A veteran flea market shopper offers his techniques for going in with a plan and leaving with what you came for
We caught up with interior designer Scott Sanders who has been shopping the Brimfield Antique show for 13 years to get his advice on how to prepare for your day of shopping, navigate the hundreds of vendors, and sift through the thousands of items to ensure you don’t walk away empty handed.
Dress in layers. With pre-dawn arrivals and afternoon departures, temperatures can vary wildly at outdoor shows. Sanders recommends multiple, lightweight layers that you can easily take on and off.
Leave your Rolex at home. Don’t wear expensive clothes, jewelry, or watches. “If you are trying to negotiate, you’ll have a better chance if you’re dressed down.”
Come prepared, but travel light. Sanders recommends bringing a backpack with water, a snack, sunscreen, and a hat. “It sounds like you are going into the army,” says Sanders of his list, but he warns, “You don’t want to bring anything extra, you might be walking around for six hours.”
Wear comfortable shoes. Sneakers are essential. If you arrive early and spot something you really want, be prepared to go for it. “People run!” says Sanders of the eager shoppers who will literally race to a booth once the show has opened. “The first time I saw it, I was in shock.” Now, Sanders admits, he has become one of them.
Bring a friend. To cover the most ground, shop with a companion. “You can divide and conquer.” Sanders has often divvied up the aisles with a friend—he’s even used walkie-talkies to communicate at the bigger shows.
…But don’t take your clients. While he’s taken clients to Brimfield on a few occasions, Sanders cautions against it—especially if you’ve never shopped the show yourself.
Bring cash. Even in the age of mobile credit card machines, cash is still the standard at flea markets. “Cash forces you to make choices,” says Sanders, noting that if you go in knowing how much you want to spend, cash will keep you focused on that number.
Get there early—really early. If you’re determined to find specific items or really good pieces at great prices, Sanders advises getting there 30 to 45 minutes before the show officially opens.
Case the joint. While you might wonder what you can do before the show opens, Sanders recommends you walk around the perimeter, scope out the booths, and create a game plan for where to begin.
Stay focused. “Have your list of the five to ten things you are looking for and really stay focused on those items, otherwise you can get off course,” advises Sanders.
Gravitate toward what you like. If you like the aesthetic of a particular booth, stop and scan the booth thoroughly. Skip the booths that aren’t to your taste and linger in those that are—you’ll have a much better chance of finding what you’re looking for.
Know your limits and pace yourself. Don’t be overzealous—if there are 100 booths, don’t assume you’ll make it through every one. “That would take days, and you’d be fried after the tenth one,” says Sanders.
Be nice and introduce yourself. The best way to navigate any market is to be friendly and talk to vendors about what you are looking for. “This is what they do for a living!” says Sanders, who notes that dealers often have things that aren’t on display and that they can send you photographs of pieces after the show. Plus, booth owners are a tightly knit group—one good dealer can tip you off to another.
Bargain gracefully. Think about how much an item is worth and how much you are willing to pay. “You shouldn’t offer half the asking price; if you are insulting the dealer, you’re not going to get very far,” cautions Sanders. Instead, make an offer of two-thirds or three-quarters of the full price, and nicely say, “This is really what I can afford.” Sanders also notes if you buy several items, dealers are much more likely to offer a bargain.
Use lateness to your advantage. While the early birds get their pick of the show, there are some advantages to cruising the last day of a multiday show. “Dealers are much more willing to negotiate on big items,” says Sanders, noting that smaller items are easy to pack up and sell at the next market. Larger pieces can be difficult, not to mention expensive, to transport.
Develop an exit strategy. Novice shoppers often overlook the logistics of how to transport large pieces home after the show. “You need to go with a vehicle that makes sense for what you plan on buying: a car, a van, a paneled truck,” warns Sanders, who notes that in addition to transportation, you’re going to need someone to help with the heavy- lifting and a plan for where the piece is going to be stored.