Flea markets: One person's trash is another's treasure


April 14, 1991|By Scott Ponemone

This is the first in an occasional series of stories on collecting in Maryland.

Among collectors, one person's flea market is another person'Third World country.

Two flea markets a week apart. They couldn't be more different. Neither could the weather.

The Saturday before Easter, I drove through sleet and snow to reach the state fair grounds in Timonium for the 7 a.m. opening of a one-day indoor market of antiques and collectibles. The following Sunday I baked under a premature summer sun at the Edmondson Drive-In flea market.

Both were exercises in how early one can be functional on a Sunday. Avid flea market browsers think nothing of a predawn start. I had trouble doing so.

(This calls for an admission and a digression: I'm not a flea market devotee. But I am a collector. I concentrate on early 19th century formal American furniture and related decorative arts, plus 1920-1950 American regionalist and modernist prints. So I do have collector's eyes and a sense of the hunt that drives all collectors. And I love bargaining. Those are my credentials.)

Early flea market starts seem to be an expression of two basic American rights: simple capitalism and equal opportunity for the good stuff.

Both Timonium and Edmondson open up to dealers and browsers alike at 7 a.m. So the first half-hour is quite a madhouse of hasty setups and instant perusing. As Brian Robertson of Baltimore, a dealer at Edmondson, said, it's "like an eating frenzy of piranhas."

At least at Timonium, dealers can put out tables and drop off boxes -- but not display their wares -- the night before. Nonetheless, at the opening bell, the exhibition halls there are jammed with pickups and vans jockeying to deliver the goods and get out without too high a toll of pedestrian injuries, mostly by asphyxiation.

Once the traffic dies down, the monthly (November through June) Timonium One Day Antique and Collectors Market lives up to its name. The emphasis is on American manufactured goods, from glassware to furniture, of the 20th century up to the 1960s. The Depression was never so profitable.

One exception is toys, which seem to be collected, certainly hoarded, the day after they're discontinued. So you'll find vintage, mid-'80s, TV-program action figures, often in the original, unbroken shrink wrap. You figure.

In the minority are 19th century wares. And very few of them predate 1850. I do recall a few mid-century wool coverlets. And two dealers sold hand-colored steel engravings of scenic views or sheets from illustrated magazines that also may have been mid-century.

Most dealers are very knowledgeable about both the history of their merchandise and its book price. The latter fact leads to a surprising amount of uniformity in pricing. I base that on price estimates I received while looking for a Depression glass pattern called Iris and Herringbone, which one of my sisters collects.

Takoma Park residents Shirley Kelly, and her husband, Stuart, sell dinnerware -- including lots of Fiesta ware -- priced by the book. But selling, Ms. Kelly said, depends on demand, so "you got to cut the price sometimes to sell."

Actually, haggling on price is the third truism of flea markets, right behind capitalism and equal pickings. Brought up on fixed-price retail merchandising, some Americans are loath to bargain. But do it. Expect 10 percent off, but work for more. I find it's best not to ask a dealer for a better price, but to offer a better price, preferably one lower than you expect to pay. Caution: If your unreasonably low price is met, you should pay it. So don't begin this tactic if you're bluffing.

A scattered survey of early shoppers, those who paid $5 to get in before 9 a.m., found a high percentage of dealers, including Pat Boyer, who has been selling art pottery and art glass for 10 years. She reported not having had a very successful morning.

But Carole Digismondi, of Ferndale, a browser, was quite pleased with hers. She clutched to her chest a package that she unwrapped to produce a plate hand-painted with pink roses. Her living room, she said, has pink roses everywhere. Her assessment of her purchase: "I love it, and I got a good deal."

In short, many of the Timonium tables carry the type of goods that you see over and over in antique malls, though with less furniture. In some cases the merchandise equals that sold in the huge Convention Center antique shows.

In comparison, the flea market at Edmondson Drive-In is a ThirWorld country. Much of the merchandise is basic necessities, from groceries and new and used clothes, to reconditioned small appliances and power tools. Gone are the aesthetic distance and privileged air of collecting. Gone is the idea of buying not for use, but display.

This is the type of market I've seen overseas, in countries that cannot afford throwaway societies. I was amused in Turkey to see a streetside market seemingly devoted to used drill bits. Well, at Edmondson, you can buy used drill bits.

Actually, I find it refreshing. Places like Edmondson are far more human than strip malls. But for collectors, the good stuff is a lot more scarce and goes quickly.

The posters, old calendars, children's books and older toys on Brian Robertson's tables would seem more at home in Timonium. But he dismissed the notion of his merchandise being inherently more desirable than most of what's sold here. "There's contemporary junk and then there's older junk," he said.

Another seller had tables and tables of damask linens and handmade lace. She wouldn't give her name because she was selling "my grandmother's stuff." She represented the type of seller that once was the rule here, not the professional dealers but those who use Edmondson as a site for yard sales.

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