Momentum: LOVE LETTER TO A FLEA MARKET
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Sunny Sunday mornings in summer mean only one thing t= o me -- the flea market is open. I'm out of bed and in my car as the sun is=
When I get there, smoke is rising from the center cookhouse, where boxes= of Dunkin' Donuts sit for sale along with coffee,fried-egg-and-sausage san= dwiches, and home fries.
Flea markets are an addiction, and flea market people fall into four rou= gh categories: the vendors, who come to sell; the dealers, who come to buy= cheaply and resell somewhere else; collectors like myself; and civilians, = for whom a morning at the flea market is entertainment instead of passion a= nd who tend to get there long after I've gone.
For me, watching the vendors unpack is a joy.
The vendors in the first aisle tend to be weathered, bearded men.They ge= ntly lay out their old rifles, shotguns, stuffed animals, and, in a touchin= g tribute to eternal boyhood -- their baseball cards and marbles. I used t= o think their gruffness meant they were unfriendly, but then one morning a = friend brought her Labrador Retriever and I discovered that most of them ar= e just softies with dog treats in their pockets.
White-haired women lay out patchwork quilts, decorated plates and costum= e jewelry.
I spot the woman who only sells kitchenware, and the family that sells= its own maple syrup, and the elegant elderly Massachusetts couple who sell= perennials, and the man with the counterfeit Coach purses, and the old vio= lin-maker who likes it when people stop and play a reel with him, and the m= an who prints personalized dog tags -- his own setter has back legs that ar= e paralyzed, so he's rigged a carriage to a halter so the dog can roll alon= g.
Over in the large field, I see Anne, with her long blonde hair,jeans a= nd pearls, picking her way down the aisles. She is an antiquedealer and th= e daughter of an antique dealer, and she knows everythingabout Mission, Art= s & Crafts, and flea market competition.
"It's always painful to pull up and see lots of cars here," Annesays. "= I think, 'Oh my God, the good stuff will be gone. Why did I bother to eat = breakfast?' I used to leap out of my car with great anxiety. Now Ihave le= arned that first, there's always good stuff out there, and second,I've deve= loped radar. It's almost as if all the junk fades out, and I canfocus on t= he good stuff."
Now I can see Wayne and Pam arriving in their white van, = and 20tense dealers converge on them like sharks who smell blood. The deal= ersjoke with each other, but the tension is palpable.
Wayne buys auction = "ends" -- all the stuff that remains unsold whenan auction is done. As he o= pens the back door of his van a feeding frenzybegins.
The standing joke is that Wayne has never unpacked the van himself. Th= e dealers elbow each other aside as they grab cartons from thevan, take the= m away, hunch over them, guard them, unpack them.
"It brings out the worst in people," Anne says.
"That carefully-structured social self completely disappears. It becom= es opportunistic. It just doesn't make me feel good as a person."
The th= rill of the hunt obsesses these dealers.
And for each one it's a different thrill: 1940s mixing bowls, vinyl reco= rds, old milk bottles, letters and photographs, a collection of received Ch= ristmas cards, picture frames, a rare book, an old piece offabric.
Some collect only men's tools - rusted chisels, saws, hammers,screwdrive= rs, folded measuring sticks, pincers.
Some collect only women'stools - kitchen implements, sewing needles, = thread, scissors.After all the cartons have been unpacked, the dealers conf= er with Wayne; henever bargains and always sells cheap. Then the rest of u= s pick through what is left.
I collect antique fabric, 1930s ceramics, and overheardconversations. = My best one: Two men walked by a laden table.
"Look at that," said one, pointing. "Don't you want to buy a pithhe= lmet?"
"You know what that's for, don't you?" the other man said withoutmis= sing a beat. "So monkeys don't pith on you."
My friend Ned comes over. He usually buys, but last week he set upa sta= nd himself.
"I sold two pairs of snowshoes," he said, amazed. "I bought them years a= go at the flea market for $30 each, wore them out completely, andthen sold = them last week for $35."
Many dealers believe that eBay signals the end of flea markets. "How c= an I compete?" one dealer told me. "Those people can sit at home and sell = all over the world, 24 hours a day. Here I have to get up at 3 a.m., drive= , rent a booth, and stay and watch my stuff all day."
If he's right, it will be a tragedy.
"This is one of the most democratic places on earth," a dealer told me o= nce. "There are people here with PhD.s, and people with grade school educa= tions. They're all here because they love stuff. They love to buy it and = they love to sell it."
A flea market is a living collage. It's a place to see a variety of unex= pected things, to study human nature, to meet friends and neighbors, to cat= ch up on gossip.
You can connect with your ancestors when you touch things -- an old kitc= hen clock, a piece of cabbage rose curtain, an 18th Century ship painting -= - that they once bought, used and left behind.
You can connect with the w= hole country's past, and with traditions that no longer exist in our disjoi= nted lives.
The flea market helps people celebrate life and, at the same = time, wryly acknowledge death.
After all, it's hard to look at the contents of dead people's houses w= ithout wondering what your own stuff is going to look like, spread on ricke= ty tables in the sunshine, selling for ten cents onthe dollar, a few years = down the road.
But most of all, for me the flea market is a precious Sunday morning rit= ual, one I love so well that when Sunday comes in winter, sometimes I sit o= n the rise above the empty lot and replay the entire Sunday morning in my m= ind.
And here's a secret. When I do, sometimes I'm not the only one.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes aboutculture, politics= , economics and travel.