that work for me:

  • Know what you like — don’t be seduced by shiny, bright objects that have no place in your home or your life. Be willing to be charmed, to be moved, to reminisce.
  • Arrive early — and leave early. The best dealers typically arrive first thing — and that’s when you’ll find the best goods. Please note that not all dealers are early birds — I have seen wonderful goods arrive well into the day with a slow-moving, gently-smiling dealer toting a huge mug of coffee.
  • Know your limits. What can you carry or tote? What are you willing to do to own that heavy ceramic vase that will look great beside the front door? I’ve seen shoppers drag wagons behind them, flimsy shopping carts, and hoist kids on their hips to fill strollers with must-have goods. I carry an expandable tote.
  • Be ready to be outside — unless it’s an indoor flea market. Wear sunscreen. Wear comfortable shoes — ones that you don’t mind getting dirty if you’re going to be out in a field like I was. Wear sunglasses. Carry an umbrella.
  • Keep an eye on your belongings. A moment’s gasp in picking up a china doll meant that I lost the wicker purse I’d just bought.
  • Know what you’re willing to pay. Don’t go too far in the excitement of the chase. Start low, negotiate to your limit and go no further. You lived up until now without that amazing object and you’ll live just fine without it. You can always smile, say it’s your final offer, and see what happens.
  • Be willing to walk away in staying true to yourself — but know that your precious find may leave with another buyer. (See the next rule.)
  • Be willing to go back and look again. Let a discovery marinate in your mind and heart. If it’s meant to be yours, it will be there when you get back. If not, so be it. Talk with the dealer if you’re genuinely heartbroken — possibly they have a website or retail location or another way to get you what you’re looking for.
  • Know what you’re paying for. Most goods at a flea market are not incredible finds like my teapot. If you can, go with someone who is an expert (or ask them to source specific goods for you through their own channels). If your innocent question is met with sidelong glances and the object is prominently featured among indifferent goods, be very careful.
  • Appreciate the seller. Arranging for the space and managing it is hard work. Respect what they have to offer — if nothing else, offer a smile and keep on walking. Many sellers love telling their stories — I once met a seller whose pretty goods were featured in Vogue and then sold in high-end stores — this ambitious young woman crafted one-of-a-kind beauties in her mother’s basement when she ran out of money for college and had to drop out and move back home.
  • Treasure your finds and be willing to let them go. I love my teapots, thrill to read the Dylan lyrics, and polish my silver with happy pleasure. I have also enjoyed pottery that I have donated to charity tag sales and gifted others with things I no longer enjoy.

Many times, I leave the flea market empty handed. Other times, my heart sings with wondrous finds. That’s the nature of the flea market, wheelers and dealers with evasive maneuvers and once in a lifetime finds. Be ready to find wonders or to walk stunned and bored past sad, cheap horrors. Keep an open mind, a friendly smile, and optimistic attitude.

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