Shopping Tips From a Junkmaster
Sue Whitney and Ki Nassauer have just published their second book about recycling flea market finds into household furniture: Junk Beautiful: Room by Room Makeovers with Junkmarket Style.
Before beginning a nationwide book tour (first stop: Hell's Kitchen Flea Market in New York on March 29), Sue dished on the best flea markets in the country, her favorite finds, and what to keep in mind when searching for your own recycled treasures.
Q: What do you look for in a flea market?
A: I like them to have a little bit of everything: higher-end vintage, antiques, junk, architectural salvage, and industrial hardware. I want to get the flavor of it all. I don't necessary agree with the idea that bigger is better—it's more about who the vendors are rather than the number of them. I also like an outdoor aspect to a flea market—it adds to the excitement.
Q: What have been your favorite finds?
A: An old gynecological examination table! I took off the stirrups, added a new top, and put a TV with a swivel base on it. The drawers of the table opened from two different directions, so it was perfect for the configuration of the room. Another favorite was an old clock that I found for $300. It was three-and-a half-feet tall and about two-and-a half-feet wide, with glass walls so you could see all the gears. It was gorgeous. People were offering me $1,800, but I kept it and built a wine cabinet on top, so it looked like a piece of built-in furniture. I also love anything related to old chicken coops or hatcheries. It's all so well made and versatile!
Q: How do you get all of that new junk back home with you?
A: If you're flying to a flea market, always bring an empty suitcase and packing supplies with you. I've also learned that the cheapest way to ship something is through FedEx Ground, but you have to factor in shipping costs when you're considering a purchase; the heavier the item, the more it's going to cost you. Call your hotel ahead of time to see if the concierge can help you ship items back home. If you're driving, it's a different story—but don't let your eyes be bigger than your Volkswagen Bug! You can also plan a family or girlfriend road trip around a cluster of flea markets and rent a trailer.
Q: What are some flea market shopping tips?
A: Try the straitjacket approach: Walk through the whole market one time without buying anything. You'll have a much better idea of what's available and at what price.
Shop strategically: Antique fairs and flea markets are typically divided up into three sections: an indoor section, a reserved outdoor section, and a regular outdoor section. I go to the outdoor section first, because that's where the real junk is, and it's priced the lowest. It tends to go the fastest, because people are much more willing to whip out $2 on a whim than $200. Then I head to the reserved outdoor section. The indoor section is where the pricier, bigger, more fragile pieces are, so I won't go to there until the last half of the last day of an event. That's when people are more willing to deal and negotiate—they don't want to have to move that huge armoire back home, either.
Negotiate prices, but remember that vendors are people, too! It doesn't get you anywhere to be rude. If I walk into a vendor's area and see friendly prices, I don't negotiate. When I see something like a fan selling for $35 and I think it's overpriced, I decide, in my head, the price that I'd like to pay for it, say, $25. Then I ask the vendor if there is any room for negotiation—and let the vendor name the price. If the vendor says $20, then perfect! You're happy, and the vendor is happy.
Come prepared. I always bring rain boots and a rain jacket, a hat, and sunglasses because the day could start out sunny and end up rainy. I also bring water, snacks, and notebooks in my backpack. And bring cash in small bills! Have your money in $20s and under.
Set a budget. And don't go over it.
Q: What are your favorite flea markets in the country?
A: I'll list them without getting into the specifics about when and how often these markets are held—you can find all that information on the Internet:
• Kane County Flea Market, St. Charles, Ill., $5
• Rose Bowl Flea Market, Pasadena, Calif., $8