All photos/art by Heath Robbins
The Brimfield Antique Show dates for 2015 are: May 12-17, July 14-19, and September 8-13. brimfieldshow.com
Mist curls off the foothills of the Berkshires, rising like hope. Calm and peaceful, it’s the ultimate in serenity, a world of winding roads curving through lush green fields and blooming apple orchards.
Deep in its midst, surrounded by the remnants of old farms and quiet ponds, a hush descends. Nature holds its breath. And then, 9 a.m. the whistle blows at the edge of a stubbly old field, and all hell breaks loose. Antiques dealers fly out from every direction, yanking treasures from the backs of pickup trucks and the tops of cars.
Flinging open the doors to vans on their last legs or fancy lettered vehicles that shelter upscale merchandise, they hear, “How much for the harpoon?” “Got any gold watches?” “What’s your best price?” Civil War swords, typewriters, rare instruments, legless chairs, topless mannequins, bits of Buddhas, shabby chic, Sheraton…all tumble out. It’s a dizzying assortment, an unimaginable collection of everything on earth.
Frenzy grips the field. Buy it or lose it, as sellers toss goods onto the ground, onto folding tables, into the arms of eager buyers. There’s no time for chitchat, and oh, by the way, welcome to the Brimfield Antique Show, a three-ring circus of a fair that descends on this quiet Massachusetts town three times a year. During that handful of allotted days in May, July, and September, the population of little Brimfield swells from 3,500 to a mind-blowing 130,000, each person intent on the object(s) of his or her desire.
“That came out of a cool estate in Buffalo!” a lanky dude says about an iron wall sculpture that starts off at $450, but quickly drops to $350 as the buyer walks away. In the booth next door, the words “World War II” emerge from a string of Yiddish, the harpoon sells for $160, and everyone runs a hand over the ancient, battered, but gorgeous mirror frame–until they hear it’s $4,000.
Brimfield is the rock star of antiques markets. Martha Stewart marks it on her calendar, and customers come from the four corners to ogle and buy. Roughly 6,000 dealers pack more than 20 fields along both sides of Route 20 in south-central Massachusetts for nearly a mile, making this show the ultimate flirt when it comes to temptation: Happiness at every price. Or half price. Or make me an offer.
A siren wails in the distance. “Someone must have had a heart attack about the prices,” says a dark-haired woman with an Oriental rug rolled up under her arm. She makes a beeline for a beautiful textiles booth. “How much?” she asks, fingering a delicate, silky scarf.
“So low you won’t believe it.”
It all started simply enough, in the 1950s, in one big field. Today that area, now known as J&J Promotions, is but one of a number of privately owned fields, the individual names rife with a certain carnival mystique: Crystal Brook, Heart-O-the-Mart, Hertan’s, The Meadows, New England Motel, Quaker Acres. Technically, Brimfield runs from Tuesday through Sunday. But opening days for the main fields are staggered, to give each an advantage. Some open at sunrise; others charge admission for that first crack at fresh goods. But no one does it quite as spectacularly as May’s Antique Market, the chaotic scene we witnessed at the beginning of the story.
“I’ve done May’s for 30 years,” says Donna Heinold, an “estate specialist” who’s barricaded behind an eclectic collection of doorstops and pincushions. Unlike other fields, where dealers can set up in advance, “May’s has no presale or set-up of any kind, and they police the field to make sure no one’s putting anything out. The gate opens at 9 a.m., they blow the whistle, we start pulling things out, and it’s a free-for-all.” By noontime, she says, the buying frenzy is over.
The thrill of the chase is palpable at Brimfield, along with the ever-present prospect of encountering the unexpected. To that end, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re buying or selling. It’s a fine line, anyway.
“I’ve been collecting for years, selling for two,” says Cheryl Krumrine, who’s driven all the way from West Palm Beach, Florida. She points to rows of exquisitely detailed antique bookends set up in her shady booth at The Meadows. “It’s how we all start. So it doesn’t look obsessive; it just looks like I have a business.” She hefts a Lincoln Memorial set ($459). Bronze Pompeian figures listen in silence; bookends are fine art at this level of collecting, and her buyers are as obsessive as she is, sometimes collecting 10 sets at a time.
“You’ve got to hold things, touch them,” she muses. “Then you get a sense of what’s real.” Brimfield is all about real. Touching, turning things over, lifting, rubbing–turns out we’re still a tactile, sense-ridden species after all.
Back in the field spreading out behind the New England Motel, Ron Bethoney, the unofficial “mayor” of this particular show, cooks up a tantalizing mix of onions and sausages on his camp stove first thing every morning. Incense, he calls it, saying, “I’m just burning it to bring you down here.” Animated and feisty, he’s a veteran who started setting up at Brimfield when the original founder, Gordon Reid, was still around, but then stopped coming in the ’80s. One day he said to his wife, “What happened to all our money?”
“We stopped doing Brimfield,” she said.
His booth is crammed with tables of glassware stacked on Lucite shelves and huge antique copper doodads that gleam like the sun. His grandfather in Brockton, Massachusetts, was a brass polisher, and young Ron used to wake up at 2 a.m. to help him polish brass ticket-booth grilles. His strategy at Brimfield? “I try to bring more than 1,000 items and make at least $10 on each,” he says.
No strategy is set in stone, however: “You come back here on Sunday, and if it’s still here, make me an offer–it’s outta here. I’d rather have you come back. Give people a bargain, they’ll be back.”
Oh yes, they will. Who can pass up the ultimate treasure hunt? The thrill of the chase? The mystery of what and why we chase? Everyone has a story at Brimfield, and more often than not, it’s a story of love and obsession, echoing in the voices all around you.
“Any more violins coming up?” asks a cowboy who’s bare from the waist up. A woman shakes her head at a friend: “My husband’s neurotic about buying signs.” A slender old man gently lifts a bottle of Madeira and peers at the label. 1851: Moby-Dick had just been published and the New York Times was brand-new.
There’s the queen of Pyrex, Linda deVillers, set up on the Midway field. “It’s you or the Pyrex,” said her husband, after she’d been collecting for 20 years and their house was stuffed with vintage dishware. That’s when she started selling at Brimfield. Her rarest item? A pattern called “Tulip,” from the Depression ($300 for the bowls, $50 for the custard cups). Naturally she’s hoping they don’t sell.
“I’ve done this show for 20 years,” says Wayne Howell, from Unionville, New York, he of the $4,000 mirror frame at May’s field. “If you’re buying, it’s the best one to buy at. If you’re selling, it’s the best one to sell at. Everyone has an equal shot at finding a treasure. If you’re looking for a meteorite, this is the place to find it.”
Which isn’t hard to believe, looking across the aisle at a booth displaying antlers, a torso, and a diving helmet. Where else is it so obvious that things have voices?
By 3 p.m., the day is winding down, but there’s still a steady stream of foot traffic on both sides of Route 20 and deep into the fields. A punk girl in black walks by with a unicycle. A guy balancing a box of French fries in one hand and a beautiful, faded-blue canoe paddle in the other, says, “Ain’t it a beauty?” to no one in particular.
If you’re not eating, buying, walking, carrying, or turning red in the sun, you’re thinking about removing your shoes and rubbing your feet. Oh, the tired, achy feet.
“It was $1,800,” says a disheveled-looking character, glasses slipping off his nose. The “it” is some kind of intriguing, mysterious metal base, Art Nouveau-ish. “Now it’s $950 with the mirror,” he pauses, “but you don’t really want it anyway. I’m packing up.”
Buyers, sellers, it’s all the same at Brimfield. Underlying it all is a shared love of the odd, the rare, the common, and ultimately the unknown. If it’s wrapped up in a bargain, that’s nice, too, but not essential. “There’s something we love about it here,” says Donna Heinold. “I don’t know what it is–something different. It’s probably the hunt. You can find anything here. One year it’ll be quilts. Another year, some old bucksaw to hang on your wall. Everything shows up here. And it’s a community. People have known each other for years. We all drive in and say, ‘Happy Brimfield.'”
The Brimfield Antique Show runs May 11-16, July 13-18, and September 7-12 this year. For hours, dealer lists, maps, and other details, visit: brimfieldshow.com