by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 5, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Sunny Sunday mornings in summer mean only one thing to me -- the flea market is open. I'm out of bed and in my car as the sun is rising.
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 sandwiches, and home fries.
Flea markets are an addiction, and flea market people fall into four rough 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 and 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 gently lay out their old rifles, shotguns, stuffed animals, and, in a touching tribute to eternal boyhood - their baseball cards and marbles. I used to think their gruffness meant they were unfriendly, but then one morning a friend brought her Labrador Retriever and I discovered that most of them are just softies with dog treats in their pockets.
White-haired women lay out patchwork quilts, decorated plates and costume 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 violin-maker who likes it when people stop and play a reel with him, and the man who prints personalized dog tags - his own setter has back legs that are paralyzed, so he's rigged a carriage to a halter so the dog can roll along. Over in the large field, I see Anne, with her long blonde hair, jeans and pearls, picking her way down the aisles. She is an antique dealer and the daughter of an antique dealer, and she knows everything about Mission, Arts & Crafts, and flea market competition.
"It's always painful to pull up and see lots of cars here," Anne says. "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 I have learned that first, there's always good stuff out there, and second, I've developed radar. It's almost as if all the junk fades out, and I can focus on the good stuff."
Now I can see Wayne and Pam arriving in their white van, and 20 tense dealers converge on them like sharks who smell blood. The dealers joke with each other, but the tension is palpable.
Wayne buys auction "ends" - all the stuff that remains unsold when an auction is done. As he opens the back door of his van a feeding frenzy begins.
The standing joke is that Wayne has never unpacked the van himself.
The dealers elbow each other aside as they grab cartons from the van, take them 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 becomes opportunistic. It just doesn't make me feel good as a person." The thrill of the hunt obsesses these dealers.
And for each one it's a different thrill: 1940s mixing bowls, vinyl records, old milk bottles, letters and photographs, a collection of received Christmas cards, picture frames, a rare book, an old piece of fabric.
Some collect only men's tools - rusted chisels, saws, hammers, screw drivers, folded measuring sticks, pincers.
Some collect only women's tools - kitchen implements, sewing needles, thread, scissors. After all the cartons have been unpacked, the dealers confer with Wayne; whenever bargains and always sells cheap. Then the rest of us pick through what is left.
I collect antique fabric, 1930s ceramics, and overheard conversations. My best one: Two men walked by a laden table.
"Look at that," said one, pointing. "Don't you want to buy a pith helmet?" "You know what that's for, don't you?" the other man said without missing a beat. "So monkeys don't pith on you."
My friend Ned comes over. He usually buys, but last week he set up a stand himself.
"I sold two pairs of snowshoes," he said, amazed. "I bought them years ago at the flea market for $30 each, wore them out completely, and then sold them last week for $35."
Many dealers believe that eBay signals the end of flea markets. "How can 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 once. "There are people here with PhDs, and people with grade school educations. 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 unexpected 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 kitchen 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 whole country's past, and with traditions that no longer exist in our disjointed 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 without wondering what your own stuff is going to look like, spread on rickety tables in the sunshine, selling for ten cents on the dollar, a few years down the road.
But most of all, for me the flea market is a precious Sunday morning ritual, one I love so well that when Sunday comes in winter, sometimes I sit on the rise above the empty lot and replay the entire Sunday morning in my mind.
And here's a secret. When I do, sometimes I'm not the only one.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.