One Woman’s Trash
Negotiating a flea market is a delicate balance between junk and jewels.
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
- Illustrations by: Marguerite Robichaux
I can’t imagine what the clerk at the Topsham Irving station thinks as I dash in at 5:50 on this Sunday morning to purchase a bottle of hand sanitizer. But there’s no time to wait for a reaction. My friend, the painter Marguerite Robichaux, is idling out in the parking lot, and I haven’t a moment to spare. We are en route from Portland to the Montsweag Flea Market (207-443-2809, montsweagfleamarket.com) in Woolwich — not as shoppers, but as sellers — and we’ve been instructed to arrive early. Ridiculously early.
“Why do they have to open at this hour?” I groused on the ride up, as though I were a teenage boy. “It’s not like we’re going fishing or birdwatching.” Like a patient parent, Marguerite — with whom I’ve logged hundreds and hundreds of miles on similar capers and adventures — just kept her eyes on the road and continued driving.
Now, if you told me even a short while ago that I would someday be manning a table at this flea market that’s been in operation for more than thirty years (and since I graduated from high school in nearby Bath), I’d probably throw myself into the adjacent Nequasset Lake. It’s not just that I didn’t consider myself of the “I brake for flea markets” ilk, but I also wasn’t interested in a foray into Major Cootie Country. This feeling was not idle snobbery.
These swap meets, which originated in Paris, were called marché aux puces. Translation: “Market with fleas,” for the likely vermin the merchandise carried. (Hence the urgent stop for hand sanitizer.)
But after my husband and I bought our 1920s bungalow a few years back, we sought to restore it with period fixtures and began poking around in junk shops, which Marguerite also likes to do. In the beginning, she and I would take in an antiques mall or store if we happened by one when we were traveling together. Then we started making detours. Next, we were choosing routes simply because they looked promising for booty. And then we turned a corner: The junk shop became the destination. We began making regular calls — solo or together — to favorite haunts in Arundel, Skowhegan, Scarborough, Cornish, Ellsworth, Rockland, Hallowell. We recognized dealers and, sometimes, they us. We were becoming part of the tribe.
She and I made great antiquing companions because we are attracted to different things. Whereas I’m drawn to anything magpie shiny — Chase chrome, martini shakers, vintage bathroom fixtures, rearview mirrors —Marguerite’s sensibilities are more refined. A good Southern girl with a taste for sterling and art pottery, she uses her discerning artist’s eye to make major finds. She could spot a Newcomb pot or Tiffany brooch in a pile of garbage. In fact, her eye is so good that eventually her vintage jewelry acquisitions began to exceed her jewelry box — and budget. She set up a small private business, selling pieces to friends and at her cousin Amelia’s high-end antiques shop in Texas. Coco Cunningham enterprises was born.
With all this, a table at a flea market seemed a natural fit for us.
It is just after 6 a.m. when we wheel into the parking lot. Located on Route 1, just before Wiscasset, the Montsweag Flea Market is tucked in a large field below an overpass, in what a Southerner might call a “holler.”
Unless you’re looking for it, it’s easy to miss. It’s a place more glimpsed out the corner of the eye, an after-image for any traveler who has ventured along this stretch of the Maine coast. What on earth are they doing down there?
Treasure hunting, that’s what.
When we made our reservations, we were told by proprietor Norma Scopino that when we arrived we were to pull up to the ice cream hut. “How will we find you?” we asked. “You won’t,” she tartly responded. “I’ll find you.”
And sure enough, only moments after we locate the hut, a solid, white-haired woman appears before us bearing a clipboard and a no-nonsense attitude. “You’ll have tables 19 and 20” (at ten dollars a pop), she tells us after we identify ourselves, and says she will escort us out into the field of around a hundred tables. “The regulars,” she says over her shoulder, “are particular about other people’s parking.”
After Marguerite backs her truck up to our spot, we take a moment to survey the competition. There are maybe a couple dozen dealers in various stages of setting up, some doing so with surgeon-like precision; others, in a more harum-scarum fashion. Rugs are thrown down in front of tables as a way to extend real estate. No one seems much interested in us. Marguerite opens the back of the truck, and we get to work.
I haul out my Tupperware storage bin and a couple of cardboard boxes and place them on the ground. More along for the ride than for commerce, I’ve only brought things that were gathering dust in my closets and basement, and not any of my “finds,” which I have no interest in parting with. But Marguerite means business. She spreads a few Peruvian textiles across our plywood tables for the sake of window-dressing. In an instant, a semi-circle of men — dealers, collectors, pickers — forms around us. (A picker is someone who combs yards sales, junk shops, and
markets like these either on behalf of a dealer or to resell to a retailer.) Whoever these men are, they have one thing in common: bargain hunting.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Marguerite and I are new meat. One man fingers the textile and asks how much. Marguerite, always at the ready, informs him they’re not for sale and busies herself bringing out display cases, which are filled with gorgeous bracelets, brooches, and earrings. A borrowed mannequin torso (which we had seat-belted into the back seat) is propped up, and she drapes necklaces around the headless form. Her movements signal a real pro in action, and this discourages the men. She knows what she’s got and what it’s worth.
Meanwhile, I’m surveying the contents of my containers and trying to decide how to group things. I had them thematically arranged (candles and soaps, mugs and glasses, games and toys) the night before, but these hoverers are making me self-conscious. I start with three stacks of pint glasses and some scented candles. I need some height, so I grab my talking Ozzy Osbourne doll (“Never opened. Still works!” the tag reads; I thought a few “shelf talkers” might help move things) and a board game and use them to form a screen behind the glasses. More stock
follows: a cheese board; a gift-boxed lobster (or crab?) cracker set; two retro “Paula” statues from the 1970s; a squirrel nut dish and a martini shaker; a nature journal; a beer-tap handle; coasters and nesting boxes; note pads and smelly soaps — and, just for good measure, a bagged-up container of wine corks and three Mason jars filled with (what I considered to be) inferior beach glass. I can sense a collective fog of disappointment descend around my dealer friends as more and more of my, well — crap — comes out. I lean over to Marguerite, whose table already looks like it belongs in a fine antiques shop and whisper how uncomfortable I am. Trying to get set up with all these men watching feels like trying to get dressed in public.
Finally, one dealer who senses he is wasting his time asks rather impatiently (as though I’ve brought this junk just to irk him) if I have any stoneware. I have to pause and think. Would the pineapple Tiki drink cup with straw hole count? Or the box of coffee mugs? Or the pottery fish plate with a small crack and chip, whose price tag includes a Post-It note that reads “I’m flawed, but I’m still beautiful”? I just shrug and say I don’t think so. Eventually, the men move on, which gives me leisure to “fluff” — or organize and decorate — my table.
The woman to our right, a retired business law professor from University of Connecticut, makes an eighty-dollar sale of sterling flatware before her first box is unpacked. She tells us as she lays out box after box of books on the blanket in front of her table that she has been selling at this and other flea markets for years, but that the trade and traffic has really dropped off. “I’ll be lucky to clear one-hundred dollars today,” she says.
To our left, our other neighbors, Nettie and Arvo, are cordial when they greet us but are intent on setting up their tables, which they do with systematic precision. It’s as though each piece — the plates and teacups, jewelry and ephemera, carpentry and farming implements — has its determined spot, like tools on a pegboard. (They’ve been coming here for twenty years, Nettie later tells me.) They finally hoist their sun umbrella — the regulars do not use the two-dollar rental ones — and take out their Thermos and breakfast muffins and then settle into lawn chairs on either side of their flatbed truck for the long haul. Across the way, someone relentlessly tests a weed whacker.
The incessant, high-pitched whine is grating even at a distance. Without looking up, Nettie says dryly yet firmly under her breath, “It works.”
By 6:39 a.m. we’re all set up. Bring on the masses! Except that it is a Sunday morning, and what kind of fool would be out shopping at this hour? Well, as it turns out, other dealers.
Over the next couple hours, before the retail crowd straggles in, the sellers file by each others’ tables — some, countless times — examining each others’ wares. There are lots of men sporting skinny gray ponytails and women in cowgirl or motorcycle garb. The smell of cigarette smoke lingers in the damp morning air. Maybe it’s the unforgiving early light, but everyone looks a little sallow, like they’ve spent just a bit too much time in garages and attics and could use a bit of fresh Maine air in their lungs.
As Marguerite and I await our first customers, my old pal Chris Allen, co-owner of Allen & Walker Antiques in Portland, appears before us, arms crossed, wearing that wry smile of his and nodding with approval. Despite his cordial demeanor, you can see in his eye that he, too, is on a picker’s mission. He examines Marguerite’s cases, says “Nice looking stuff,” and moves on. I feel a little embarrassed about my wares. I want to tell him I have good stock at home, I just didn’t want to bring it. He promises to check back and then disappears into the field of trucks and tables in search of better spoils.
At long last, some retail customers trickle in. I have a round Cooper’s wooden cheese box filled with two-dollar items. An older woman daintily picks through it and comes up with a pack of adhesive books plates. “I have some just like these,” she says, peeling off two bills. My heart does a little leap. My first sale! And it’s only 8 a.m.
From there, it’s more browsers, some serious shoppers, and people who just want to talk. My next sale is the metal martini shaker, which, I learn, is going to be made into a “found art” pig. My customer — a crafter — also has his eye on the bag of corks, which has a “make an offer” sticker on it. “How much?” he wants to know. I ask him to consider all the effort it took to amass them — miming corkscrewing, pouring, and drinking gestures — and say “two bucks.” He hesitates, then accepts, both of us probably feeling more the fleecer than fleeced.
My next customer goes directly to the nut dish with the squirrel handle — the only thing on my table that might authentically be called a curio. I have a five-dollar price on it, and he considers the object at great length, turning it over and over in his hands. Finally, he offers three. I involuntarily make a face, and he brings it up to four, which I accept. My first haggle! I almost swoon from the endorphin rush — and then slather on the hand sanitizer after my sale.
Meanwhile, Marguerite has lots of browsers, lots of oohs and ahs, but no sales. I feel guilty with my small wad of singles growing in my apron pocket, but commerce is commerce, and, wait, here’s another customer. This fella’s been by a couple times before. He, like almost everyone who comes to my table, picks up the Ozzy doll and, when I encourage him, hits the speaking button. But then, as though he has thoroughly been thinking through his purchase, he plucks four pint glasses from the stack and without so much as a haggle presents me with a ten-dollar bill. I deftly make two dollars change, and then he asks if I can wrap them for him. Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I can. I deftly roll each glass in newsprint and bag them with a flourish. I look up to see Marguerite and Chris, who has returned, watching. I swell a little with retail pride.
By early afternoon, the momentum lags. Some of the early dealers start packing up. Marguerite, happily, has had a couple of sales. I’ve reduced prices several times, and I get a late flurry of activity. A couple closely examines each Mason jar of beach glass. “If you want,” I say, “you can dump them out and make up a jar of the glass you like.” They eagerly set at their task, while I continue to wheel and deal. My big-ticket item — the lobster picks and crackers, which I had dropped from twenty-five to fifteen dollars — sells to a couple from California, who think they will be returning home with a genuine Maine souvenir, when in fact, it is a promotional item from a winery — probably out west. (“Antiques dealers notoriously stretch the truth,” Cousin Amelia had warned us.) Or at least withhold the whole story. I never said the item was from Maine.
During this late surge, Nettie ambles over to my table for the first time. She seems to be averting her gaze from me and the beach-glass couple, but she eyes them sideways as they give me five dollars for their hand-picked jar.
After they walk away, she mildly scolds me. “I would never let them do that,” she says almost under her breath. I do not take this an affront but more of as an act of acceptance, like I might be worth mentoring.
Pretty soon, Marguerite and I will pack up, too, and then head next door to the Montsweag Roadhouse for a beer and a snack, where I will tally (only amateurs count in public) my earnings — a whopping sixty-two dollars. Not bad, considering most of what I sold was headed for the trash or charity. But after the hours invested in searching, sorting, cleaning, packing, unloading, setting up, sitting, and haggling, it hardly seems worth the effort.
That is, until next time — when I break out the good stuff.
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
- Illustrations by: Marguerite Robichaux