I'm going to make a confession here. I have what one might call a little, teeny, tiny “list problem.” What is this affliction? Well, it's basically a complete and total obsession with making lists of everything. When I shop, when I pack, to-do lists, outfits, etc. And you probably say, “Oh, you're fine. I make packing lists, too.” Oh, really? Do your lists say things like, “Purple and white striped Spring silk J. Crew dress with gold buttons?” Because mine do. It's a sickness, I tell you! So, when tasked with a ginormous place like Brimfield, you can bet your vintage European linens (yeah, I don't have any, either, actually) I make lists.
I've been going to Brimfield Fair for several years now and I suppose I'm a seasoned pro at this point, so I thought I'd share some tips and tricks for navigating this place- everything from prepping for the show, to shopping at it. You can start planning soon if you want to head to the September show, which is being held on September 4-9, 2012.
Some of this is specific to Brimfield, but some of these tips are probably useful for other flea markets or antique shows you may visit. I'm including pictures of Brimfield's July show last week for your viewing pleasure (And you can't rip on me too badly for using Instagram-like effects on these things- it was an antiques fair! And for anyone who is curious, these were shot with a Canon Rebel t2i and edited in Lightroom on a macbook or on my iPad in iPhoto).
First, what is Brimfield, exactly?
Quite simply, it's every antique and vintage collectors' heaven. It's the largest antique show in New England, with about 5,000 dealers. There are 21 independent property owners that host dealers, each property is about a 1-4 or 5 acres. That's a helluva lot of STUFF! If you know how to attack this behemoth, you can come away with some truly amazing finds, and you don't even have to spend a lot of money. I've seen pieces from the 1700's all the way up to the 1970's (and 80's.) There are specialty dealers for everything you can possibly imagine, many gross tons of vintage clothes, jewelry, home goods, furniture, paintings, and… I don't even know where to begin. I saw an old magician's sword/saw trick box this year. And an old Trolley car door.
Talk about random! If you have a question about sightings of a specific item or collection, please feel to leave one in the comments.
When should I go?
Brimfield is held three times a year- in May, July, and September. The May and September shows are larger and dealers tend to break out more stuff, and bring the big guns to these two shows. July simply isn't as large, with fewer people braving the heat and fewer vendors wanting to shell out for a show that isn't as well attended. I've been to shows in May, July and September. There's a flip side to the July show- yes, it's hot, and yes, the dealers don't bring everything they have, but there are also fewer people to contend with, PARTICULARLY buyers. At the May and September shows, it's not uncommon to see the best pieces tagged as “sold” or “held” for J. Crew, Anthropologie, etc. These buyers are professionals and are the first ones to the fields, where some dealers open for business at 6 a.m.! Dealers generally open from 6-9. Certain fields/areas open at a set time, as well.
That brings us to the next timing question. The show is a week long- what's the best time to go? First, let me just say that you have to book hotels WAAAAAAAAAY in advance if you are planning to stay in the area, especially for May and September. You've been forewarned. Otherwise, you'll be sleeping in your car or pitching a tent in a field on the side of the road.
Now, should you go at the beginning, middle or end of the week? In May and September, I'd say that it depends on what you are looking for. If you're looking for items that you know are in high demand, go earlier in the show, but be prepared to shell out. If you want to risk it, waiting until the end of the week may mean getting a better price, but you run the risk of not being to find what you want if it's a highly trendy/in-demand item. Dealers are much more open to negotiation towards the end of the week, as they are eager to sell the things that haven't yet sold (less to schlep home and they're scrambling to make as much as they can). If you do go on the last days, GO EARLY. On a side note, if you go in July, start your day as early as possible to beat the heat.
Some people go to browse, with no plan in mind and no particular item they are hunting for. I envy these people. I'm always a girl on a mission and I need a plan, i.e. A list, as we discussed above.
First things first- the dreaded budget. Many dealers do not take credit cards. Although more and more are starting to, particularly with the advent of programs like square and paypal on the iPhone, many still only take cash. Personal checks are pretty much persona non grata, as far as I've seen. On the one hand, this is a good thing as you can bring a certain amount of cash and easily keep track of what you are spending. On the other, if you go with certain things in mind and no plan as to how to allocate the money, it could get sticky. If you have no plan and nothing in particular to purchase, bring cash and have at it. If, however, you have a list of things you are looking for, I suggest allocating a maximum amount for each purchase- ask yourself how much you are willing to spend- and if you spend less, well, you got a bargain!
Keeping on top of trends and knowing what's hot at the moment is very valuable in planning your budget. It's supply and demand- dealers can and absolutely will charge more for items that are hot at the moment- i.e. vintage bar carts and other design trends. Check out ebay, blogs like designsponge, fashion magazines, Elle Decor, etc. Even if you don't follow trends, you should still be aware of what is out there. You never know when your tastes will align with trends! I've collected things for years and had them become popular all of a sudden, sending the prices way up. Knowing what may cost you more can be very helpful for budgeting and help prepare you for sticker shock!
What should I bring/do before going?
The Grandma shopping cart. Yes, that's right, I said it. You all know what I'm talking about- something like this beauty. You scoff, but trust me, I'll be laughing at you lugging forty pounds of depression glass the mile back to your car over your shoulder. This thing has saved my back and my sanity every year that I've been at Brimfield. Besides, it's hip to be grandma here. It's an antique fair, for cryin' out loud! This one below isn't mine, so you can see I am not the only one who does this. And yes, I admit- no filter can make this thing look glamorous.
Reusable shopping bags. Bring as many as possible. These are way sturdier than the ones the dealers will put your things in, and if you have enough, you can use them as padding. Oh, and the whole green thing, of course!
Sheets or blankets. i usually bring a couple of sheets to wrap things with/in, if necessary, especially if i'm buying a lot of glassware (*cough* pyrex *cough*)and I don't want them knocking together on the way home or in my grandma shopping cart.
Size matters. This may sound like common sense (HA!), but you'd be surprised how many times i've seen people trying to cram things in too small cars or fit too many people in with all of their purchases. Plan ahead for these things if possible. Additionally, think about if you'll need your back seat to fold down, if you'll have things in the trunk and back seat, etc.
On that same vein, if you're planning to buy furniture, paintings, mirrors, etc- MEASURE YOUR SPACE before you leave and write down the measurements. This stuff can't be ordered online and you can't really put it on hold and come back later when you've gone home quickly to measure. It's not returnable, either.
I went CRAZY for all these chairs- the colors are FABULOUS and check out those amazing translucent ones in the back!
For a map of the show fields and some dealer information see brimfield.com. You can start planning your attack!
Food. Broomfield's a marathon of antiquing. Up and down the street there are PLENTY of food stands- everything ranging from Jamaican to steak bombs, to pickles on a stick, popcorn, clam cakes and chowder, and lemonade. It's not a health food lover's dream, and anyone with food allergies or sensitivities should be very cautious. I did see some gluten free offerings advertised, but I am uncertain how safe these are. There are a few vegetarian options, but not always healthy ones. You won't starve here if you don't bring your own food, but I do- nuts, string cheese, peaches, nectarines, yogurt stick things that I have frozen(you know the ones- I get stonyfield farms- they are the only ones that don't separate when you freeze them. ), bananas and peanut butter packets, etc. Most importantly, though, is the water. I would NOT go to Brimfield without bringing plenty of water or gatorade and staying very hydrated. The entire fair is very hot and dusty- there is not a lot of shade AT ALL. Hydration is extremely important.
What the heck am I supposed to wear?
Sunglasses, sunblock and whatever the hell you want. I've shopped in everything from linen shorts and a halter top to a hot pink sundress. But keep in mind that you'll be walking A LOT and on very uneven ground most of the time. I'd leave the stilettos at home. Another thing to realize is that you'll be handling a lot of old things, many of which may be dirty and most of which will probably have some dust on them, as Brimfield tends to kick up a lot of dust from the fields,which will settle on your skin, clothing, hair, etc. Additionally, if you are carrying cash, be VERY careful. Wear a cross body bag and keep the cash in a wallet, preferably zipped in a pocket inside the bag, if possible.
The very first thing to do when you get there is to find an official Brimfield Fair Guidebook, which has the map and the lists of all the dealers. This is your ticket to getting to where you want to go and seeing what you want to see. There is A LOT to navigate, so you want to plan your time wisely, particularly if you have a list or if you have certain dealers you want to see more than others. I suggest picking “must sees” in each field (if applicable) and work your way from one end to the other. On the way back to your car, you can browse more leisurely. The day goes by fast!
General tips for shopping:
1. If you have a phone with a camera or a camera, use it to take pictures of things you like and are unsure of purchasing (although if you love it and it will probably sell fast, you better snap it up), then take a picture of the sign that tells you what field or place the vendor is located. Towards the end of the day, you can look back and see what you liked. You may also see similar items you want at numerous places and this way you can compare them by looking back at photos.
2. Don't be afraid to negotiate. I simply cannot stress this enough. I was completely gun shy my first time and probably ended up spending more than I needed to on a decent portion of my haul that year. I don't regret it, but I probably could have purchased more if I had grown a pair sooner and spoken up. There are dealers who price high to leave room for bargaining so that they still get a price they can live with, while still allowing the customer to feel that they've gotten a bargain. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book.
What's my technique? I generally ask what the lowest price they're willing to offer is and depending on what it is, offer 20-25% less (sometimes less, sometimes more) and start there. Use your discretion, though. Don't insult the dealer by lowballing them ridiculously, ESPECIALLY if they are already fairly priced. But asking for any sort of deal or discount is generally always ok. You can also simply ask, “Can you offer me a better price on this?”
However, if you're sure that you are not getting a good price, if the piece is not in high demand and you won't be heartbroken if you lost it, do be prepared to walk away. Go back toward the end of they day and if it is still there, offer the price you want to pay- I've gotten several items doing this.
3. There are fantastic bargains to be had at the end of the day on the last day of the fair. Vendors are starting to pack up (not a favorite chore) and they want to milk every last cent out of their wares that they can. They are very very open to bargaining at this point. I scored a pyrex casserole dish in mint condition for $1.00 as a guy was literally putting his stuff in newspaper.
4. If you buy a larger item from a dealer and they are holding it for you until you return with your car, DO NOT LEAVE that tent until they have secured a “sold” or “hold” tag to your merchandise. If possible, insist on getting the cell phone number of the dealer or leave your number with the dealer. These things can get very chaotic and there are often multiple people working a single tent. If the person who sold you an item has not put it aside AND clearly marked it as sold, there is ALWAYS a possibility that it could be accidentally resold to someone else. It's a crapshoot as to what happens next, and i'm going to guess it's a special kind of nightmare to have forked over any amount of cash and had your item that you are probably pretty excited about sold out from underneath you.
Look closely at the front of the house and you'll see a red “sold” sign.
Above all- ENJOY IT. Brimfield is one of a kind and truly a giant treasure hunt!
Just for fun, some of my favorite dealers/vendors/items include the vintage linen/fabric/buttons/ribbons tent (this is HUGE), the pyrex lady (duh), the pyrex/martini shaker guy, the vintage eyewear booth (I have banned myself from buying any more sunglasses this year, dammit), Mod Haus furniture, the vintage clothing tent for its incredible selection of vintage pocketbooks, vintage dollhouses, anything 60's, the recent profusion of vendors selling records, old chandeliers crystals sold by the piece (amazing for the chandelier I'm making), and anything completely and totally bizarre. The bizarre ones make the best photographic subjects.
This Bear was HUGE. Look at him in relation to the van!
So, what did I get this year? Did I stick to the list? Stay tuned for a post on this year's finds coming up next week. Also next week: party food- how I threw a gluten-free, nut free, shellfish, and completely vegetarian party and no one but the guests with food allergies and the vegetarians noticed and no one complained. True story. Please, also, do feel free to leave any of your own tips/tricks, experiences, etc. about Brimfield or similar venues in the comments. I'm always eager to hear about other people's experiences!