Once again, variety is the spice of … Brimfield

On a sunny Saturday morning in J&J’s field, Emily Lewis can barely keep up with the demand people have for her vintage chenille Crazy Cakes. That’s what she calls her innovative invention – large stuffed cakes fashioned from discarded, yet eye catching, scraps of vintage chenille, feed sack fabrics and distressed cottons. The plush pastries take on a look all their own with other vintage embellishments. She sells them at a shop in South Yarmouth, Mass., online at www.crazycakes.biz and at the Brimfield Antiques Show where they sell like nowhere else.

“They are made from vintage throws or fabrics. Women love them,” said Lewis of her creations. “They fly out of here. It’s a fun thing to have around.”

The Cape Cod, Mass., dealer sells larger cakes for $24 while her cupcake pincushions sell for around $14. Lewis’ booth was nestled in back of J&J’s Field, surrounded by antique furniture, primitives and unusual folk art. Her location paid off. The May Brimfield ended up being her second-most profitable show in seven years.

A self-described indie designer with a compulsive sewing disorder, she produces dozens of cakes for each show. Dealers selling objects like Lewis’ – new ideas incorporating old or vintage objects – were in greater supply during the show, May 7-14 in Brimfield, Mass.

Dealers said that despite changes in the antiques trade, Brimfield is still home to some of the best shopping on the East Coast. Dealers selling vintage or “retro” items saw sales skyrocket as collectors and decorators turn their heads to more affordable, unique and graphically pleasing items.
The clear weather (it only rained for a few hours for Friday’s opening of J&J’s Field) boosted sales and morale for shoppers and sellers alike. The rain didn’t affect the crowds, and many dealers claimed their best sales during the three-hour downpour.

Stephen Zussman, a major East Coast postcard and ephemera dealer, secured a rare spot on Route 20 and saw strong sales all week. Route 20 serves as the main corridor that runs through throngs of dealers. For years, Zussman used to follow the openings and closings of various shows during the week in typical Brimfield tradition. After so many years of the rigorous schedule, a spot good for a week on the strip was too enticing to pass up. This season he was selling a unique set of postcards featuring the history of the Roman Empire. Unusual items like this are always Zussman’s best sellers, he said. “The most unusual objects are also the most sought after at Brimfield,” he said.

That wasn’t always the case at Brimfield, said veteran dealer Todd Hamel. He started selling at Brimfield in 1960, when auctioneer Gordon Reid founded the first and original antiques show at J&J’s Field. Reid sold space to about 70 dealers in his farm field along a stretch of Route 20 for about $8 a spot. More than 40 years later, J&J boasts more than 600 dealers and booth rent costs a few hundred bucks. The original show sparked the creation of 20 more shows that are all held three times a year in May, July and September on the same one-mile stretch. Shows with names such as New England Motel, Sturtevant’s, Shelton Antiques Show, Quaker Acres and Crystal Brook all start in the morning and last for at least a full day if not all five days of the show. Brimfield regularly sees more than 2,000 dealers and tens of thousands of customers.

Atlantique City dealer Dick Grace was selling in J&J’s field on opening day. He is a high school history dealer who works hard finding quality items at price points that appeal to entry-level collectors. This season he brought an early printing of the famous book Little Black Sambo. The English edition was specially designed with blank pages so that children could add their own illustrations to the story.

“We tend to have the $100 to $200 range which is what a lot of collector’s can afford,” Grace said. “When we do the children’s books, we’ve got the Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys but they’ve got dust jackets. But yet we’ve also got the 1970s versions for $3 or $5. If a parent wants to get their kids involved in starting to read we’ve got the cheaper books but we’ve got the $20 and $25 versions with dust jackets for collectors.” Grace’s full interview from his booth at Brimfield can be seen on AntiquesTV at www.antiquetrader.com.

Across the field, David and Deborah Lemieux of Stonegate Antiques, were selling their eclectic inventory of vintage medical and scientific paraphernalia as well as black memorabilia. David Lemieux pays close attention to his display, making his booth look like a countertop of an 1895 pharmacy. Deborah Lemieux said black memorabilia is still a popular collecting subject for a variety of reasons. From mammy bottle doll doorstops to a Wyandotte, Mich., made game board with derogatory stereotypes, Deborah said black memorabilia means more to collectors than just a checklist of items to acquire.

“Black memorabilia has become very popular, I would say maybe in the last eight years or so,” she told AntiquesTV. “After the Civil Rights Act was passed, everybody packed their stuff up. They were afraid to even have it in their homes anymore because they didn’t want to be seen as perpetuating negative stereotypes. I think that the black community as a whole has come around to the idea that it is part of their history, their cultural history. Both the positive and negative aspects need to be maintained, need to be remembered much like the decimation of the Jewish population during WWII. They feel, derogatory or not, the things have to be out there. It’s an opportunity for teaching.”

Each show at Brimfield has developed its own gimmick to set itself apart from the rest. The opening of May’s Market can only be described as a feeding frenzy. The show’s 600 dealers cannot set up or sell merchandise prior to the 9 a.m. start on Thursday the week of the show.

At May’s, it’s not unusual to find fine art next to Russian silver next to vintage action figures. Likewise, the type of dealer found at May’s can be just as varied. Some are full-time dealers and others are armchair antiques hunters.

Despite the changes, one aspect of Brimfield has always stayed the same: the variety of merchandise is overwhelming.

Back in the beginning it wasn’t unusual for a dealer to sell everything they came with … and then some. Hamel sold furniture, glass, porcelain and various decorative objects. He said every show is a good show – no matter the weather.

“We would buy and sell all weekend,” he said. “It was great, just great. Back then, if a chair didn’t sell, I’d heave it over the fence and leave it. Things have changed now.”

Even now, in his 80s, Hamel barely misses a show. His daughter and son-in-law were by his side for one more season this May.

Hamel said the weird mix merchandise and different rules for each field is what makes the show such a success each season. There’s no oversight, no one “calls the shots” and no one can predict what will happen each season.
And that’s just how he hopes it will stay for the next 47 years.