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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.
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 fall 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.
You 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.
Rocky 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 guantees 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.
Left, 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.
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.
Our 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.
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.
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.
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 too 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.
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.
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).
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!