Beginner’s Guide to Flea Markets


Spring is on its way, and soon the open-air markets will fling wide their proverbial doors. If you’re eager to hit the city’s many flea markets but don’t know how to begin, here are six simple tips to get the most out of your experience. 

Come early – very early.

“For the smaller things, especially hot collectibles like magazine covers, unique figures, Beatles memorabilia – those go fast,” says Judith Gehrke, executive director of GreenFlea. Gehrke has 25 years’ experience coordinating the market, so she knows her stuff. Arrive as soon as the market opens to get first pick of the lot.

Damon George, who has been selling antiques and furniture – including a pair of green and black chairs once used on the set of The Addams Family – for 30 years, recommends arriving even earlier than that. “To really get a treasure, competition is fierce. If you really want to get the bargains, come early. 5 o’clock in the morning,” he advises. “That’s when most of the serious buyers, who buy for resale” arrive. If you want the very best price, consider hanging around before the market even opens.

Except for some things.

It you don’t mind relinquishing your pick of the litter, sometimes it actually pays to come late. “If you’re shopping for furniture, buy at the end of the day,” Gehrke suggests. Sellers don’t want to lug home a heavy item if they don’t have to. “What was 250 dollars in the morning might be yours for $175 at night because it’s one less thing to pack,” she says

Don’t be afraid to haggle.

Vendors expect a bit of bartering. “If something is over 15 dollars, or you’re going to buy two of them,” don’t be afraid to ask for a deal, says Gehrke. “It can’t ever hurt to ask questions like, ‘Would you take 25$ for the two of them?’” Offer a firm alternative price – not too low! – and barter from there. Not all vendors will haggle, but there’s no harm in asking politely. However, if an item is being sold for less than five dollars, “bargaining there is kind of insulting to everyone,” she warns.

But be nice!

This seems obvious but it’s worth repeating: be polite! “Haggle a little, that’s a given,” says John, a vendor at Antiques Garage who prefers to go by his first name. John has been collecting and selling vintage photographs and baseball cards for 25 years. Being overly aggressive is never a good idea, he warns. “Don’t get them angry at you or they won’t sell to you.”

“Cultivate” a seller.

Flea market vendors are usually very friendly, quirky people, with a passion for their collectibles. Talk to them! If you’re interested in something in particular – antique cameras, say – get to know the sellers who share your interests. “Tell them what you want,” John advises, “and they’ll cultivate you as a buyer,” letting you know when interesting merchandise has come in.  Plus, they may be more willing to give you a discount, or deliver larger items to your door at no extra cost.

Trust your vendor.

A serious vendor will usually be able to tell you about an item’s provenance, its history of ownership. Yes, there are some shady sellers out there who will say anything to get your money, but the reputable flea markets usually have a screening process, and most vendors are professionals who like to share their knowledge. “To people in this trade, it’s usually a matter of a glance to know whether or not [an antique] is ‘right’,” says George. So try to be trusting.

If you feel that an item is not of the provenance the vendor claimed, go talk to them. It’s possible they made a mistake or were misled themselves. In that case, “most reputable dealers may be willing to reduce the price, or offer to take it back,” says Gehrke. But don’t expect a seller to accept returns without a good reason. “It’s ‘buyer beware’ in general,” she warns, “but you don’t stay in business long if you’re doing sleazy stuff.”


One response to “Beginner’s Guide to Flea Markets

  1. Pingback: Flea Market Flip Premieres Friday | New York Vintage·

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