Flea Markets | New England’s Gifts

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Though historians trace American flea markets to Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas, in 1873, the modern flea market as we know it is considered the brainchild of Russell Carrell, an East Coast antiques-show organizer. Working as an auctioneer in Connecticut (and inspired by the outdoor markets he’d seen in Paris), Carrell decided to try running an antiques show like an outdoor auction. He did away with the trappings of a tent, because, in thrifty Yankee style, he didn’t want to pay for the fire insurance. On a late-summer Saturday in 1958, he set up his first market behind his home in Salisbury. He called it “Antiques in a Cow Pasture,” and it came to attract nearly 200 dealers at each annual event. The name “flea market” came from those same Parisian marchés aux puces—literally, “market of fleas”—that inspired his endeavor.  — A.T.


Follow these tips to get the best deals at yard sales and flea markets.

Keep Your Money in Multiple Pockets

Drag out your cargo pants or shorts before you set off for the flea market or several garage sales. Then you can stash small sums of money in different pockets, and you won’t have to pull out a wad of bills when you pay for a small purchase. Word gets around a multifamily garage sale or flea market, and you don’t want to undermine your credibility as a bargain hunter.

Show Interest in Items

It’s a myth that you should never show interest in a particular item at a garage sale or flea market, says Joanne Kennedy of Toano, Virginia. “If you play that game too much, you won’t get the best price, because the seller won’t know that you might be receptive to a better offer than the list price,” she says. Instead, Joanne, who has been a “junk” shopper for more than 50 years, always tells the vendor or garage sale attendant what she’s looking for. “An added benefit is that if the vendor doesn’t have what you want, he may steer you to someone who does,” she says.

Put the Seller in Charge

Lots of people lose bargains because they think put-downs and haggling work, says Joanne Kennedy’s husband, Bob, a retired communications professor. He advises simply asking a vendor for her very best price. “Those words let the seller know she’s in control of setting the price,” Bob says. If the best price offered is still more than you can afford, let the vendor know that, without running down the merchandise. “I just say, ‘Well, I’d love to have that, but the price doesn’t fit into my budget,'” says Joanne. “That leaves the door open for her to offer you a better price.”

Carry Lots of Dollar Bills

Whenever you’re shopping a sale with negotiable prices, bring along lots of one-dollar bills and at least a dollar’s worth of change. That way, you’ll never have to round up the price or lose a bargain because you don’t have the proper change.

Use Your Hand as a Measuring Tape

Even on those days when you’ve forgotten to bring your measuring tape on a shopping trip, you still have one on hand. Since ancient times, people have used their own bodies as measurement standards. For example, when you spread your hand, the length between the tip of your thumb and the tip of your pinkie is about 9 inches. The distance between the thumb and tip of the index finger is about 6 inches. The distance from your elbow to the tip of the longest finger of your outstretched hand is approximately 18 inches, called a cubit. And the width of an average finger is about 3/4 inch, or a digit. Try measuring your own body to compare. You may discover that one of your knuckles is exactly 1 inch wide, for example.

Love treasure hunting? View our slide show of Brimfield: the ultimat flea market.


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