How to shop at a flea market: Scoring those killer pieces can be challenging, so here are some tips to help your flea market trips get less, well, trippy.
I like the flea market.
Also, the sky is blue.
It’s ma thang, those flea markets. Part of why I’m good at it is because I’ve been dumpster diving and thrift store shopping since I was old enough to spot my first brass animal. It’s in ma blood. But it doesn’t have to be in your blood to be good at it. It can be learned, grasshopper.
Here are 15 tips that can help anyone shop and buy the best pieces at the flea market whether they are a flea market virgin or a pro.
1. Get there early. I know, I know … so boring. Everybody says, “Go early! Go early!,” but the truth is you can find average, good pieces all day long, and sometimes you can absolutely find great pieces at 2pm. But those great pieces aren’t normally the no-brainers, those are the risk-takers, the ones that you need to have a huge imagination for and a lot of guts.
But if you don’t want to have to turn on that part of your brain, then know that all the obviously amazing stuff will get eaten up by designers, store-owners, and collectors by 10am. All the Milos’ or Mccobbs’ are gone before the sun is up. Go early if you want incredible pieces. Go later if you want just good stuff. I shoot for 7am at the Rose Bowl Flea Market and 8:30 at the others.
That’s Orlando and I at 6am, FREEZING. Lord, I miss winter flea markets. It’s been 90-100 degrees every Sunday the last few months. I long to wear scarves.
2. Bring a list. It’s easy to get distracted at the flea market because it’s total sensory overload — the loud people, the hot dog breath (hot-dog-o’clock — 9am is the worst … so much hot dog air in your face at such an inappropriately early time), people are bumping into you, and so many colors and shapes to see … it’s just a lot. So if you write a list beforehand it helps curate things in your head, and then if and when you get distracted, you can reference it constantly to remind you of what you are there to do. You’ll be shocked how often you forget that you are looking for vintage castors for your stools. Write it down. You’ll forget about the stuff you need and just end up seeing the stuff that distracts you.
3. Go big first, small second. “Bigs” are furniture, “smalls” are accessories. So if you are looking for furniture then go around the market fast the first time, soley looking for furniture because that is what goes the fastest. Cruise around quickly and if as your eye catches something amazing, slow down and check it out. AS you spot things take photos, get prices, write down booth numbers, and then pull the trigger or decide to wait. The second time cruise for accessories, artwork, lighting, jewelry, and clothes. If the “bigs” are still there, then offer a price, but think big first, small second. Don’t dilly dally looking at earrings at 7am when you are there for a new coffee table. Race around. Fast. Then go slow for the smalls.
4. Love the shape more than the color. If you are wondering if something is good, picture it in a different color. If you still like it then it’s probably worth the splurge. Remember, the finish, color, and fabric can always change, but the shape really can’t. So if the shape is amazing, but the color is bad, calm down. It can all be changed, but if the shape is just OK, but the color is good then don’t spend a ton. Make sure you are in love with the shape if you are spending actual money.
Like this piece. I just got two of them for $80. Amazing shape. Terrible color, obviously. But worth the splurge … which brings me to my next tip.
5. Splurge on the unique. The is one of the most frequent questions I get — “Dear Emily, what do you splurge on?” It took me a while to realize what I splurge on, and that’s items that will start a conversation. If you see something that sparks something inside your insides, that sings a song inside your brain, that draw you to it, then that is what you splurge on. I am confident that I could design a room with Ikea furniture, and then use a few great weird and inspired statement pieces to turn it into a room that people will talk about. Sure, your sofa needs to be comfortable, but if you are about to spend a ton of dough on it, try to make it really unique as well. Otherwise go crazy with art, sculptures, weird furniture — that is what will turn your house into something truly conversation worthy.
These guys are now in beautiful gray belgium linen and totally amazing. And still for sale for $3400. Email me at emilyhenderson – at- mac.com
6. Don’t hoard unneccessarily. I have this rule for myself. If I wouldn’t spend $100, then don’t spend $30. But I have a SH*T-TON of stuff. Accessories are not what I’m lacking. If you feel like you don’t have enough “smalls” in your house then yes, buy cute, great, personality-filled accessories, but if you are worried about bringing more into your house that you don’t need, then ask yourself that question: “If this were $100 would I still buy it?” Then listen to your answer.
7. Calculate in all costs. Furniture costs normally don’t stop at the purchase. When I see a $100 sofa that needs to be reupholstered, I automatically add $600-$800 for the labor of the upholstery, plus $300 for the fabric, plus delivery to and from the upholsterer, maybe $60 each way. That obviously changes the price of the sofa, and therefore I have to LOVE it in order to put in all the time and money. Just be prepared for the added costs before you get hosed.
8. Stay away from the new stuff. I know that flea markets are expanding and they are starting to include many a cell-phone cover and imported tablecloth, but in general avoid these. I’m pro-small business, LORD KNOWS, but the flea market is not the place to be marketed to for your jewelry. What is acceptable are things that are made from vintage things — like pillows from vintage fabric, furniture from reclaimed stuff (although, come on, let’s get some innovative design out there, if i have to see one more “reclaimed wood and iron industrial bench” I’m going to get all Russell Crowe on it). For sake of time, just stick to the old stuff. The new stuff will just distract you while Mr. and Mrs. Fast-Paced-Johnson are buying all the amazing regency pieces.
9. Look high and look low. People often wonder how I find things that they don’t and one of the biggest reasons is that I have CRAZY EYES that have the patience of hungry two-year-old T-Rexes; they are constantly wondering, darting, not making eye contact during the most serious of conversations. But also because I look really high and really low. Don’t forget what people are hanging on the walls or above their tents and don’t forget what is under the tables. You have to dig to be properly rewarded, so make sure you cover all the highs and lows of most booths.
10. Bring cash, but know they take checks. EVERYONE enjoys cash most and they will give you a better deal with cash. But if you need to most will take checks. If you promise someone cash but you don’t have enough, simply offer them a deposit then go to the ATM and bring the rest later. Give them your phone number and take theirs just in case. But if you are on the fence about whether you should bring your checkbook or not, the answer is YES, many take checks.
11. Haggle respectively. I could write a whole book on this. Here’s how the dialogue goes every weekend:
Me: Sir, how much is this?
Me: It’s amazing, I love it.
Him: Right? Look how great the lines are.
Me: I don’t need it, but i love it … What would your bottom price be?
Me: That’s a great deal and totally worth it. I’m not sure if it’s in my budget, but you’ll definitely get it for that.
Him: Well, what’s your top price?
Me: Probably $90.
Him: Alright. Give me cash and it’s yours, but only because you love it so much.
It’s EXTREMELY simple. Ask them what they are charging, counter with WHAT IS FAIR and then if you love it, tell them that you love it. I have friends that have huge manipulative strategies, but I don’t (also people know me, so I can’t). These vendors have spent hours, days, and tears finding the perfect pieces. Please don’t try to insult them by low-balling them unless you truly believe that they are overcharging. If you can’t even come close to affording it, then tell them that. Say how much you love it and how you’d use it but that it’s not in your budget. Then they might budge. As much as they are in it for the money, they are also emotionally involved with these pieces and they really want them to go to a good home. So if you make a case for how much you love it and how well you’d take care of it, then you can get the best discount. This isn’t meant to be manipulative. It’s common sense.
In short: Be nice, be grateful, be respectful. We are not in the mid-evil ages where people are trying to “getcha” all the time. These are real people, collecting things they love and trying to make a living. Be respectful and you’ll get the best deal. It’s that simple.
… Although yes, there are times when people overcharge and I have got into skirmishes, although unfortunately because people know me I have way less leverage than I used to.
OH, wait … the more you buy, the better deal you get. I’m sure that’s obvious but just in case it wasn’t, know that if you combine items at the same vendor you’ll get a better deal.
12. Furniture needs to be special in order to be expensive. I’ll buy a standard but pretty mid-century chair for $250 from the flea market, but once it gets to $400 it better be VERY special. If I can get two chairs for $600, then that changes the story because a pair is more unique. But in general make sure that if you are spending real money that you are getting something unique. Mid-century can be average, uncomfortable, and boring, so get it at a good price or make sure it’s unique.
13. If you love something pull the trigger. It’s like finding the perfectly nice, hot, talented, edgy dude when you are 28; if you don’t pull the trigger SOMEONE ELSE IS ABOUT TO. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought something and then later when I go back to pick it up, the vendor tells me that so many people came back for it, but they didn’t have the balls to pull the trigger fast enough. Don’t be hasty, but if you love it, if your friends love it, if your partner loves it, and it;s not a bad price, then BUY IT before it sells. Because it will sell and you will be sad.
Like this round chair for $100. I shoulda pulled the trigger, but I didn’t and now I will regret my life.
14. Buy quality, not knock offs. How to find quality pieces: I get this question all the time and it’s a hard one to answer. In general, you don’t have to worry about it as much at the flea market as you do at thrift stores. Normally the vendor isn’t selling total crap. But otherwise ask the vendor if he knows who made it. Look for signage: on dressers, it’s inside the drawers, on chairs, it’s under the seat, on tables, it’s underneath. That will help you know if it’s worth a splurge or just a few bucks. Feel the weight of it; pick it up. If it’s super lightweight, then it might not be too high of quality. Check to see if the wood is solid or if it is just a veneer (which is just thin wood on top of cheap wood).
Like this dining table for $350. I love the shape of it so very much. But the wood was cheap. It looked and felt like pine. I could paint it and it could be fine, but that would be like $300-$500 to do it right, and since it’s a dining table that will get a lot of surface wear, that isn’t something I could do myself. So I passed on it, but vowed to have it made by a furniture builder, in quality wood. I actually normally love tables that can fold down for practicality sake, but I hated the seams on top, so I’d make it to not fold down.
15. What to bring:
Notebook to write down what booth pieces were in — you won’t remember, trust me.
Food. The food normally sucks; you are a captive audience so at least in LA, they feed you absolute garbage.
A canvas bag. I love the huge canvas bags from Lands’ End because they are super lightweight so you aren’t weighed down at the beginning.
And that’s how you do it, folks. Go forth, and shop.
Congratulations to Megan for winning the Rose Bowl shopping trip with me in December. I hope you are more prepared for it now. :)
This post is in partnership with Smartwater.
smartwater, simplicity is delicious.