How To Conquer the Brimfield Antiques Show

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The Brimfield Fair, held three times a year in Brimfield, Massachusetts, is worth the trip for seeking treasure for the new old house.

The Brimfield Fair, held three times a year in Brimfield, Massachusetts, is worth the trip for seeking treasure for the new old house.

Spend some time reading about the experiences of Brimfield attendees—veterans and novices alike—and their descriptions will run the gamut from exhausting and overwhelming to awesome and inspirational. Combined, these impressions summarize the real experience: The show takes stamina but offers great rewards. For all of the traffic and the early starts and the long days and the price haggling, everyone agrees on one thing: Brimfield is worth it. Which is why thousands from all over the country and abroad attend over and over again.

Then & Now

Brimfield began as a modest open-air auction back in the 1950s, named “Gordon Reid’s Famous Flea Market” after the founding auctioneer. As the show gained popularity, largely due to the quality of the merchandise and Reid’s reputation in antiques circles, neighbors began opening up their yards and fields, and promoters purchased land and hosted their own dealers. Over time, the show’s scope has expanded with additional promoters and acreage.

(On a side note, Reid’s Famous Market has been renamed J & J Promotions by its operators, Reid’s daughters Judy and Jill, and is one of Brimfield’s most popular show fields.)

The fair not only has antique home furnishings, but also architectural salvage.

The fair not only has antique home furnishings, but also architectural salvage.

Today, Brimfield is billed as the world’s largest outdoor antiques and collectibles show. It is held three times a year, usually around Memorial Day, July Fourth, and Labor Day, for a six-day stretch (Tuesday through Sunday). When it gets going, more than 6,000 dealers and 130,000 visitors cram themselves into a one-mile stretch of Route 20 in Brimfield, a sleepy, rural town in western Massachusetts about an hour from Boston and more than three hours from New York City.

Newcomers will quickly find that Brimfield is actually a collection of 23 different shows, also called fields or flea markets, which are privately owned by promoters who enforce their own rules. The fields all have slightly different personalities—some are better known for authentic antiques, and seasoned attendees have their favorites—and their openings are staggered throughout the week.

Overall, the tri-yearly scene is a conglomeration of tents, tarps, food trucks, portable toilets, trucks of all shapes and sizes, transport containers, and, of course, crowds of people. There are also piles, shelves, bins, and boxes of wares. The range of offerings is beyond eclectic, bordering on staggering. There’s every type of collectible imaginable, from sports memorabilia to vintage fashion to ceramics to silver to toys. And there’s always an impressive array of antique and salvaged home parts, including lighting and plumbing fixtures, salvaged woodwork, furniture, and a host of decorative items.

Early 20th-century bronze sculptures are just one of the many finds at the fair.

Early 20th-century bronze sculptures are just one of the many finds at the fair.

Reputation

Melissa Sands of Vintage Promotions LLC is a show promoter herself. She lines up dealers for Vintage Garage Chicago, a vintage and antiques show held in the heart of Chicago one day per month in season. Having attended Brimfield at least once a year for the past six years as a dealer, she considers it an inspiration. Even allegiance to her own show does not stop her from describing Brimfield as “the Mecca.”

“There’s really no comparison,” she continues. “Brimfield is its own animal. East of the Mississippi, any dealer who is anybody is there. If New York City is the center of the world, then Brimfield is the center of the vintage world.”

If you’re an interior designer or even an antiques-savvy homeowner, says Sands, there’s no better place to find something that no one else has. “The uniqueness of the merchandise is unmatched,” she says, adding that future trends in home design and even fashion originate at Brimfield. “Buyers from Brooks Brothers, Tommy Hilfiger, and Ralph Lauren come to hunt and gather for their stores and window displays. Their tagged finds are likely the next hot trends,” she explains.

Nantucket-based interior designer Donna Elle visits Brimfield once a year and calls it a designer’s best-kept secret. “It’s excellent for vintage and reclaimed items,” she says. “For me, it’s all about resourcing and finding that one-of-a-kind product or vendor who provides custom and unique pieces.

“But it takes work to work it,” she continues. “Just like any market, whether in Paris or London or High Point, you have to walk the fields through rain and bugs to find the treasures and that ‘right’ fit.”

If You Go

The alternative to making bathtub gin, this antique distiller comes straight from the prohibition era.

The alternative to making bathtub gin, this antique distiller comes straight from the prohibition era.

Brimfield is not for the faint of heart, which is why the Brimfield Pocket Guide includes what it calls “Survival Tips.” Keep in mind that, if you’re planning on staying for consecutive days, accommodations in the area tend to book up to a year in advance. Traffic can be trying, but there are multiple parking areas available upon arrival.

The currency at Brimfield is cash, and whether items are tagged with prices or not, negotiating ultimately decides the value of a desired find. Prepare to respectfully haggle with dealers and, as a rule of thumb, if you see something you love, buy it; don’t wait. Also, dealers are more likely to make deals at their show’s end before loading their trucks. Once you’ve made a purchase, ask for a receipt and, if the item is large or heavy, mark down the field and booth number, find out what time the dealer’s leaving, and be sure and return in time for pickup.

Plan your trip for a weekday (try to avoid Saturday, when the crowds of lookers increase) and arrive early (meaning sunrise). Consider doing some research beforehand and seek out the fields best suited for your needs; tackle additional shows if you have extra time. Wear comfortable clothing, watch the forecast, and try to keep your hands free for grabbing and deal-making. Maintain your energy and stay focused on your goals, and Brimfield will deliver with memorable finds.