© 2022 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Bargains, Bartering, and Flea-cing

When I was growing up, my family used to scour antique stores and flea markets, looking for old musical instruments, daguerreotypes, and rare books, among other things. On summer vacations, we traced a route from Ipswich, through Essex, to Gloucester, stopping at shops and roadside stands along the way. "Antiquing" was part of our parlance.

Before eBay, it was still possible to find curios at bargain prices. "One man's junk is another man's treasure." My parents were confident that they would stumble upon that precious image, forgotten for decades; that good ol' Gibson, in mint condition, never played. Sure enough, they found those things, and they bartered as best they could for them. It was hit or miss, of course. On some afternoons, they wouldn't find anything. On others, they couldn't find enough room in our Plymouth Grand Voyager to store it all. Collecting, they say, is a lot like fishing or hunting game.

My dad and a few friends used to swap stories about the Brimfield Antique and Collectibles Show, one of the largest flea markets in the United States. Three times each year, Brimfield, Mass., which claims only 3,000 residents, is overrun. As many as 250,000 visitors travel to the town. Several vast farm fields are filled with vendors, hawking all kinds of knickknacks. Before the show opens, early in the morning, hundreds of dedicated collectors line up, wearing headlamps, carrying flashlights, to get a first look at what is for sale. This is antiquing at its purest, perhaps at its most primitive.

Did the advent of eBay, more than a decade ago, ruin collecting? No. But it certainly changed it. Suddenly, everyone knew what was out there, who had what. Bargains disappeared. Who knew that your old LP's were worth so much, that your childhood toys could fetch a small fortune?

This weekend, I pored over Guy Trebay's piece on the opening of the Brooklyn Flea, "Scavengers on the Urban Savannah." "By the wholly unscientific estimate of the event's organizers," he wrote, some 20,000 New Yorkers traveled to Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, to trade in plus-size vintage clothing, Navajo concha belts, and "the trove of erotic Polaroids the critic and curator Vince Aletti once found heaped in a stall on 25th Street, bought for 50 cents a piece and then included in his recent and glowingly reviewed 'Male' exhibit at the White Columns gallery."

It is good to know that some collectors, in a few small corners of the United States (Brooklyn and Brimfield, at least), hawk clothes, crafts, and crap in person, under bright-blue tarps, on tailgates and flimsy card tables, in person.

If you haven't read Trebay's article, you should. And make sure you look at the photographs that accompany the article. Incredible!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.