Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
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amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
“Flea Market the Ticket for Clutter” AntiqueWeek 42 (February 15, 2010) We got off to a slow start last summer.  The six 30 gallon tubs we bought at Home Depot had been lent to someone who was moving.  It was the friend of a friend—no one connected with the business—the details were a little vague.  We did not know, for example, where he had moved to. Bushwick it turned out.  Weeks later he showed up with the tubs.  Flea market season had begun. We’re eBay vendors.  We list and list and, when times are good, ship and ship. Back then, we weren’t shipping very much.  Revenue was down and we had run out of storage space.   The heaps of extraneous objects that cluttered the shelves and filled the basement were depressing. Some were damaged, but most were insufficiently valuable to justify listing.   How we ended up with so much out-of-scope inventory requires an explanation. Our supplier does estate cleanouts. The big pieces are sold at an Upper East Side gallery and the smalls come to us. It’s a family business.  Rather, it’s two family businesses working together. Every week a shipment of four or five dozen objects arrives, conveying the message: “This is what we think of you.” Incalculable hostility is represented by the crayon-on-paper chronicle of a schoolboy’s field trip (we were advised to sell it as folk art).  Likewise the abstract-expressionist composition that, when examined out of frame, was signed on the verso “Mikey Jones, Grade 4.” Less provocative but equally frustrating are the odd pieces of porcelain, 1970s barware, and glittering blobs of Murano glass—fine objects all, but of little use if you need to meet a payroll of five. The flea market was the answer, but it had to be a real flea market, not one of those weekend assemblies of jugglers, face painters and organic honey vendors that are popping up in Brooklyn schoolyards. In New York City, there is only one place that qualifies. For years the Hell’s Kitchen flea market has been a destination for collectors, eccentrics, and obsessive types. It used to be a lot bigger, but the neighborhood was built up and gentrified, so the market is now squeezed into fewer lots. For a time it even looked as if the parking garage might be lost, but it was saved from development due to the financial collapse. It was in the garage where we set up our booth. No need to provide local color.  Like I said, it is a parking garage. One dealer, one parking space is the typical distribution. The fine arts set up along the perimeter where the pipes and wires that line the walls serve as picture rails.   The hours took getting used to.  We got there at 7:00 to find the regulars ready to help unpack the week’s haul. The first hour was the busiest. The dawn rush over, I sat down to a breakfast of cold tea and congealed egg sandwich. This was the moment for my neighbor to pop his head around the corner and say, “Ah, life at the top!” I report without vanity that we were a terrific success. The reason: An endless supply of fresh stock.  Not to mention we were unhampered by all those complicated retentive feelings.  Absent, too, were the normal profit calculations. Sure, we wanted to make money, but this was stuff we found lying around the warehouse.  Who knows how much had been paid for it.   Let’s face it: we had the good cheer of people who are protected from risk. Not for us the weekly trawls of the Salvation Army. Nor did we endure a long midnight drive and camping out in the van. At the end of the day, we looked forward to a guaranteed per diem and sleeping at home. Monday through Friday I fill in hundreds of little cells on a color-coded spreadsheet.  Customer emails range from deliberative to vindictive (“You are a disgrace to the Meissen community.”). At the flea market, I got back in touch with the emotional side of collecting.  I saw the longing and panic. Somebody’s heart beat a little faster at the sight of the stuffed leather pig with straw coming out of its bottom.  The UPS man had been tripping over it for months. We were happy to see it go to a good home.  Another case of love at first sight: The Dante bust with a jagged hole in the right temple.  It was taken straight out of our arms while unloading the car. Other objects required compromise (that is, lowering the price until someone took it off our hands).  The China Trade covered dish (cover missing) fell into this category. We never took personally the undesirability of our merchandise—on the contrary. Getting rid of the stuff—at any price—freed up bin space for the following week. One surprise was the social similarities between the flea market antiques world and the Park Avenue antiques world.  The gossip, banter, and jockeying for position that go on in the 7th Regiment Armory also go on in the parking garage.  We also had the same types of collectors, including the know-it-all, the therapy seeker, and the silent surveyor.  The last are the men who stand in front of a booth and wordlessly and comprehensively survey the inventory. Their steady, impassive gaze brings to mind the scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much, when the assassin shows up at Jimmy Stewart’s hotel room. There were differences, of course.  I thought that the flea market experience could have been improved by a dozen waiters in black tie circulating with wine and cheese, but no vendor goes hungry or thirsty. At noon deliverymen whisk by with take-out menus, and one entrepreneur has mounted an old Coleman cooler to a wagon.  He loops around every few hours. Just when I thought I was going to going to faint from the heat, he would reach into the cooler and pull out an iced Coke. One day I noticed that the man who pulled the drinks cart was also the bathroom attendant. This was not in the job description.  Then again, lots of things I’ve encountered in the past 18 months are not in the job description.  At the top of the list: The worst financial crisis in 30 years.  Just how much things have changed is revealed by the e-mail archive I took over from my predecessor, whose tenure coincided with the mid-decade boom. “Thanks for the bonus.  I agree that weekly sales should be at least $20,000” reads one typical message.  Online sales picked up after Labor Day.  The dollar was low and there seemed to be more optimism about the economy.  We weren’t grossing any $20,000 a week, but the hemorrhaging had stopped. The months of stagnation were over. It no longer made sense to do the flea market every week. Once or twice a month is the new frequency. The basement is still overflowing with stuff, so it looks like the flea market will be part of our business model for many more months.  I’m looking forward to it.