I have long been a fan of flea markets and antique fairs. Having lived in the East Bay for the last decade, I’ve become accustomed to spending my first Sundays of each month scouring the tables at the famed Alameda Point Antiques Faire. This fair is known for its size, breadth and variety in antiquing circles, let alone its magnificent location- an old navy pier directly on the shores of the San Francisco Bay, with the area’s best view of the SF skyline. I spent many mornings there, clutching Peet’s coffee and cloth sacks for carrying my finds, then leaving—more than once—with mid-century modern furnishings that I still treasure to this day.
I’m in Boston now, far from the mid-century fanatics and wondering what the antiques of New England have to offer someone with Danish preferences. Well, I’ve just learned. The Brimfield Antique and Collectibles Show, located just west of the famed Old Sturbridge Village, overwhelms this tiny town three times a year. I went with seasoned antiquers looking to refresh their flatware, serving ware, and furniture. They went in with strategy and something akin to a crazed look in their eyes, driven to find specific treasures within.
I soon wandered off, my old ways of aimless shopping overtaking me. Led by intuition and habit, I naturally gravitate toward kitchen equipment, modern furniture, lamps, art . . . I skip the jewelry and shabby chic sections entirely. I am as likely to walk away with an old men’s hat as I am a cast iron waffle maker. And indeed, I nearly did.
The antiques of New England are quite different from those of the west coast. There are Chesterfields instead of Herman Millers, civil war relics instead of embossed leather Mexican purses. I was a bit shocked to also see guns, WWII memorabilia of the pro-Hitler type, Confederate flags and blackface dolls. I made a rule not to buy anything from anyone also selling any of those things. It made me wonder what constitutes “antique;” doesn’t a universal acknowledgment of unjust belief systems and the items that represent them negate any value of age or condition? I was troubled that there were not only vendors selling these items, but that there could possibly be a market for their purchase.
On the other hand, the northeast values their sewing notions. Someone made all those flags by hand many years ago, and there were whole sections devoted to antique patterns, vintage machines, and all the accompaniments one could ask for. In addition to these wares, vendors also carried baby dresses and slips, all white with tiny lace rims and hand-sewn buttonholes. While I could only imagine the frailty of some of the fabric, I succumbed to a yard of a beautiful floral motif.
Also absent on the west coast were entire vendors devoted to a product line: Pyrex and Fiesta being the most popular. The Pyrex woman gave me an in-depth tutorial on the various patterns on bowls and the history of their shape and set combinations. It was more than I needed to know, but her enthusiasm was appreciated. Among other standouts were the collections of pocket watches, taxidermy (I almost bought antlers…but my better judgment kicked in just in time), letterpress inserts, new furniture made from repurposed wood, and true antique New England craftsman furniture, some beautifully preserved.
The antique show began in 1959 and has expanded in the years since. Now with thousands of vendors, the show stretches for what could be a mile or two along Route 20. Upon first glance, it seems unnavigable if not overwhelming. From the road, pathways of vendors flow out like tributaries on each side creating a meandering and not necessarily organized network of antique alleys. I was, at the same time, excited to explore and wary that I wouldn’t ever be able to hold everything I’d want to buy. Mostly, I was anxious that I wouldn’t be able to see every corner of the show and therefore know that I’d miss out on something absolutely meant for me. The manic and nervous child in me wanted a map and a compass, to mark my paths and not get lost.
Many hours, a falafel wrap, a minor sunburn, and two terribly tired arms later, I left with a variety of pie pans, a baguette board and two small wooden troughs for serving food in, two folding chairs from the seventies bedecked in a houndstooth woolen fabric, and a fur shall. Also, a spice grinder from West Germany, a true antique in that even its origins are old, for they link to a place that no longer politically exists.
I love these markets dearly. They are a link to eras long gone, a glimpse into what life was before we purchased everything online and in big box stores. The markets require you carry cash, they still accept checks (!), and it requires a person to person interaction that oftentimes results in learning about the item’s origins and design. Shopping in these markets results in your home being singular, handmade, and perfectly reflective of your design eye. Even if your item was once mass produced, like Pyrex or a particular fashion of furniture, it is likely that few items have survived the years in top shape. It is those items that your soon-to-be trained eyes will lust after.
Go find the treasures at a fair near you, and know that with all that lugging around of old stuff that you’ve likely purchased an item that few people in the world have, and that you’ve saved something worthy of preservation in doing so.
The Brimfield Show happens for five days at a time: in May, middle of July and lastly in September. Look for information and exact dates on their website:
The Alameda Point Antique Faire happens each first Sunday of the month. Look for more information on the website: