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Flea Markets: ‘The times they are a changin’ ... are you?

During a recent visit to a flea market, Behind the Gavel columnist Wayne Jordan found himself wondering where all the antiques dealers were, which led him to explore the changing landscape of the once antique laden flea market scene and how today's shoppers define "antiques."

“Where are all the antique dealers?” I wondered as I wandered through the roughly one-square-mile of dealer booths at the annual Hillsville (Virginia) Labor Day Flea Market and Gun Show. The show, in its 47th year, has morphed over the decades from a local VFW-sponsored gun show and flea market to a national event that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

My first visit to the show was nine years ago, and I’ve attended every year since. In 2006, my opinion was that the show would attract bigger spenders if they would re-name it the Hillsville Labor Day Antique Market. I was wrong. Nine years ago, almost

Hillsville Labor Day Flea Market

This was a common sight at the Hillsville Labor Day Flea Market and Gun Show, in Hillsville, Va., as shoppers toted pull-carts brimming with purchases, albeit filled with fewer traditional antiques. (Photo courtesy Wayne Jordan)

every row of vendors had an antique dealer or two (or more). This year, antique dealers were spread thin and it wouldn’t have been much of a show if it was billed as an “Antique Market.” Gone were most of the antique machinery, phonographs, Victoriana and furniture. Instead shoppers would find mostly mid-century knick-knacks, pallet lots of various consumer goods and junkyard paraphernalia.

As my wife made a purchase, she commented to the vendor about the dearth of antiques at this year’s show. “What do you consider to be an antique?” asked the vendor in his distinctly Australian accent. I got “the look” from my wife so I jumped in with my opinion, which is always at the ready. I gave my usual spiel about the U.S. Customs 100-year standard and the regular re-defining of the word by some antique writers (thank you, Harry Rinker). The vendor disagreed with me, as did several neighboring vendors (none of whom sold antiques). It wasn’t long before a consensus was reached: No one really knew what defined an antique and no one really cared one way or another about a “correct” definition.

Clearly, the inventory mix at the Hillsville show is changing. And, it’s not just Hillsville. Traditional antique shows all over the country are finding it harder and harder to sell “antiques” (whatever your definition). A recent Boston Globe article titled “Brimfield Antiques Market on the Decline” ( quoted pop culture guru Gary Sohmers as he flipped through a box of vintage magazines at Brimfield: “Nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares.” The article went on in doom-and-gloom fashion about reduced attendance and sales at Brimfield.

But Hillsville was as crowded as I’ve ever seen it; no discernible drop-off in attendance

Traditional antique furniture

Traditional antique furniture, like the two pieces shown here, was less plentiful at the Hillsville Flea Market, which prompted Behind the Gavel columnist Wayne Jordan to consider the changing landscape of markets and shows. (Photo courtesy Wayne Jordan)

here. And people were buying: The sidewalks and aisles were crowded with pull-carts filled with purchases. Art and decor items seemed to be doing well, as were “AS SEEN ON TV!” gadgets. Food vendors were smiling, because the lines were long to buy $3 lemonades and $6 sandwiches. Elsewhere, collectibles auctions are reporting increasingly impressive sales, and the Antique Trader event calendar is well read. So, I don’t think that attendance – or lack of spending – is a problem in our business.

I arrived at Hillsville with the intention of interviewing a dozen or so dealers to find out how this years’ sales were standing up to previous years at Hillsville and other venues. What I discovered was that dealers (at Hillsville, anyway) were selling antiques primarily to other antiques dealers. Rankin and Janet Thompson of Salem Virginia’s The Strawberry Elephant told me that their biggest single sale of the show (at that point) was five nice furniture pieces to an out-of-state antiques dealer. That theme repeated itself often throughout the day: Dealers were selling antiques to other dealers.

In the antiques trade, we like to draw a line between what is an “antique” and what is merely “collectible.” I find the antique business fascinating, but traditional “antiques” no longer drive the trade: collectibles do. Sure, some collectibles also qualify as “antiques” depending on whose definition you use. In my opinion (since antiques are also collectible), the whole business should be called the “Collectibles Trade.”

If the stories I heard at Hillsville are true elsewhere, it appears that many antiques are bought by dealers who keep their doors open by selling newer collectibles to consumers; the antiques they flip to other dealers until an item eventually finds a home. I’m reminded of the old saw (which you’ve no doubt heard but I’m going to re-tell anyway) about six antique dealers stranded on a desert island: they find an old Chippendale chair, and all six dealers make a comfortable living selling and re-selling the chair to each other until they are rescued. Like all such anecdotes, what makes this story ring true is that it is based on common experience.

Billiard chairs

These antique billiard chairs, with a “SOLD” sign prominently displayed on the seat back of one, were among the items displayed in The Strawberry Elephant booth, one of a handful of antiques dealers set up at the Hillsville show. (Photo courtesy Wayne Jordan)

The pool of enthusiastic antique buyers is shrinking every year, and it won’t be long before there are few left to appreciate our antique wares. No one will buy that Howdy Doody lunch box when no one knows who Howdy Doody was. No one will sit in that too-low-to-be-comfortable Victorian rocker for an entire evening to play video games when the perfect chair for that purpose can be purchased at Ikea.

I believe that the antiques business has reached a tipping point. A “Tipping Point,” as explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” is defined as “the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change” (

The “more important change” is that in America, the middle class is completely bought-in, and our abundance has impacted our thinking. Sixty years of factory production, over-built retail centers, the passing forward of several generations’ worth of estate property and the 24/7/365 flea market that is the Internet have left us overwhelmed with consumer goods. For the most part, we can buy anything at any time. If we miss a bargain today we can be pretty sure that a similar bargain will show up again next week. The supply side of the Law of Supply and Demand has us in its grip: Most items are in such great supply that demand doesn’t make a dent in the market. There’s little motivation to “buy now.”

This attitude isn’t a one-time blip; it’s a major cultural shift. Boomers grew up on stories of the Great Depression, where “lack” was the prevalent mindset. “Lack” has gone by the wayside. Repeated studies on the buying habits of the Millennial Generation (Gen Y, 30-year olds) show that their attitudes toward ownership are completely different than those of their Boomer parents and Gen X siblings. As a group, they’re not buying cars, they’re not buying homes and (as we know) they’re not buying “antiques” (they have the means; as a group, they have more discretionary cash than Boomers). “Owning something” isn’t as important to Gen Y as “doing something.” “Doing something” means connecting with friends.

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Herein lies the future of the antiques/collectibles business. Our wares need to help Millennials connect to their friends and to themselves. Household goods should be unique, functional, portable and decorative (think “repurposed”).

Collectibles should be fun to share with one’s friends. The Millennial Generation places little value on “owning a piece of the past,” which for decades has been the antique dealer’s mantra. From a Millennial standpoint, the only reason to own a piece of the past is to reflect the present.

Until show dealers grasp the mindset of the Millennial Generation, “antique” sales at show venues will continue to drop.

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