A painted blue eye as big as a dinner plate and set in a black oval frame watched visitors from all over stream down the road to the fields and tents of the Brimfield Antique Flea Market in nearby Brimfield, Mass.
…came looking for the one-of-a-kind and the dozens of one kind.
…wanted raw potential and freshly updated.
…wanted conversation starters and conversation stoppers.
…wanted what they didn’t know they wanted until they saw it. And they knew that to find it, they had to look, poke, peer and prod into every corner of every display of every vendor at this sprawling, three times- a-year market of old things—old things made into new things, and new things made to look like old things.
√ A reclining plaster Buddha draped with antique glass beads. A concrete swan planter. A chorus line of red plastic Christmas choir lawn ornaments.
For 37 years, the curious seeking the curious have descended on tiny Brimfield. For the 49 weeks of the year the flea market is not in session, Brimfield is a typically picturesque New England town, replete with white clapboard churches and primly shuttered pre-Colonial houses: exactly what you’d expect from a town established in 1731.
But during the three weeks of the fair—held in May, July and September— the town becomes a campground of the odd, the obsolete and the irresistibly opportune.
√ Pointed metal thimbles labeled “European potato diggers.” A quilt of faded blue and green patchwork. A quiver of yardsticks sprouting from a brown pottery crock
Judith Lesser is a regular vendor at the fair. Every year, she drives up from Maryland with a car full of treasures gleaned from local estate and garage sales. In July 2021, in the cool shade of an open-sided barn, she arranged a still life of blue and white vintage textiles over a wood rack. Two woven runners, a blue and white patchwork quilt, and a tablecloth hopscotched with loopy embroidered flowers. How does she know what will sell? “I guess,” she says.
√ A trio of glossy metal victrola horns blooming like giant morning glories. A school of new cast iron hooks in the shape of 19th century mermaids. A cluster of upended golf clubs peering out of a bag like a mob of meerkats.
The fair is a dig and a jumble and a crazy aunt’s closet-cleaning all in one — exactly as planned.
About 37 years ago, John Doldoorian’s mother, Marie, had a notion to turn the run-of the- mill antique mall inside-out and invite the public to come. By allowing only vintage and antique furniture, china, jewelry, home furnishings, sporting goods and miscellanea—“no tube socks here,” says Doldoorian—she crafted the show’s appeal. John Doldoorian ran the show with his mother, now 85, until he retired from teaching and took over so that she could retire from show management.
√ A five- foot- tall concrete cat. A cascade of geometric-printed silk neckties. A bamboo birdcage.
Mary Chrostowski is another vendor at the Brimfield Antique Flea Market. Today’s young homeowners don’t want their grandparents’ brown wood furniture, so Chrostowski paints furniture colors designed to blend with almost any type of décor: barn red, dusty blue, sunflower yellow and always, barely off white.
Chrostowski and her husband, Roger, of Chelmsford, Mass., pick up the unpopular brown furniture for a song at estate, moving and garage sales, and give it a new life. “A solid walnut piece with a marble top and acorn handles — nobody on God’s green earth would have bought it the way it was,” says Chrostowski. “I bought outdoor paint, because it seals the wood. I sanded it and painted it gray, and with the white marble top, it was phenomenal.”
And a lot more expensive. She paid $100 for the dresser, paint and sandpaper but expected it to sell for $400.
Is it worth it? Yes, to keep busy, says Chrostowski, 71, and to give sturdy old pieces a new life with owners who otherwise couldn’t afford the quality and craftsmanship of old furniture. “People love vintage chairs with beautiful carving but they don’t want them with dirty, stinky fabric. I reupholster them with fabric prints with Marilyn Monroe on the back of the chair, so it shows in the room, and I put black and white stripes on the seat and cushions. People love it.”
“It’s how you can transform what once was, into something that people are looking for today,” Chrostowski says. “The whole antiques world is nothing but a transformation.”
PHOTOS BY JOANNE CLEAVER