The antiques dealer goes retro at Virginia flea market

Ah, the good old days, when things were built to last, life was simpler and we weren’t constantly “plugged in,” whatever the heck that means. After dodging snowstorms in Pennsylvania, I escaped to Virginia to attend the Fredericksburg Big Flea, a first-rate show that never disappoints.

Old toys, books and vintage accessories were everywhere, making me wonder where the true antique, 100-plus-year-old items were hiding. What’s with this plethora of nostalgic knickknacks? Are we longing for snippets of our childhoods, something to remind us of our daily lives before smartphones, GPS and DVD players dominated our backseats?

Minutes after entering the building, my head began to throb, no doubt from the overactive synapses snapping in my brain. As I perused booths containing my grandmother’s black satin clutch, my mother’s chenille bedspread and my old hip-hugging bell bottoms, it hit me. A retro craze had definitely arrived, and from the looks of things, it wasn’t going away any time soon.

First and foremost I am a dealer. And dealers seek opportunities everywhere, all the time. With our eyes open and ears to the ground, we dealers obsess about the next auction, antique show or yard sale that may be around the corner, which makes us a bit different from our cousins, the collectors. A collector enjoys the thrill of the hunt. Once an item is added to his or her beloved collection, the latest acquisition is admired, fondled and treasured for years to come.

Not so with dealers. We revel in the thrill of the next profitable sale. If we do collect something, it’s always with the thought of selling down the road. This perspective might seem odd to some, but it’s mainly because dealers need to eat.

So I pondered and wandered down aisle after aisle crammed with keepsakes from the 1950s through the 1970s, knowing I wanted a piece of this action. Strolling down Nostalgia Lane and making money at the same time sounded like too much fun. And it was high time I had me some!

With racing heart, sweaty palms and splitting headache (my physical reaction to all great buying shows), I craned my head and stood on tiptoes to see. Where were the thickest crowds? The packed throng made it difficult to maneuver as I tried to ascertain what people were buying and which items had the best potential profit margin.

A lover of old tomes, I meandered into a booth stacked corner to corner with a wonderful selection and immediately spotted two Antique Trader price guides. Maybe I should sell books. I love books and believe one can’t have too many, something I prove at least twice a year when I ignore my husband’s threat of divorce and return from the library’s semi-annual sale with yet another box — yes, I said box — of hardbacks.

Waiting for my bibliophilic attack to subside, I rationalized that books are heavy and I’m not very strong. Lugging them around at shows might not be fun or easy on my back.

Move on, Melanie.

Eye candy was everywhere, and people were smiling, big, toothy grins. Everyone was having a good time mingling, recovering from house fever, a holdover effect of the recent winter storms. Secure in the knowledge that we all shared a love of these old, no not old, retro items, a festive mood filled the air, one I haven’t felt since this great recession began.

Before long, I’d made a serious dent in my Christmas shopping for 2011. Yes, Christmas in February. Did I mention this was a great buying show? For my friend the sewer and re-enactor, I found a gorgeous pair of Chantilly lace sleeves for just $30. She can use them on her next ball gown. For bird lovers, a trio of leather bound, out-of-print books with gorgeous prints were had for only $15. Lots of leaded cut crystal helped me finish my shopping spree when I bought a cobalt vase, standing about 14 inches high, for $40 — a great deal, considering it was tagged at $55.

Several booths showcased advertising memorabilia. Do your feet hurt? Who cares? How can you not smile when you see Ronald McDonald?

Get back to work, Melanie.

Against the far wall was the prettiest, most feminine booth in the world. Lace, tulle, silk and organza flooded my visual and tactile senses. Was Rose behind that screen, dressing for dinner on the Titanic? I just had to caress it. And buy it. I found two peacock-feather fans from the Edwardian era and a Victorian lace fan with ecru embroidery, paying just under $300 for the three items.

Well done, I thought, but Victorian and Edwardian finery is nothing new to my shop. I need vintage and retro. Wait! Over there! Old phones in every color of the rainbow screamed my name. My first phone was a pink Princess model my parents gave me on my 16th birthday. If excessive phone use does cause brain tumors, I’m doomed, recalling the hours I spent with that Princess attached to my ear, talking to my girlfriends about absolutely nothing.

Focus, Melanie! Find something new to sell.

Antique glassware, check — already sell a bit. Old prints — already have a few. Furniture ­­— not enough floor space for more. I need something small.

Then I saw it, or, should I say, them. The overhead light caught the shiny silver just right as a buyer examined his choice under a loop. Coins, lots and lots of shiny silver coins cascaded inside a display case, calling forth visions of Davy Jones’ locker or the Atocha shipwreck. Feeling like Mel Fisher, my feet led me over, but my mind went elsewhere.

My grandfather had collected both American and foreign coins, after serving almost four decades with the United States Marine Corps. Wheat-back pennies, Buffalo nickels and Mercury silver dimes were aplenty back then. How many happy hours had I spent sitting at my grandparent’s kitchen table, sorting through jars of change grandpa saved just for me? He’d pour the contents onto the vinyl tablecloth, and the two of us would search for treasure hour after hour, sorting first by coin type, then by date, then by mint mark.

Standing in the middle of the aisle, being bumped and jostled by passersby, I was transported back to this wonderful time that had been buried in the recesses of my memory. Unconsciously, I found myself relaxing and then smiling.


The opportunity I’d been looking for, a way to cash in on this retro, nostalgic craze, was right there. We could sell coins, real coins, made from precious metals. Already possessing a smidgen of numismatic knowledge, my learning curve would be minimal. Plus, coins were light and easy to carry, unlike books, and they gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside.

All I had to do was buy the best quality I could find, hold them for a bit, and sell for a modest but very real profit, provided, of course, that gold and silver prices didn’t drop like a rock.

But how could I ever sell them? With every coin purchase, I’ll be reminded of the best darn grandpa a little girl ever had. Patient, kind and soft spoken, he taught me how to play five-card stud, a mean game of cribbage and to accept all people for who they were, faults and foibles included. A stellar member of the Greatest Generation, he also took me to my first bar, but that’s another story.

Sell those coins? I can’t sell them, won’t sell them. I’ll just have to hold on to them. How could I sell them? No wait, I can’t keep them. I’m not a collector, I’m a dealer! Well, maybe I can keep them for a little while. No, I’ll always keep them. They’re part of my history and take me back to a place and time when life was simple and I was surrounded by the people I loved.

Wait a minute, what just happened here?

Melanie C. Thomas has 20 years experience researching, buying and selling military memorabilia. She and her husband run Arsenal of the Alleghenys, a Civil War artifact shop in Gettysburg, Pa., 717- 334-1122, or

Editor’s Pick – New Release

Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide 2012
Warman's Antiques & Collectibles 2012

As the longest-running guide and the most trusted name in antiques and collectibles, the 45th Edition of Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles features more than 1,500 color images and 6,000 listings. It brings a fresh, 21st-century perspective that honestly assesses the market and looks at the best categories for investment–everything from glassware and toys to early flags and maps. "Future of the Market" reports share what’s hot, and where the experts are putting their money.

Top names in the trade weigh in on key categories:

  • Writer Andrew Myers looks at 18th- and 19th-century French furniture
  • Toy expert Andrew Truman shares insights on "Door of Hope" dolls
  • Tom Deupree and Morrow Jones reveal the secrets to finding vernacular photographs
  • Collector Forrest Poston looks at the market for West German art pottery

Get your copy today at


Special discount prices on great books, digital downloads, price guides & reference books for every hobby

Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 2012 Price Guide

Antique Trader Facebook PageMeet and share with other antiques collectors, dealers and auctioneers on Antique Trader’s Facebook page

Antique Trader Twitter ProfileGet special discounts and breaking news alerts on Antique Trader’s Twitter feed!

Browse (or place your own) FREE online classified ads

Sign up for your FREE email newsletters

For more trade news, auction reports, research and expert columnists, get a year of Antique Trader magazine for the special online price of just $24.98!

Antiques Auction Houses