Monday, June 4, 2012

An Adventure at the Flea Market

Yesterday, I went to the Grafton Flea Market in Grafton, Massachusetts for the first time. Mind you, it's not the first time I've ever been to a flea market but I wouldn't consider myself an old hand.  And all the flea markets I can remember were in Montreal, Canada. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, flea markets are much the same in the US and Canada.

I didn't have any particular goal when I set out for this flea market.  Mostly I wanted to see what types of things they would have available. I was expecting some "old stuff," perhaps antiques.  I was hoping that I would find some old photographs. I would like to get my hands on more early 20th century real photo postcards of old houses.

I discovered that flea markets have a lot of cheap plastic objects for sale and a colorful variety of clothing and household supplies.  There were some old things, mostly old tools. I was very intrigued by those but the practicality of not knowing what to do with them prevented me from buying them. And there were some vendors selling old china, flatware and serving plates.  The was a very cool retro deviled egg tray that I had to keep myself from buying.

I did find two vendors selling old photos.  The photos were an afterthought for these vendors as they  were mixed in with an odd assortment of other items.

The first vendor had mostly early 20th century portraits mixed in with some early snapshots.  He was selling the portraits for $2 each. I asked him how much for the whole lot and he said $10.  There was only one photo that really caught my eye. It was a lovely, well-composed professional photo of a toddler.  But I held off pending what else I could find.

In the second booth with photos I found more 19th century cartes de visite and cabinet cards.  It must have taken me at least 15 minutes to look through them all. In that time I had to suffer through the incessant talking of two flea market regulars.  I heard more opinions about nothing than I ever wanted to know!

I found three photos that interested me. The first was a man in a suit, likely 20th century. What intrigued me about it was that there were writing on the back in another language and another unfamiliar alphabet. The researcher in me really wanted to solve the mystery of what the text said.  Another was a local shot that was unnamed. The third photo, also unidentified was of two men in front of an old cabin.

Most of the photos in this booth were in the $2, $3, $5 and even $25 each range.  The lady vendor said she would give me all three photos for $5.  She was discounting down from the $7 price tag for them.

I thought about it for a good long time. The trouble is I know I can get photos much cheaper on eBay. The thing that pushed me over the edge was that two of the photos weren't identified, particularly the house.  Perhaps I was better spending my money on named photos.  I hated to pass up the man in the suit but I walked away.

Before I left, however, I stopped back at the first vendor and dug out the photo of the little girl. I offered the vendor a dollar for it and without hesitation he took it.  I'm happy with my one prize even though this one is also without a name. But the photograph is so well done and cute that I just didn't care.

At the end of my first serious foray into a flea market I had to wonder if I had done it right. How much am I supposed to negotiate?  Was I too easy or too hard? I know the lady vendor whom I didn't buy from gave me an annoyed look when I walked away.

I feel a sense of guilt too. I felt like some of these folks might be living on the edge and the purchase was more like a charitable contribution in a way.

Any of you out there have experience with flea markets? Did I do ok? If you have tips to pass on I would appreciate it.  And if you know the best source to buy old photos let me know.  I really need to beef up my collection of old house photos.


  1. Is there a right way? I suppose for regulars, there may be some sort of protocol. But I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. You're the customer and the customer is always right.

    Now onto the more important stuff: post a photo of the photo you did get! Inquiring minds want to see!

    -- Jillaine

  2. Just this last week a 13 year old boy in Wichita, Kansas bought an old Polaroid camera at a garage sale for $1 because it looked cool. He went home and looked on the Internet how the camera worked. He showed his grandmother the picture he found inside the camera. She was shocked because it was a picture of her son who had died 23 years earlier--an uncle he had never met!
    I dream of finding family pictures but I keep wondering how I will know they are my family if the pictures are old and of people I have never met.
    I always want to buy the old photographs because the people in the picture need a home. I can't even look.

  3. Marian - it's really interesting that you should post about finding a picture of a little girl. Many years ago, I happened upon such a picture at a garage sale. I have no idea who this strikingly beautiful woman was or is, but there was something that drew me to her photo. I bought it for a miniscule amount, and it hangs in my genealogy room. I have named her "The Forgotten Ancestor", for she was once someone's daughter, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother, niece - she was someone. She's no relation to me, I don't think, but it doesn't matter. She's there to remind me to not forget anyone, for they are all part of a family...

  4. Marian - You did just fine. I've actually sold stuff at the flea market in Grafton, though not for a while. Flea markets are for dickering. I've had stuff on sale for .25c and people want to dicker me down to .10c. Flea market sales people expect the dickering. They deal with it all day, every weekend, so they may get kind of annoyed after a while. If they weren't willing to sell it for the price you offered, they wouldn't have. If you are interested in vintage post cards, BTW, let me know. I have a super post card source relatively near where you were...

  5. I forgot to mention, some dealers price things high, expecting people will dicker...

  6. There is a large flea market here in Londonderry, NH every weekend, and although there is some new stuff for sale, most of it is antiques and "yard sale" type items. There are several book dealers and several photo/postcard dealers who are there every weekend, and the deals are incredible. It pays to "package" stuff (pick out three or four items and make an offer), or to start walking away to see what they will accept. This and other flea markets in NH were subjects of police stings in recent years, which cleared out the vendors selling counterfeit handbags, and cheap Chinese plastic stuff- good riddance!