Mind your (flea-market) manners
HOLLIS -- Anyone riding along Hollis' rural roads lined with picture-perfect barns and fields a bit before 7 a.m. on the last Sunday in April would have encountered something most likely unexpected: traffic.
While some drivers were headed for Amherst's first antique car show of the season, others were on their way to a spot on Silver Lake Road, a well-known hub for flea markets.
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.
Flea markets are prime venues for buyers and sellers who appreciate the pre-owned, the recycled, the odd, and maybe, most of all, the great bargain. And according to people on both sides of the table, flea markets work especially well when there's a shared understanding of etiquette and ethics.
"If you treat people with respect and dignity, you'll get a lot more than you ever expected or bargained for," said Jim Prieto, whose father started the Hollis Flea Market in 1964.
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.
"Now, the flea market is sort of coming back," he said, noting that the weekly events offer a social aspect that isn't part of Internet shopping.
Burt believes television programs such as "Antiques Roadshow" and "America's Lost Treasures" also have helped grow the crowds at flea markets.
And then there's the economy. In addition to the more savvy bargain hunters heading for the markets, more sellers who are looking for opportunities to earn extra income are jumping into the game.
Any entrepreneur can clean out an attic, pay Burt or Prieto $25 for a space and open a business.
New sellers have intensified competition, and longtime dealers such as Milford resident Ernie Getchell, who has 43 years of flea-market experience, have felt the squeeze.
"Business isn't as good as it used to be," said Getchell.
Interests and tastes also have changed, Getchell said.
"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."
With more sellers, buyers and new merchandise rolling in, flea-market regulars are finding that good manners and fair prices go a long way.
The art of haggling
Dealers expect to haggle with customers. It's a flea-market tradition.
"If people really want something, I'm OK with a little haggling," said Tim Downs, a Fitchburg, Mass., dealer who had a table loaded with assorted oddities and collectibles, including a prized whiskey barrel from the Jack Daniel's distillery in Tennessee.
Downs said buyers and sellers alike try to get the upper hand when prices are being negotiated. At times, he said, people can get aggressive.
"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.
"There's an art to haggling," said Prieto. "And it's a polite art."
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.
"Most sellers don't like being insulted; they want to deal with someone who appreciates what they have," said Prieto.
For Burt, good haggling begins with the words buyers choose when they make counteroffers.
"Instead of saying, 'I'll give you five dollars,' people might want to say, 'Would you take five dollars?' or 'Would you consider five dollars'?" Burt said.
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.
Dealers are also buyers, and many make the rounds at flea markets looking for bargains they can resell. When dealers are buying from other dealers, it's a level playing field.
But not everyone with a table at a flea market is an experienced, professional dealer.
On that last Sunday in April, Goffstown resident Maureen Clark neatly arranged a table of quality home items not far from Getchell's listing table of glassware. It was Clark's first time as a seller at a flea market.
"I'm selling my house, and this is the stuff I wanted to get rid of," she said, adding she wasn't exactly sure about how to price her items.
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.
Burt said she tries to help novice sellers with pricing.
"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."
Still, some people go to flea markets nursing a faint hope that they'll find a Picasso in a stack of old prints or a signed letter written by Thomas Jefferson tucked inside an old book. It's the stuff flea-market legends are made of.
But is it fair to buy a priceless antique from a little old lady who has marked it for $3? Should buyers say something or snap up the deal and quietly and joyously walk away?
Prieto said it's complicated and really depends on the individual situation.
"Over the years, I've seen it from both sides," he said, recalling a dealer who sold a valuable painting only to learn its true worth a few months later when he read a newspaper story about the buyer's big flea-market score.
"I don't know the answer," said Prieto. "At flea markets, it's buyer beware, and it's really also dealer beware."
Both Burt and Prieto said investing a little time researching items is the best way to determine fair prices.
"People need to know what they're selling," Burt said.
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."
Prieto said there's also a whole set of underlying, unwritten rules that ethical dealers live by. They try to be fair, they don't deliberately misrepresent items, and they consider haggling with children or seniors to be in bad taste.
"They really police themselves," said Prieto. "The dealers will almost drive out anyone they think is being unethical."
But, most of the time, sellers are helping one another. Burt said they are really like an extended family.
"A lot of times they come and see people they know," she said. "They have friends they never would have met if they hadn't come here."
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.
"It's really an everything market," said Burt, who, as a seller, specializes in teddy bears and M&M memorabilia.
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.
But, for Prieto, it's the endless cast of characters with their infinite variety of odds and ends who make flea markets fun.
"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."