Brimfield Antiques Show through the eyes of a young collector

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There's no predicting which items may be offered in a vendor's booth. Here, a Mid-century Modern typist's chair mingles with a 19th century nail keg and an old U.S. Post Office desk. All photos courtesy Danielle Bryant.

BRIMFIELD, Mass. — Dealer after dealer told me the same story about this year’s Brimfield antiques show: All things industrial are hot, and all things traditional are cold.

Gary H. Moise, of Orange Trading Company in Orange, Mass., has been coming to Brimfield since 1971 when Gordon Reid, the late patriarch of the Brimfield antiques scene, recruited him for the show. He’s blunt in his assessment of the antiques business: “If you work twice as hard for half the money, everything is fine.”

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“Industrial stuff is what everyone is looking for. Wire baskets or working benches,” he says. “Oriental rugs and American furniture are tough. Everything really in the furniture department has gone down. Young people don’t want it and older people are trying to get rid of it.”

“It’s a strange business and what you’d expect to not bring very much money brings a lot of money now,” he adds.

The declining interest in traditional antiques has affected all but the rarest items in the most pristine condition. And yet, in the heart of New England antiques country, it was the wooden furniture and traditional styles that seemed to be the specialty of most of the dealers there. With the exception of a handful of extremely busy dealers, the vintage modern look that I – like so many young collectors – was after was in short supply.

But it makes sense that Brimfield would be a show that clings to tradition. The show began in 1959, when an antique dealer named Gordon Reid invited 67 dealers he knew to a flea market he was holding behind his house in Brimfield, Mass.

Today, the town’s population swells from 3,609 to more than 20 times that when 5,000 dealers converge for the three weeks each year that the shows take place.

The Brimfield show actually consists of more than 20 separately owned and operated flea markets. After the shows clear out, Brimfield returns to its roots as a sleepy western Massachusetts town (about an hour and a half west of Boston).

Trish LeTemp of Eddyville, Ky.-based The Red Door Antiques, was one dealer who specialized in the vintage-modern look – but she, like other dealers, said that the recession is taking its toll.

“The people who are really into it, it’s not going to matter. The casual shoppers are definitely affected by it.”

The hottest single item at Brimfield this year seemed to be vintage electric fans; every fan was either in the hands of a collector, or was sitting on a shelf with a sold sign on it. Just a few years ago, these fans were thrown out without a second thought. Today, they’re a hot and reliable seller on eBay. Nearly every electric fan that’s been listed over the past few weeks has sold, and most with multiple bids. A vintage Zephyr Airkooler electric fan garnered 17 bids on its way to a $355 hammer price. Even a vintage Westinghouse fan, with a rusted base and a desperate need for rewiring, brought multiple bids to close at $49.99.

Eric Schultz of Brimfield Barn said, “Industrial is what’s in. The Victorian stuff isn’t selling these days. It’s a real rough economy. The people who have money want real high-end stuff and then low-end – $50 and under – sells well too.” As other dealers said, it’s the middle-range that’s struggling. LeTempt said the industrial stuff has been “very hot” for her business. “Factory items repurposed – tables, a lot of wire – that’s the really hot stuff.” Repurposing these items for use in the home is popular.

I asked LeTempt about the appeal of industrial furniture, much of which looks, to the untrained eye, not all that different from trash.

“I think it’s so different,” she said, trying to explain what attracts young people to the industrial look. “It’s been so long with the wood tables. Younger people don’t want things to be matchy-matchy. I would pair a couple of country chairs with an industrial table. Look at the way people dress; it’s the same thing.”

Richard D. Conley has been running a booth he calls the Brimfield Trading Post (“Pilgrim to Pop,” he told me, describing his eclectic style) since 1996, and couldn’t wait to complain about the town’s “No selling before dawn” rule.

But complaints aside, he says the recession is a buying opportunity. And he’s buying a lot. “I’m buying country; I’m buying Art Nouveau; I’m buying Empire,” he says. “It’s like the real estate business. This is the best time to buy. If people are here not stocking up, they’re missing the boat. There’s an opportunity here.”

The first Brimfield show of the year took place  May 10-15 . The next show is July 12-17; the final show of the year is Sept. 6-11.

Zac Bissonnette is the author of “Debt-Free U: How I Paid For an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents” and has appeared on “The Today Show” and CNN as well as a contributing editor to Antique Trader on WGBH and NPR. Everything he knows about money was learned yard saling with his mother.

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More Images:

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A Brimfield staple, the Pilgrim Sandwich vendor booth is always parked on Route 20, which divides the town in half. The sandwich is a hunk of robust turkey topped with Thanksgiving dinner trimmings of stuffing, and cranberry sauce on a bun.
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Antique and vintage eyeglass dealer Ed Welch is a walking billboard during the thrice annual Brimfield antiques and collectibles shows. His booth offers frame inventory dating from 1550 to 1985. He is one of the estimated 5,000 dealers who pack the tiny town during every show.
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A vendor's faux distressed sign and an imported cigar-store Indian represent the 'modernization' of Brimfield and the new reproductions that can be found at the show. However distressing they are to sellers of old objects, young shoppers and decorators are buying repros at a steady pace.
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Most dealers find it profitable to specialize in one are of inventory. A small selection of tin litho clockwork toys is protected from the sun.
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Taking a cue from major 'shelter magazines,' dealers are capitalizing on offering collectibles suitable for small-space decor, such as these miniature framed prints and crosstitch vignettes.
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A dealer's inventory of antique and vintage doorknobs and keyhole escutcheon plates are a welcome find to someone in the midst of a home restoration.
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Brimfield dealers often scour the countryside during the winter months to offer just about anything old. Here a collection of political pinback buttons are individually priced from $2 to $15.
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Wooden printer's type is a trendy commodity right now. Young shoppers love the vintage look and dealers love the easy availability of millions of obsolete letters found in nearly every old town.
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Vintage ceramic lady figurines in a rainbow of colors and priced at around $45 each offer a shopper a chance to buy an instant collection.

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