Shopping Guide

20 Tips for Smart Antiquing (Or: How to Find Deals & Stay Sane at Brimfield)

May  3, 2017

It's back! Come join us at the Brimfield Antique Show, starting Tuesday, May 9 and running through Sunday, May 14. We're setting up a big tent to show off some of our favorite Shop goodies, plus a cushy lounge and lawn games galore. Find out more here and read on for some Brimfield pro tips.

When our Art Director and resident style maven Alexis Anthony asked me if I wanted to join her and her family (Rocky and their toddler Oliver) on a trip to Brimfield, a little town in Massachusetts that hosts the mother of all antique markets in the northeast (which is, increasingly, a must-stop shop for vintage-loving Brooklynites), I accepted before she could finish the sentence.

Alexis Anthony Art Director at Food52

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The Brimfield Antique Show (bonus tip: Just call it "Brimfield") is the most famous treasure trove for deal-shoppers and junk-lovers in driving distance of New York City, and it only happens a few times a year. I made that trip with Alexis nearly two years ago—and now we're going again! 

Next Tuesday marks opening day for the spring show, and it runs through Sunday. We'll be there, at the Food52 Lawn Party! So make your plans and hit the road to come see us.   

A Guide to Shopping at Brimfield like a Pro Food52You will want to immediately buy all the pretty things, but have patience.

During show time, Brimfield's population balloons from a quaint 3,000 residents to over 250,000 visitors and takes over the lots and side roads along a half-mile main drag—it's larger than life, with the personality of a massive county fair. It sounds overwhelming—and I admit that we were a little intimidated ourselves—but it doesn't have to be. If you're thinking about heading there next week, or if you're spontaneous enough to just wake up early and go, these are Alexis' tips for a smooth, successful antiquing trip, with spoils you'll be proud to tote home:

1. Make a list. Before you even hit the road, take a look at your home and make a list of what you "need," in the most forgiving sense of that word (because I really needed a rolling metal pushcart, didn't I?). Empty space on the wall? Stained rug? Not enough shelving? Spoons you wish were cuter? Write these things down, along with measurements for furniture needs. 

The Brimfield Antique Show, a Guide from Food52Rocky on stroller cart duty, while young Oliver wonders what happened to his chariot.

2. Pack smart. We suggest snacks and coffee, a measuring tape, paper and pencil, shopping bags of all sizes, more water than you think you could ever drink, sunscreen and well-soled shoes, baby wipes for cleaning dusty hands (adult and child), a camera that's not your phone, plus a grocery cart or wagon if you have it—though a stroller will do the trick in a pinch, and a toddler in tow almost guarantees better deals. (Could you say no to young Oliver, here? Didn't think so.) A small cooler of beers wouldn't be a bad idea, since you will really want one after a full day in the sun, and having it will hopefully prevent you from buying a heavy, adorable vintage cooler that you do not need or have room for "just because." (Who, me?)

3. Read the map. Most sprawling markets offer maps online, so you can study the lay of the land before you start wandering. Do as we did not do and take a look before you get there to get a feel for how big the market actually is; that way you won't spend half your day in a tiny section thinking it's, ahem, the whole place. Explore organically once you're on the ground—it's a great chance to be liberated from your GPS—and simply keep moving when you feel uninspired because there's always more to see.

Alexis and Oliver at Brimfield  Brimfield Stacks of Shelves Food52Left, Oliver shows Alexis where some treasures are hiding; right, a stack of crates brimming with wooden molds where Oliver and I played in the dirt for an hour.

4. Go early, and stay for a while. When I say Brimfield is huge, I mean it's more reminiscent of a sprawling music festival than anything the diminutive term "flea market" could ever imply. Founded in the 1950s, the show hosts thousands of dealers (thousands!) and the inventory is restocked as the week goes on—so make your excursion worth it. We left NYC around 6 A.M. for the 3-hour drive, but if you're going on a weekend when it's really slammed, far earlier is better (sleep is for your next life). And if you have the time or money, stay the night nearby and go back for a second day; the traffic in and out of this tiny town can be slugglish, and you won't regret being that much closer. It's said that nearby rooms get booked years in advance, however, so just keep checking back for cancellations.

5. Take friends. If for no other reason than to help you carry a giant barn door back to the car (or, I don't know, for company and exponentially more fun on a road trip?), take at least one teammate. Three adults and one toddler proved a very balanced team.

The Brimfield Antique Show, a Guide from Food52
Easy-to-spot Alexis in a white dress with Rocky, who's modeling less strategic colors of old wood-brown and pavement-blue.

6. Wear loud (enough) clothes. On the weekends, when I've heard that people wear outfits better fit for Coachella, this means costumes. On the weekdays, when it's (slightly) quieter, this means whatever guarantees you don't lose your people. There isn't great cell service in this otherwise sleepy small town, and if you forget your walkie-talkies, you'll be searching for your friends as often as antiques. Alexis wore a white dress, which no one in her right mind would ever don to a market in a giant field of dirt, but it made her very easy to spot since it was the least reasonable outfit for the event. 

7. Bring a van no matter what you're shopping for. Nothing would be worse than driving 3 hours to Brimfield at 6 A.M., searching all day in the sun and dirt, and then having to leave that one-of-a-kind, oh-so-perfect, sensibly-priced farm table behind because it's too big to strap on the roof of the sedan. Our big white van fit our whole troupe, including a car seat, comfortably, with room for half a dozen "surfaces" (that's insider speak for those barn wood planks, tabletops without legs, and old doors we shoot all our food photography on) that we plucked from the rubble to take home. 

A Guide to the Brimfield Antiques Show Food52Our trusty unmarked white van was packed to the brim with old doors by the time we left for Brooklyn. 

8. Park as close to the middle of the main drag as possible. You're probably going to have to drive through the market (and traffic) to pick up some of your treasures at the end of the day, but a central location makes this as easy as possible to do efficiently. Snag a place on one of the little side roads the fan off the main route, being sure to pay the $5 to $10 that it costs so you don't get towed!

9. Take a learning lap. You'll want to buy the first (and second, and third) endearingly wobbly wooden chair you see for fear that there's not another like it, but remember how vast this place is. We noticed that vendors who were on the periphery had scored prime retail placement, as less driven customers might just buy without going into the market's depths to find a better price; the lesson here is that some of the best deals are harder to get to. Try to take a lap around the whole place (yep) before buying, and then work your way back. Some vendors swap out inventory over time, and our second look around yielded far more treasures than the first. 

A Guide to Brimfield Antiques and Cast Iron, Food52

10. Use what you know and what you see to become a smarter shopper. If you're looking for quality vintage cast iron but haven't a clue what it should cost, read the prices at a few booths that stock it, and think what you buy a new one for—boom, you're suddenly educated on what's a deal and what's not. Find a price in the middle, a brand you've heard of, a selection that looks well-restored, or a merchant you like. 

A similar learning is that when you know something's overpriced, you can bet the other items at that booth probably are, too—but that rule has exceptions: If you fall in love with something hard, sometimes having it means paying whatever the price.

11. Eat. Hydrate. Repeat. Hydrate. You will get excited, you will go from booth to booth to field to tent to booth in awe of all the treasures to be had, you will haggle over them in the blazing sun, you will make friends, and you will forget you are human. If you don't hydrate every hour on the hour, you will also wilt like a summer tulip. If you don't eat, you will miss out on some of the best fried foods in this blessed country.

Fried Clam Roll  Fried Fish Sandwich
Left, Alexis' fried clam roll was set in split Wonder bread; right, its cousin, my fried fish sandwich, was made-to-order and slathered with tangy mayo.

12. Don't buy from the cute stores. In Alexis' brilliant words, "Take inspiration from well-styled booths, but buy from the junky ones." You'll start to see the difference right away, as some vendor tents look like your dream apartment in Brooklyn (and they probably have a fancy shop there), whereas others look like heaps made by hoarders. Remember: You're less likely to find a deal when someone has been paid to style the things you're buying. The glory of a big flea like this is that treasure hunting literally pays off.

13. Ask for mass appraisals. Instead of asking for the price of every bowl, painting, or wooden slab you see, first amass a little pile of the things you want (certain shops will speak to your style, so this often happens naturally) and ask the vendor what "all this" would cost. In our experience, vendors will gladly cut deals to their good customers. 

A Guide to Antiquing at Brimfield, Food52  The Brimfield Antiques Show, a Guide by Food52
Shops run the gamut in size, style, and price range—which is a good reason to roam before purchasing.

14. There's no harm in asking. Just because something seems too good to be true, or completely lovely but probably out of your price range, doesn't mean it is. Don't be afraid to ask a price! At what seemed like the most high-end booth in the whole market, we found a lovely wooden surface for a low price—if we hadn't asked, we'd have left without it. And if it ends up being exorbitant, now you can leave it behind in peace. Don't set yourself up for regret on the way home!

15. Don't haggle if it's the right price. Bargaining for a better price is a normal, expected, and welcome practice at a place like Brimfield, where getting rid of things (and amassing them) is the name of the game. But if your jaw drops when they tell you how much (in a good way), first be sure there's not a catch, and then give them what they're asking. This old door?, a woman gestured when we asked about it hopefully. Paint peeled from both sides in two spectacular color schemes. How about $50? My heart skipped, and like a real jerk I shot back—$40? She came to $45, and I gloated about it all the way home, more than a little guiltily. Take the deal when it's handed to you; these are the good people and karma is a thing.

Cool Chair at Brimfield by Food52  A Guide to Brimfield Antiques by Food52
Left, a well-priced chair; right, a tabletop we saved from a fate of glossy shellac by buying it without the legs, because you don't need them for photoshoots.

16. Hydrate again. The reason you don't know where the restrooms are is because you haven't yet used them, even after a full day of guzzling water. Some of the fancier booths will give bottled water away for free; seek those out or buy it on any corner for a dollar. 

17. Bundle your purchases for pickup. We shopped all day but left our purchases with "Sold!" signs on them at our favorite vendors, and then made a big sweep with the van at the end of the day to pick everything up. Making trips back and forth to the car is not a good use of your time—just do it once at the end.

18. Ask the vendors. It's true that keeping your thoughts to yourself is often a smart shopping tactic. But when you're looking for something specific—say, large furniture, an old door off the hinges, certain types of rugs, or neon signs—and come across something that's close but not quite it, don't be too shy to ask for directions. Merchants often know each other, or at the very least know about the other merchants, and can tell you which way to explore far better than a map can.

A Guide to Navigating Brimfield Like a Pro by Food52
I'll be pining after this laundry rack my whole life (regrets).

19. Frustrated? Buy something. We spent a lot of time in an early rut, looking and looking but not feeling excited about what we saw. Then we wandered to a far grassy field and Alexis spotted an old wooden chair, peeling chartreuse paint to show a grey driftwood-like construction. We picked it up for just $30 without a second thought, and from that moment on the treasures began cropping up where we hadn't seen them before.

20. Carry the chairs you buy for taking breaks. When you need it, and even when you don't, take that chair off your shoulder and plop down in it. Instant relief (and gratification). 

A Guide to Antiquing at Brimfield by Food52  A Guide to Antiquing at Brimfield by Food52
The caravan expands: left, my metal cart full of Alexis' new collection of wooden molds and right, our trusty chairs (and chariot).

First and fourth photos by Rocky Luten; all others by Amanda Sims

This article originally ran in May of 2015; we updated it and brought it back because the Food52 Lawn Party at Brimfield opens next Tuesday—and we want to see you there!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Madelaine Linebarger
    Madelaine Linebarger
  • cynthia
  • Dennis
  • liz andrew
    liz andrew
  • Lauren Kelley
    Lauren Kelley
Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

Professional trespasser.


Madelaine L. June 26, 2015
I find it's way too hot in July, but far less crowded, if you don't mind the heat, sun and humidity. I prefer the September show. The weather is typically pretty good. My advice is, go with a budget and cash! Do not start using credit cards or debit cards. It is so easy to overspend. Make that list! But if you find something that is absolutely perfect, and is not on your list, decide what your're going to leave without. Remember, there is always another show and the thrill is in the hunt!
cynthia May 16, 2015
was there yesterday and think you pretty much hit everything...especially the tip about buying something! as soon as we made one purchase we started seeing things differently - kinda more in focus. one think i might add - i take a small backpack for my tape measure , magnifing glass and cash. that way my hands are free and i have a place to stash small purchases. been going to brimfield for years and have seen anything even close to it! one regret...not buying the tee shirt - brim field of dreams 2015!
Dennis May 15, 2015
What is the item in the bottom left photo, on top of the cart with the red posts? It's cool.
Amanda S. May 15, 2015
That's a great question and I'm not positive of the answer. It might also be a mold of some sort, but we're thinking of it as a sculpture.
liz A. May 14, 2015
alexis you are beautiful.
Sarah J. May 14, 2015
Amanda S. May 15, 2015
Very few people look presentable after a full day in the sun and dirt, and almost none look lovely... so amen x10.
Kenzi W. May 15, 2015
x 100
Lauren K. May 14, 2015
I was so excited about this post that I just read nearly every last word of this post out loud to my boyfriend. He's such a trooper (which means we'll be going to this, together, next time).
Amanda S. May 15, 2015
See you there!
Joanne S. May 14, 2015

Great job of truly reporting the Flea Market. I live in Brimfield and the next time,
Alexis, you and your family and friends visit the Market, let us know and stay overnight with us........we have plenty of room and would love to meet all of you and see and hear about your exciting purchases.
thefolia May 14, 2015
A pop-up fun! Great tips, I always go with intent on buying items I would like to see in my nest and I always find it! Amazing how when I throw it out there into the universe, it appears at the la flea!
kzmccaff May 14, 2015
I'm going tomorrow! Never been, so excited :)
Midge May 14, 2015
I've always regretted not going to Brimfield when I lived in the Northeast, so I was glad to go vicariously through you!
AlegriaCollection May 14, 2015
Oh, SO jealous of Alexis!! Looks like such fun!! I'll have to put Brimfield on my calendar.
Leslie S. May 14, 2015
The laundry rack!!! Such a great article! And that first photo of Alexis! Beautiful!
Mortmer May 14, 2015
Get there as early in the day as humanly possible. The dealers get up earlier and make deals with each other and this is how a lot of stuff moves around (I've seen the same thing move between 4 booths over the course of the week). For the best deals go on the last day since the dealers would rather sell something cheaply (usually) than pack it up and take it back home.
Mortmer May 14, 2015
Get there as early in the day as humanly possible. The dealers get up earlier and make deals with each other and this is how a lot of stuff moves around (I've seen the same thing move between 4 booths over the course of the week). For the best deals go on the last day since the dealers would rather sell something cheaply (usually) than pack it up and take it back home.
Amanda S. May 14, 2015
Such great tips, especially about being there at the end!
Sarah J. May 14, 2015
I need to find a way to get there on Sunday!
Lindsay-Jean H. May 14, 2015
That laundry rack! Tell me it was crazy expensive so I don't have to pine after it, too.
Amanda S. May 14, 2015
$125, which was more cash than I allotted myself for the day! But the picture was free :)