Mind your (flea-market) manners
Part-time musician and flea-market dealer Lowell Keith of Wareham, Mass., shows off a vintage bass at Shirley's Flea Market in Hollis. Keith says he scours yard sales for deals he can offer at flea markets. (BARBARA TAORMINA)
On one side of the road is Shirley's Flea Market, owned and operated by Shirley Burt. A few steps away on the other side of the street is the Hollis Flea Market, owned by the Prieto family. Together they form a sea of tables loaded with all categories of merchandise - some new, some used, some that dates back more than a century.
For Prieto, the 1970s and '80s were the heyday of the traditional New England flea market, typically set outdoors in an open field. During the '90s, shoppers hungry for odd items and great prices started turning to big Internet markets such as eBay and Craigslist.
Burt believes television programs such as "Antiques Roadshow" and "America's Lost Treasures" also have helped grow the crowds at flea markets.
Any entrepreneur can clean out an attic, pay Burt or Prieto $25 for a space and open a business.
"Business isn't as good as it used to be," said Getchell.
"Something like that cut-glass pitcher used sell for $35 or $40," he said as he pointed to a pretty piece that was part of a collection of vases, dishes and tea cups set up on a table tipping slightly to one side. "Today, it sells for a couple of dollars."
Dealers expect to haggle with customers. It's a flea-market tradition.
"When I'm buying, I like to give people a fair price," Downs said, adding that he doesn't try to bargain anyone down when he's looking at something rare and unusual.
When dealers quote a price of $30 for an item, it's not good flea-market form for a buyer to scoff that it's not worth $10 or mention another dealer is selling something better for half the price.
For Burt, good haggling begins with the words buyers choose when they make counteroffers.
If dealers say a price is firm, flea-market manners require the customers to either pull out the wallet and pay, or say thank you and move along.
Flea-market dealers sell all types of things, and expertise varies. Someone who specializes in old farm tools might not be up on 19th-century first-edition American novels. When buyers spot items they think are being mislabeled, it's fine to ask questions or share ideas. However, flea-market veterans say, it's unnecessary to criticize sellers for a lack of knowledge and experience, and even worse to question their integrity.
But not everyone with a table at a flea market is an experienced, professional dealer.
Casual or once-in-a-blue-moon sellers can be at a disadvantage with a knowledgeable buyer who spots treasures and races to purchase them for a fraction of their value.
"If I knew something was valuable and marked low, I would tell (the dealer)," she said. "I also tell people to mark stuff up so they'll have room to go down."
Prieto said it's complicated and really depends on the individual situation.
Both Burt and Prieto said investing a little time researching items is the best way to determine fair prices.
On the seller side of the table, there's usually a feeling of camaraderie. Most people have been up since 4 a.m. loading up cars and trucks and hauling stuff to the flea-market sites, where they then spend another hour unpacking.
"They are all out there together, and they watch out for one another," Prieto said of the dealer regulars. "They'll watch each other's tables when someone wants to take a break, and they keep an eye out for any theft."
But, most of the time, sellers are helping one another. Burt said they are really like an extended family.
And they come from all different backgrounds with all sorts of interests. Antiques and collectibles are flea-market staples, but in one corner of Shirley's Flea Market, people on April 28 also were selling shotguns, designer beads, model-car kits and neon pink geodes.
Prieto described flea markets as the "last pure bastion of capitalism," where supply and demand rule, and buyers and sellers meet and do business face to face.
"The thing that gets you hooked is when you find that one perfect piece you never knew existed and never realized you needed to have," he said with a laugh. "That's what keeps people coming back."