Lord of the Fleas

An early start, an open mind, and a kind word will get you the most out of flea markets.

While flea markets tend to be more hodgepodge than antiques markets—where vendors usually set up well-curated mini-shops—both offer a huge selection in one location. Flea markets sell both new and old items, but the new stuff isn’t very upscale—lots of tube socks. Antiques dealers do sell at flea markets, as do people who rent space for what amounts to a one-time garage sale.

You can find high-quality antiques at flea markets, but you have to do a lot more sifting because there’s more junk in the mix. As for condition, some vendors fix or clean up items more than others. Prices are all over the map, but the same is true at antiques markets. Bargaining is expected at both. 
We asked some reputable sellers how shoppers can get the most out of a trip to a flea market.

Think Outside the Box (these things don’t come in boxes anyway)

“The most important thing to bring with you is an open mind,” says Karen Kihlstrom, owner of Karen Kihlstrom Interiors at the Lafayette Mill Antiques Center in Lafayette.  “You can come with all your fabric samples, that’s helpful, but an open mind will get you a lot further. It’s what you didn’t know you needed that you really need. You have to be open to the possibility of repurposing items—a tray that can be turned into a table, a junky table that can be repainted, a jug that can be turned into a lamp, and so forth.”

Be an Early Bird (or a late one)
While most flea markets open around 8 am, the smart money shows up before the gates open. At the Berlin Farmers Market (41 Clementon Road, Berlin, 856-767-1284, berlinmarket.com), you might find civilians off-loading treasures from their garages and attics as early as 7 am. Vendors start haggling with each other early, and at most markets the public can dive in as soon as the first products hit the tables—often around 6 am. The same goes at the Columbus Farmers Market (2919 Route 206 South, Columbus, 609-267-0400, columbusfarmersmarket.com), where the going gets good as early as 5 am. Manager Janice Ackerman says she’s seen items change hands three times and triple in price by the posted opening times. (The indoor market opens at 8 am on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 10 am on Friday. The outdoor market opens at 7:30 am Thursdays and Saturdays, 6:30 am on Sundays.)
Just before closing is another good time to nab a bargain. Some vendors would rather not pack everything up for the trip home. At Columbus, the indoor section closes at 8 pm most days, 5 pm on Sundays. The outdoor market closes at 3 pm on Thursdays and Sundays, 2 pm on Saturdays.

Do Your Homework
Use eBay as a research tool. If you know what you’re looking for, eBay can reveal what similar items are going for. It’s what the sellers do, so why shouldn’t you? Pre-eBay, figuring out how much the world was willing to pay for stuff was more difficult. For example, there used to be no list of prices for glass ashtrays from the 1940s. Now you can search eBay. It helps arm the buyer for smarter haggling.
There is a wide variety of printed guides to almost every type of collectible, but no flea market books stand out as must-buys. However, the JunkMarket Girls—Ki Nassauer and Sue Whitney—have their second book coming out this month, called Junk Beautiful. The duo have done a lot to educate the shopping public through their website, junkmarketstyle.com.

Dress For a Safari
You’re going on an active adventure, not a sedate trip to the mall. If you’re heading to the outdoor fleas, layer up (especially if you’re doing the early-morning thing). Bobbie Perkins, a recently retired antiques dealer from Saddle River, says she’s seen dawn-and-dusk shoppers sporting coal-miner headlamps to shed extra light on the matter. Tote a measuring tape, bottled water, a camera (to snap pictures of things you want to compare or think about), plenty of cash (including ones and fives for easier change-making), and a magnet to check if things are brass. Some indoor vendors accept plastic, but cash is never refused and usually puts you in a stronger bargaining position.

Listen to Your Gut

If you see something you want, spring into action and make an offer. Hesitate and you’ll probably lose out. There are no hard- and-fast rules on how to bargain. But dealer Karen Kihlstrom notes that enthusiasm and sincerity never hurt.

“Dealers buy what they love,” she explains. “When we offer our items, we’re protective of them. We’ve chosen them. When a person wants to negotiate, if they say they love the piece, if they flatter the piece and really seem to mean it, they’re going to get a much better price from me.”

Try for a Try-out
No harm asking to buy on approval. It’s not uncommon for dealers to allow buying on approval and still grapple with you on price. Reason? Dealers love return shoppers. That vase you loved? If you buy on approval, you can bring it back if it doesn’t look good or fit the room. Not an option? Ask the vendor to hold it and snap a picture so you can make a decision when you get home.

Get the Backstory

Since sellers often handpick their wares, there’s a good chance they know the history of that credenza you’re considering. Be sure to ask if they’ve made any repairs to it.

The Personal Touch
One of the best bits about shopping antiques and flea markets is the chance to meet the people who found your beloved new favorite thing in the first place: the vendors.

We chatted up two who, we think, you’ll want to meet (and whose taste we love). Just try doing that on eBay.

Mix-and-Match Man
Richard Fitzgibbon
Asian knicknacks, furniture, and antiques
Golden Nugget, Lambertville

It’s not that Richard FitzGibbon needed more to do. A real estate broker for commercial and investment properties, he was already a busy man. But while traveling around Asia—he and his wife have a second home in Malaysia—he started buying, and buying, and buying. He began selling at the market in 2001. The guy basically just loves to sell things. He says an eclectic shop like his Essence of Asia can succeed because people these days tend to mix things from different countries and periods. “The pivotal point was the do-it-yourself shows on cable TV,” he says. “People right now are more inclined to mix and match. I think that’s what’s driving the market.”

Essence of Asia has expanded several times, and showcases an incredible range of products, including antique furniture, handmade teapots, statues, 500 kinds of incense, and much more. “We get a lot of people that just come to hang around,” says FitzGibbon.

Essence of Asia at the Golden Nugget Antique Market—known to many as Lambertville, 1850 River Road, Lambertville  (609-397-0811, gnmarket.com).

“Quirky is my middle name.”
French and English antiques
Lafayette Mill, Lafayette

Antiques dealer Karen Kihlstrom is, quite simply, mad for the moment—the moment when “you see the thing that nobody else has.” This happens to her on her three or four annual buying trips to England and France. “The piece can be in the middle of a pile of rubbish, but when there’s a great object, a dealer with a great eye will just zone in,” she says. “It’s the buzz. It’s the addiction.”

A former photo stylist for magazines and fabric houses, Kihlstrom doesn’t limit her buying to any particular period or style. Instead, she lets her taste rule the day, as she hopes her customers will do. Her shop is a mix of antiques and “things of interest—I call them worthies.”

And the style? An eclectic, curated mix. “Quirky is my middle name,” she says. Kihlstrom fell in love with a French armchair that had a shabby finish, crumbly paint—and instead of fancy upholstery, was covered in burlap. She bought it at a flea market in France. She once bought a six-foot paintbrush made of cardboard that originally hung over a paint store as a display. One of her favorite things: furniture normally considered formal but gains style from casual upholstery fabrics, such as mattress ticking (which she buys a lot of in France). 

Kihlstrom will give loads of advice if asked, but she prefers to allow customers space: “I like to let people immerse themselves in the atmosphere of antiques…and their thoughts,” she says. “Don’t follow color trends just for the sake of following them. Know, ‘I love rustic.’ Or, ‘I love formal.’ Then keep your eyes open and immerse yourself.  Be a spectator first, to learn the language.”

Karen Kihlstrom Interiors, Lafayette Mill Antiques Center, 12 Morris Farm Rd, Lafayette (973-383-0065, millantiques.com).

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