Read an Excerpt
Green glass beads
I love you so,
I shall howl at
till you're mine.
There is something in the air at a flea market. Something that is weirdly, emotionally satisfying in a modern sort of way. Maybe it's a molecular dance, produced by the nutty combinations of all those things from different decades, lying side by side. Where elseoutside of a gallery at the height of Surrealismwould a rusted piece of farm machinery sit next to a handmade rocket ship, which sits next to a Lucite salad bowl, which sits next to an Arts and Crafts pot, and so on?
In fact, if you're accustomed only to the carefully presented, sanitized, macro-vision retail environments of the 1990s, the sheer, random messiness of a flea market is invariably a bracing, cold-water shock. However, it does prepare you for the work aheadto establish order and make connections. Because at any epic flea market it's up to us, the buyers, to connect the dots. It's the ultimate hide and seek.
But whatever it is that lures us in, it is wildly contagious. Every weekend millions and millions of Americans flock to these transient Brigadoon-like cities to browse the entire twentieth century, and even some of the nineteenth century. They come to exercise their wits, their eye, and to turn the sport of pricing from spectator to participatory.
Origins of Flea Style
Theory one It's not easy to live in the age of the chip.
It only takes a brief surge of electricity to disable just about anything that's new, such as your phone, your computer, or your television.
Life controlled by unstable software andauxiliary sources is just too complex to be reliable. No one needs to understand the details of how an electronic pulse plays out electronically
in order to understand it intuitively. Old stuff can be fixed. New stuff can't.
And worse yet, unlike old Leica cameras that clicked on and on through foxholes and jungles and wind-up watches that never needed batteries, new stuff is rarely known for setting endurance records.
That being the case, you can understand why many people are choosing to make their lives simpler and more reliable by surrounding themselves with simple stuff from a simpler time.
The urge that pulls "junkers" to dusty fields and even dustier sheds across the country could also be primal. It could even be the same itch that motivated medieval crusaders long ago. They too probably left home just to get out of the socio-economic rut they were in with little sense of what they might bring home for the mantelpiece. Some went to search for the grail. Some went for sheer adventure.
The ethos remains the same. At the end of the day, what you buy is curiously irrelevant to the hunt. Even when you've had a bad day in terms of finding an intangibly wonderful thing, you can still return with powerful visual memories to savor: like the austere Yankee architecture that pervades the upstate New York town of Hudson, or the fabled 450-Mile Flea Market that stretches from Covington, Kentucky, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Yes, you might find a small silver flute along your routebut the stop to commemorate your coup at a local root beer stand will be a part of what you remember as long as that silver flute sits on your mantelpiece. And what's behind the flute is another story entirely . . .
Origins of Flea Style
Theory two The clock is ticking.
Many successful dealers swear our tastes run thirty years backward, i.e., as you're wandering around a flea market these days, the late 1960s should be singing a siren song.
Look for enameled cast-iron cookware, abstract art, even plastic fantastic chairs.
However, other dealers claim the noise you hear is coming from a far bigger clockthe antique process itself. By 2001 all that stuff gathering dust will be worth more. Not just economically but sentimentally, as a way of making sense of our journey through time. As the countdown to the millennium picks up speed, even the recent twentieth century will suddenly be as far from us as the nineteenth century used to be. This automatically increases the worth of stuff from the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, allowing us to think of the entire twentieth century as a mall of unlimited possibilities filled with souvenirs par excellence.
So, Arts and Crafts pottery is back. Vintage toasters keep on plugging. Even the old vinyl Scotch Plaid picnic coolerswhich the manufacturer used to swear were used by more hospitals to carry body parts than any other coolerare heading off to the beach one more time.