The Flea Market Scene

By Robert Pucci

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 Robert Pucci

Robert Pucci

It is Zero Dark Thirty and a long caravan of vehicles is making its way down Route 7 towards New Milford, Connecticut. There are panel trucks, box trucks, flatbed trucks, SUV’s of every type, vans of white and a stray station wagon and sedan. They turn at a road sign welcoming them to the Elephant’s Trunk Flea Market. It is well before dawn and, for this caravan of flea market dealers, it is the start of a long and hopefully profitable day.

They line up in neat rows, sometimes as many as twenty stretching to the limits of the parking lot, and they wait for the field to open. Some get outside of their vehicles and greet one another in the chilly pre-dawn. Some have made arrangements to bring special things for other dealers to buy, and they affect an air of covert activity. Once the field is open, row by row their headlights turn on and their engines ignite and they slowly ease their vehicles towards the gate. They pay their fee at the gate and are directed where to set up. Some hope for the upper field and everyone would like to be close to the front. Once in place the engines and lights switch off. Some dealers doze while some get coffee, and some open their trucks to the other dealers, who will swarm an open truck with flashlights looking for treasures in the dark (resembling a search party or a group of first responders trying to rescue someone who has fallen into a well).

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In the dark there are many transactions as dealers hope to turn a profit even as the early buyers, who pay as much as $40 for the privilege, stream in. Dealers buy from dealers hoping that their wholesale purchase at the flea market will turn a profit at their retail locations. There is one dealer I know, however, who comes with a nearly empty pickup truck. Strolling through the aisles he makes enough purchases to sell almost exclusively what he has gathered up in the darkness. His expertise in crocks and Americana allow him to spot those items with enough money left in them to make a profit. Others dealers move about with an eye towards later purchases, scouting out the wares and asking prices that they know will be lowered if the items do not sell when the field is opened to early buyers and then the general public. These dealers will return later to strike a bargain. One tactic is to offer to buy out entire lots of hardware, boxes, dolls, fixtures, etc. Dealers want to leave with empty trucks and this helps prospective buyers quite a bit.

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Now it is about 6:30 and the general buying public starts to line up at two gates. Many are regulars who have prepared well  to do battle with the field. They carry backpacks, they wheel wagons and they bring bottles of water. As they stand about they share stories of their great finds, or customers who did not complete purchases, like fishermen talking about the one that got away. One couple is looking for furniture for a house they just purchased, and like many younger buyers search for mid-century modern, another seeks out old photographs and interesting ephemera. In a conversation with one couple from Sharon, Connecticut I answer a burning question. Why is it that many booths seem abandoned with no dealer in sight? I explain that the dealers are out shopping and that about two-thirds of the sales that day will be made to each other. The couple is surprised. They are there for browsing with no specific desire but hoping to be tempted. They consider the Elephant’s Trunk a warm up for the granddaddy of North East flea markets, Brimfield, a week long extravaganza of various flea market fields that open three times during the season in May, July and September. The week before this mega-market, dealers often shop at the weekly offerings at the Trunk to pick up fresh merchandise or, in the trade, “merch” on their way. The prices of goods tend to rise with the latitude.

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 At 7:00 am the gates are opened and buyers stream onto the field. As they do, they cannot help but notice the encampment of the HGTV show Flea Market Flip, which occasionally films at the Trunk and at our other flea market destination in the article, Stormville.

Buyers strategies differ, as some start at the front and work their way to the back, and others start at the back. One breed of market-goer methodically examines every bit of merchandise, while another prefers doing a quick scan, wanting to cover all booths before going back for a more detailed look. The regulars are often dealers looking for sleepers, those items of great value that are way underpriced. I once purchased a Civil War era over-the-shoulder cornet for 10 dollars that I resold to a musical instrument dealer for one thousand dollars. One dealer named John, who resembles a 19th century Russian anarchist, spoke of a day when he picked $24,000 worth of art for peanuts in a single pass of the field. Even without a spectacular find most shoppers will find that they are paying low wholesale for most items whose price might be double in a retail shop. 

But no matter how reasonable the price there is sure to be some haggling. Which brings us to the popular HGTV show, Flea Market Flip ,which provokes a mixed reaction from dealers. Some enjoy the spotlight of getting on television and sparring with the host Lara Spencer. However, most remark that the show has given rise to the notion that whatever the asking price of an item, maybe a buyer can offer half. This can get ridiculous as someone offers a dollar for a two dollar item. While dealers do expect not to be firm on most items, they really don’t like to be insulted with low ball offers. Show runners negotiate the prices of items purchased on the show. So, when the contestants haggle with a dealer, they always come to a quick and successful negotiation. In reality, “not-reality show” dealers have expenses that include the set-up fee, the cost of an item’s acquisition, as well as transportation. A safe first offer is about 20% to 30% off the asking price. A bargain will be struck if the profit margin is sufficient. Items that have been in a dealer’s inventory for a time might even lead to the dealer accepting an offer that represents a loss, or breaking even. About to load an oak table onto my station wagon a third time for the trip home, I took a break-even offer.

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Videographers and buyers mix as they make their way through the fields encountering antiques (formal, country and utilitarian), collectibles, housewares, plants, sporting equipment and perhaps a kitchen sink. In previous years large items had to be hand carried off the field, or taken on carts supplied by the management (that many swore had square wheels). Now, however, a service called Carter’s Porters uses an army of young men with broad platformed carts and large rubber wheels to bring things to your car “from the Trunk to your trunk” for a fee. Even if one arrives early, and gets a parking spot near the gate, the distance from object to car can be considerable. If you arrive too late at the Trunk on a busy Sunday you may not be able to park in the parking lot at all. The time between 7:00 am and 9 :00 am is when the most vigorous selling activity takes place. At nine o’clock a second wave of buyers hits the field. They are more causal, making an experience out of the search. They buy breakfast sandwiches, they pause at curiosities and speak to the dealers. Their search is less driven, but still they are determined not to go away empty handed. As the day progresses there will be about two more distinct waves. The later ones are often out for a stroll. The dealers refer to many of these latecomers as tire kickers. They will ask questions, get entire histories connected to an antique or unusual item, with no intention of purchasing it.

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By noon the dealers are tired and have made most of their sales, but they must survive another hour or two before they can pack up and leave. The average Elephant’s Trunk day for a dealer is about 12 hours including travel,while the average visitor’s day is about two hours. On this day the weather is pleasant, the field is large and there is enough money and merch on the field to make it worthwhile.

Some thirty five miles away in the heart of Dutchess County lies the Stormville flea market. Located on a on the site of an old airport that long time market-goers remember when planes sat on the runway (where now cotton candy and candied nuts are sold). While the Elephant’s Trunk is a weekly event, Stormville is periodic; occurring in April, Memorial Day weekend, the week before the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekend. These are two- day events, although the management has also added some one-day events to the season’s schedule described as tag sales.

The vibe at Stormville is quite different. As it is a two day event, it is more of a marathon than a sprint, and the dealers tend not to assemble or set up before sunrise on the first day, which is a Saturday. Buyers arrive with the sun and constantly move about the field waiting for dealers to unpack their wares. While the mix at the Trunk favors the old and collectible, the antiques section of Stormville has shrunk considerably over time, with antique dealer space giving way to wholesale clothing, tools and housewares. While the odds of finding that collectible treasure has diminished over time, it is still considered obligatory to go and see what is being offered. One day in a booth, that otherwise had used household items and children’s plastic toys, I found an 1809 folding map of London, framed, for $12.

Like the Trunk, many sales are dealer to dealer, but the merchandise is different, leaning less to the antique and more towards the contemporary collectible. Dealers Norm and Joann, who set up and sell at both the Trunk and Stormville (they also do Brimfield) say that the load for Stormville may include items like Hot Wheels cars that would not be found in the mix of country items they bring to the Trunk. One dealer named Sal is famous for his eclectic collection of items and his unique patter while trying to sell them. “I am here to sell it” he says “I am not in love with it.”

One does not need to go to the flea markets to buy, but rather just to watch the shoppers and overhear their comments. “Now that would be nice to hang in a man cave” or “I have to have those chairs” or “the Judge rookie card has gone through the roof.”

By ten o’clock on Saturday the early birds of Stormville have made their purchases and are heading out. At this point traffic from shoppers on their way in is backed up for sometimes a mile in each direction One general rule to follow at all flea markets is;  early in and early out. You get the best merchandise, you get the bargains and you get no traffic.

While the Elephant’s Trunk and Stormville are the largest and most popular area flea markets, there are a number of smaller localized events worthy of mention. There is one located in the parking lot behind Main Street in Beacon and there is a flea market on the grounds of the old Delaval site, now Boces, in Poughkeepsie. As well as the weekend setup outside the Dutchess Marketplace in Fishkill. No matter what you may be looking for it is quite probable you will find it, as well as interesting things and people, when you visit one of the area’s flea markets.