Gleaning Dusty Treasures

Got itchy wheels on the weekend? Feel like becoming a low-budget Indiana Jones or Marion Ravenwood? Hit the flea markets to find bargains on just about anything that can be tagged, bagged, and toted. Your wanderings may take you to New York, London, Paris, or the Virginia Bazaar in Caroline County.

For some people, the mere thought of buying objects that have been used by others makes them shudder. Then there's the rest of the population, who appreciate things of age and beauty and low price. After all, if you're looking for a mirror or dining room chairs to stylistically match your heavy (and good quality) table from great-grandma, you would do well to check out the flea markets. And, once you're there, you'll find a vast array of Americana which may give you some other decorating ideas.

Although it's true that the rise of online auction sites such as eBay has changed the way a lot of folk get their bargains, there is simply no substitute for seeing the actual item, checking its weight, holding it up to light, and dreaming on it as part of your decorating schemes.

Then there's the serendipity factor. You'll find things you never knew existed or discover something you had loved and had almost forgotten about. It's that pleasure of discovery that keeps customers coming back to the hunt.

Also, the bigger flea markets often have craftsmen and food vendors to round out the program and make the experience that much more enjoyable.

With the holiday shopping season rounding the corner and the cool fall weekends enticing drivers to hit the road, why not make a trip to a flea market part of the agenda?

Inside Knowledge

Some people are REALLY into flea markets. Believe it or not, Martha Stewart is one of them. So are Sheila Zubrod and David Stern. Their very useful book, Flea: The Definitive Guide, gives a good tool kit for flea market shoppers, reproduced here in short form:

A Flea Market Shopper's Tool Kit

  • A measuring tape and notes on your living space's dimensions
  • A notebook and pen to get the contact information for dealers whose stuff you fancy
  • Either a business or personal card to leave with a dealer who shares your interests
  • A good street map for hitting the markets in the big cities
  • Old blankets or bubble wrap for preparing semi-fragile finds for a ride home in the trunk of your car
  • A magnifying glass to check for hallmarks and flaws.
  • A magnet. These will stick to heavy, base metals, but they will not stick to copper, brass, bronze, silver, or steel.
  • Toilet paper. For yourself. Seriously, don't count on there being ample supplies at the public facilities found by most flea markets.

What's What

To get an idea of the kinds of things that are truly collectible, check out these guides which feature recent prices on a variety of merchandise:

Antiques Roadshow Collectibles 20th Century: The Complete Guide to Collecting 20th-Century Toys, Glassware, Costume Jewelry, Memorabilia, Ceramics & More from the Most Watched Series on PBS
If you like the series, you should find this book fun to browse, although no prices are listed. The CRRL also stocks The Antiques Roadshow Primer, an introductory guide.

Flea: The Definitive Guide to Hunting, Gathering, and Flaunting Superior Vintage Wares by Sheila Zubrod & David Stern
Explores the transcendent joys of the hunt, the importance of researching your faves, important differences between flea markets and garage sales. Find also overviews of some of the most favored collectibles and a list of the really huge flea markets.

The Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price List
The grand old man of price guides has lots of listings, but as it covers a wide range, they are necessarily super brief.

Miller's International Antique Price Guide
"…covers traditional antiques such as furniture, pottery, porcelain, glass, and silver, as well as the decorative arts, textiles, posters, kitchenware, and much more - over 60 subject categories in all. Items date from the Antique to the latest in contemporary design." A choice of many professionals. Includes auction houses, specialists, and Internet resources.

Warman's Flea Market Price Guide
While this guide, as others, can only give samplings within particular categories, it can give shoppers an idea of what to look for while browsing. It also contains a list of flea markets around the country and tips for wary buyers.

Once you settle into collecting a single type of item, be it china figurines, old tins, military items, furniture, books, or Star Trek memorabilia, you will probably wish to seek out specific guides that go into more depth about your fascination.

Moolah to Be Made

Yes, if you get sick of your purchases, you can get rid of them. Become your own dealer and join in a weekend of fun. You might just turn it into a regular source of income.

How To Make A Fortune With Other People's Junk: An Insider's Secrets To Finding And Reselling Hidden Treasures At Garage Sales, Auctions, Estate Sales, Flea Markets, Yard Sales, Antique Shows, And Ebay by G.G. Carbone
This eBook can be downloaded by our patrons through the library's Web site. Click here for more information on eBooks.

Hyman's Trash or Treasure Directory of Buyers: How and Where to Easily Sell Collectibles, Antiques & Other Treasures Found Around Your House & Neighborhood by Tony Hyman
A good source for collectors and sellers of older items (1970s and before).

Joys of Shabby Chic

Perhaps one of the best ways to easily incorporate your less than perfect finds into your décor is to simply go with it. The comfortable style, known as shabby chic, offers an old-style elegance to showcase your treasures. Madam Martha, too, finds flea markets a source of inspiration for her decorating endeavors.

Good Things from Tag Sales and Flea Markets
Martha teaches you how to shop effectively, where to go, and how to turn those odd bargains into useful and beautiful things.

Flea Market Style: Ideas & Projects for Your World by Jerri Farris and Tim Himsel.
An inspiring book to browse with its many lovely illustrations, but it does have a few practical things included, such as how to reattach table legs, coming up with an indoor use for an antique garden urn, and making very nice display cases for your flea market finds.

Flea Market Style: Decorating with a Creative Edge by Emelie Tolley and Chris Mead.
"…offer(s) exciting new ideas for choosing and decorating with flea market finds, illustrated with lush photographs of a variety of interiors from formal to funky. Beginning with the basics of 'working a flea,' the authors offer helpful strategies for identifying the genuine article and getting the best prices, ideas for new ways to use collectible items, and hints on caring for them. Chapters are devoted to every major category of flea market merchandise, from old textiles and paper goods to sports memorabilia, garden ornaments, kitchen collectibles, and major pieces of furniture, among others. With a resource section listing major shows and relevant publications, and eight unique projects that will cleverly allow you to transform your purchases into singular home accents…"
(From the publisher)


Some higher-end antiques can be found at bargain prices-but usually only if they're in tatty condition.

The Antiques Clinic: A Guide to Damage, Care, and Restoration by James Fielden
Detailed discussion of antiques and how to restore them.

Care and Repair of Everyday Treasures: A Step-by-step Guide to Cleaning and Restoring Your Antiques and Collectibles by Judith Miller
Step-by-step illustrations make this guide a good choice for a beginner.

Sotheby's Caring for Antiques: The Complete Guide to Handling, Cleaning, Display and Restoration
This connoisseur's companion for taking care of the finer things often recommends professional services.

More on the Fleas Online

Directory of Paris Flea Markets, Antique Dealers
Where to find picturesque bargains in lovely Paris.

Rummage Sales Are Good!
This Mother Earth News article from 1971 gives advice to beginning rummage sale shoppers.

Washington, DC Flea Markets
Details on some of the biggest and best flea markets in our area.