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Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America

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One dealer's journey from the populist mayhem of flea markets to the rarefied realm of auctions reveals the rich, often outrageous subculture of antiques and collectibles.

Millions of Americans are drawn to antiques and flea-market culture, whether as participants or as viewers of the perennially popular Antiques Roadshow or the recent hit American Pickers. This world has the air of a lottery: a $20 purchase might net you four, five, or six figures. Master dealer Curt Avery, ...

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Overview


One dealer's journey from the populist mayhem of flea markets to the rarefied realm of auctions reveals the rich, often outrageous subculture of antiques and collectibles.

Millions of Americans are drawn to antiques and flea-market culture, whether as participants or as viewers of the perennially popular Antiques Roadshow or the recent hit American Pickers. This world has the air of a lottery: a $20 purchase might net you four, five, or six figures. Master dealer Curt Avery, the unlikely star of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, plays that lottery every day, and he wins it more than most. Occasionally he gets lucky, but more often, he draws on a deep knowledge of America's past and the odd, fascinating, and beautiful objects that have survived it.

Week in, week out, Avery trawls the flea and antiques circuit-buying, selling, and advising other dealers in his many areas of expertise, from furniture to glass to stoneware, and more. On the surface, he's an improbable candidate for an antiques dealer. He wrestled in high school and still retains the pugilistic build; he is gruff, funny, and profane; he favors shorts and sneakers, even in November; and he is remarkably generous toward both competitors and customers who want a break.

But as he struggles for a spot in a high-end Boston show, he must step up his game and, perhaps more challenging, fit in with a white-shoe crowd. Through his ascent, we see the flea-osphere for what it truly is-less a lottery than a contact sport with few rules and many pitfalls. This rich and sometimes hilarious subculture rewards peculiar interests and outright obsessions-one dealer specializes in shrunken heads; another wants all the postal memorabilia he can get. So Avery must be a guerrilla historian and use his hard-earned knowledge of America's past to live by and off his wits. Only the smartest survive in one of America's most ruthless meritocracies.

Killer Stuff and Tons of Money is many things: an insider's look at a subculture replete with arcane traditions and high drama, an inspiring account of a self-made man making his way in a cutthroat field, a treasure trove of tips for those who seek out old things themselves, and a thoroughly fresh, vibrant view of history as blood sport.

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Editorial Reviews

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Whatever the American Dream once was, it now seems to be about making an Antiques Roadshow-worthy killing. Every weekend, thousands of us trawl cluttered flea-market tables of family heirlooms and rejects to search for the one thing that will establish our good taste and pay for junior's college diploma. Among those hunters is Curt Avery, the plucky antiques dealer at the center of Maureen Stanton's charming new book. Avery, a former high school wrestler who favors sneakers and shorts, doesn't quite fit the image of antiques connoisseur. Through his sometimes steep uphill learning experiences, Killer Stuff & Tons of Money guides us through this intensely competitive subculture. An engaging read filled with tips and tricks of the trade.

The Wall Street Journal
These detours add depth to the narrative, but the sheer volume of digressive material becomes a distraction, and Ms. Stanton struggles to identify a clear thematic, intellectual or narrative arc in Mr. Avery's activities. Thatcher Freund's excellent 1993 book, "Objects of Desire," which Ms. Stanton cites with admiration, might have provided a model: Mr. Freund narrated the history of three valuable antiques, discussing their manufacture, historical use, rediscovery and eventual sale at auction. A similarly tight focus on a few incidents or objects might have helped Ms. Stanton eliminate some of the sprawl in "Killer Stuff."

But perhaps it's appropriate that a work about the antiques trade should include a bit of decorative clutter. Ms. Stanton captures the lower and middle echelons of the business with great skill, and her diverting and wholly unpretentious book makes a fine companion for a day at the beach—or a weekend spent treasure hunting at Brimfield. —Mr. Lopez is editor at large of Art & Antiques.

Kirkus Reviews

A tour d'horizon of the world of antiques, from flea markets to antiques shows to high-end auction houses, with a brief stopover at eBay and theAntiques Roadshow.

Before Stanton (Creative Nonfiction/Univ. of Missouri) reconnected with her pseudonymous old college friend, "Curt Avery," who had become a professional antiques dealer, she was "the self-anointed Queen of the Flea-Market Dollar Table." Like many Americans, she was on the lookout for an appealing bargain and just as happy with an inexpensive reproduction as the real thing. When she and Avery met again in 2000, she agreed to fly across the country to attend an auction where some old bottles that he coveted were on offer. He asked her to be his proxy bidder while he hid at the back and signaled his bids. This was her introduction to a fascinating subculture, which she calls "the 'flea' realm." Over the years, she attended many fairs and flea markets with Avery as what she calls a "participant observer," getting up before dawn to help him set up displays, grabbing food on the run and camping out next to his truck at night. "The greatest reward of trailing Avery," she writes, "has been to rekindle my fascination with history." Stanton writes about the thrill of spotting a pair of late-18th-century sugar snips mixed in with a pile of tools, and learning the history of opium bottles, which were produced in the millions until the 20th century, when the sale of opium in grocery stores was prohibited. The author learned to truly value these objects—which preserved the collective memory of a past way of life—and to value the craftsmanship they embodied.

A treasure-trove of a book, especially for would-be antiquers.

Annie Groer
Curt Avery is the fake name of the very real hero of Killer Stuff and Tons of Money, which is too bad. Because after whipping through Maureen Stanton's utterly engaging, heavily researched account of her old college buddy's life on the yard-sale flea-market antiques-show auction-house circuit, I wanted to invite myself into his multi-state universe and hang out…Not since Larry McMurtry's fictitious rogue "Cadillac Jack" has there been such a charming emissary from the world of the previously owned.
—The Washington Post
Annie Groer
After whipping through Maureen Stanton’s utterly engaging, heavily researched account of her old college buddy’s life on the yard-sale flea-market antiques-show auction-house circuit, I wanted to invite myself into his multi-state universe and hang out with all those dealers, collectors, sport shoppers, decorators, scholars and especially the pseudonymous Windsor chair restorer whose brilliantly altered and repaired pieces have fooled a number of top antiquarians and museums.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594202933
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/9/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.36 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Maureen Stanton's work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Iowa Review, American Literary Review, The Sun, and Riverteeth, among other journals, and anthologies, including Best of The Sun, Best of Brevity, and Best Texas Writing. She has received numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize, the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and a Maine Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri.
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Table of Contents

A Note to the Reader ix

Prologue: Treasure Hunters: The Reality 1

Chapter 1 Opium Bottles and Knuckleheads 5

Chapter 2 One Man's Trash 14

Chapter 3 Boot Camp 19

Chapter 4 An Antiques Dealer Is Made 34

Chapter 5 That Good, Good Thing 43

Chapter 6 Everything Rich and Strange 55

Chapter 7 Ovoid Nuts and Southern Belles 62

Chapter 8 All Sad Things Are Just Like This 71

Chapter 9 Hot Potato 90

Chapter 10 Tea for Two 111

Chapter 11 Crowded House 136

Chapter 12 Two Heads Are Better Than One 145

Chapter 13 Stump the Dealer 156

Chapter 14 Shop Victoriously 170

Chapter 15 Gold Is Where You Find It 183

Chapter 16 Roadshow Rage 190

Chapter 17 Wilmington, aka the John Malkovich Show 202

Chapter 18 Living the Pilgrim-Century Life 211

Chapter 19 Red Carpet Affair 223

Chapter 20 Captain Antiques 238

Chapter 21 Life with Principle 256

Coda: A Thousand Years 270

Acknowledgments 277

List of Pseudonyms 279

Notes 281

Bibliography 311

Index 317

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 17 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 27, 2011

    An Inspirational Book

    One might think you'd need to collect antiques, or love the culture of flea markets, in order to enjoy Maureen Stanton's Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America. Neither is true of me, and I devoured this book. I'm half-in-love with the book's central figure, an antiques dealer named Curt Avery who'll happily rise at 3:00 a.m. and drive ten hours in order to look at an original Shaker box. As Stanton masterfully conveys through dialogue and description, Avery possesses what so many of us yearn for: an unwavering passion for something. He also has the concentration and observational skills of a Sherlock Holmes, reading every object he comes across for clues to its past. Every chapter of Killer Stuff provides the history of some strange and wonderful object, including the one-quart butter churn and six-board blanket chest. Stanton's scope goes way beyond material objects, however. This is also a book about collecting, about what it means, philosophically, to seek out objects of a certain kind and gather them around you. It's also a book about our relationship to history, particularly American history. Most of all, it's a book about loving, about yearning for and treasuring things from the past. A wistful note occasionally sounds in this otherwise lively, often humorous book, a mourning not only for the end of certain objects but for a way of thinking that once valued the singular and handmade. Given the popularity of American Pickers and Antiques Roadshow (the latter of which Stanton examines in fascinating detail), we might think the antique business is thriving. But as Stanton shows, that's not the case. People want reproductions, not antiques; they desire the look of the old but the inexpensiveness of the new. Reading Stanton's book might well change their minds; it did mine, especially after reading this passage: "But when I see the lamp on my kitchen table, I have that feeling that Avery and other collectors and dealers have, a blush of warmth, pride, and even something that feels like-I'm slightly embarrassed to admit-affection. Since I bought the lamp, I've grown to love it more. If my house were on fire, I'd take the things I cherish most, family photos, drawings by my nieces and nephews, original paintings by my sister, Sally, an artist, and now the lamp. I'm convinced that I'll own the lamp until I die, after which I hope someone else will love it, too, and then pass it forward, this beautiful antique handmade thing that brings a glow to my kitchen, and my spirits." How could I ever want to buy a lamp from Target after reading this?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 21, 2011

    Read this book...You'll LOVE it!!

    This book was such a great read! What an inside look we get into the antiques world. I love Curt Avery. He's full of charm, wit and integrity. The flea market/auction/antiques world and its characters is fascinating, as is the history behind many of the beloved objects discussed. I learned so much from this book. It is hard to put down...you just want to keep following Maureen and Curt through their hectic and often funny adventurues. The writing is seamless and often times I felt like a story was being told directly to me.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2011

    Good read

    Well written, very informative.

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  • Posted August 16, 2011

    Didn't want it to end

    A much more interesting read than I thought it would be - enjoyed it very much.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2011

    Highest Recommendation!

    Great book, a hidden gem of it's own! Glad I found it!The writing is clever and the story fascinating. Who knew the antique world could be so entertaining!

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  • Posted July 7, 2011

    Good read

    This book is an interesting and informative look at historic Americana throught the experienced eye of a "character" who loves his business and deals with the socio-economic spectrum from A-Z. Keep your dictionary handy as Stanton's powers with the written word will enhance the story and keep the pages turning. It's almost like you wish you were paying attention in English class. She delivers in a way that actually makes you feel smarter while keeping her vivid story flowing. Example: if asked to describe the non-existent male anatomy of Captain Marvel, would you have come up with "analog?" The book clicks on all cylinders and it's fun!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2011

    Great Read!

    Interesting and fun!

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  • Posted June 21, 2011

    Highly Recommended!

    This is a great look into the life of an antique dealer and the flea market/auction scene. Witty writing and a few laughs. I loved learning about the objects of the past and what they were used for. Fascinating "stuff"!

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