The numbers stagger and the superlatives fly: A small antiques event held in a Brimfield, Massachusetts, backyard in 1959 has grown into three separate weeklong extravaganzas, each with 21 separate shows stretching along a mile of country road, 5,000 dealers, and more than a quarter-million attendees. The Brimfield Antique and Collectibles Shows are the biggest outdoor antiques events in New England — perhaps in the country. Held in May, July, and September, they are known among the antiques cognoscenti simply as Brimfield.
“There’s something intoxicating about Brimfield,” says Lizzy Flanagan, a photographer and real estate agent who’s pretty sure she’s a hidden-treasure addict as well. “It’s quite possible you will finally find the right Victorian seed-pearl brooch, 19th-century map of Amsterdam’s canals, and 1960s Southwestern belt buckle all in one place. The selection is dizzying.”
And that’s just the stuff. For antiques dealer Gary Sullivan, “it’s the people — so many characters!” There’s the one-legged fellow widely known as “the cast-iron cookware guy,” who goes up and down the aisles announcing what he is looking to buy. Others, perhaps more shy, wear T-shirts proclaiming “I collect Bakelite radios” or “I buy button collections,” and dealers (and just plain folks) call out to them with offers to bargain.
Sullivan no longer rents a booth, as his business has moved into increasingly fine and rare objects, but he still attends. “It’s a cultural experience that’s not to be missed,” he says. “And every show turns up something extraordinary.” Bitten by the bug when brought to the fair as fourth-graders, the famed PBS-TV antiques authorities the Keno twins, Leigh and Leslie, concur. “We used to come back with our arms full and then go back in for more,” says Leslie. “It seems that there is always a treasure found.”
Game On Anyone who has shopped a Brimfield Antique and Collectibles Show can verify its addictive nature. “I go as often as I can because it is never the same experience twice,” says New Hampshire photographer Cheryle St. Onge, who visited the show, camera at the ready, with a crew of seasoned shoppers to ferret out bargains, treasures, and unexpected curiosities. Her team included interior designers, a custom builder, an antiques dealer and Brimfield vendor, and a Rhode Island couple, perennial Brimfield patrons, on the look-out for the odd find to turn into a do-it-yourself project.
Hattie Holland, Interior Designer, Carpenter & MacNeille
“‘Industrial’ has become a design buzzword appearing so often in so many contexts that the meaning has become a bit diluted,” says Hattie Holland. “In renovating our office, which is an actual old industrial brick building, we wanted to bring those design elements back in a low-key way through hardware and fixtures. Brimfield is a wonderful place to find something unique. The vendors are savvy. They bring salvaged or vintage pieces that follow current trends, but their found nature makes them stand out from the less-authentic reproduced versions sold by retail chains.”
Her picks: Vintage lighting from John Petty Antiques, Garland, TX, 214-738-6295; facebook.com/JohnPettyAntiques, and 2-foot-tall metal letters from Mark Jager Antiques, Newport, RI, 401-846-7900; industrial-antiques.com.
Vince Todd, Builder, V.Todd & Co.
“There are fairs and antique shops elsewhere, but the Brimfield experience is unique,” says Vince Todd. “The summer weather, the mowed green fields of flowing white tents, each with its own dealers and objects stacked on tables, laid out on brown tarps, spilling into the pathways, make this show one of a kind. Equally as fascinating are the folks who come — from Paris or Minnesota or Maine. … It is a visual feast. You can come with a list of must-haves, but I suggest you just start walking, looking, and imagine.”
This architectural remnant “could become a stair detail or kitchen-island counter support,” says Todd. “I love the chunky scale and worn patina.”
His picks: A turned wooden artifact from Pasternak Antiques, Rockland, ME, and Hampton Falls, NH, pasternakantiques.com and glass knobs from Ross Brothers, Florence, MA, 413-586-3875; rossbros.com, and glass knobs from Totally Bruce, Brooklyn, NY, 716-444-0009; totallybruce.net.
“These glass knobs are simple, elegant, a nice scale, and beautiful in your hand,” says Todd. “I can imagine them on a chest of drawers for a walk-in master bedroom closet or as sparkle on a row of stark Shaker-like cabinets.”
Anne Alberts, Interior Designer, Carpenter & MacNeille
“Finding unique, classic textiles is always a challenge,” says Anne Alberts. “The run-of-the-mill home furnishing stores have a certain lightweight heft and quality and often offer ‘of-the-moment’ trend options at a mass market price point. A true antique, be it a textile or piece of furniture, has a better look, tactile feel, and overall quality — and tells a much better story.”
“This sink could be used either with the stand or incorporated into new cabinetry. At C&M, we often use soapstone in butler’s pantries or mudrooms. They offer a classic look and easy maintenance. Old stone sinks with wellworn patina add character and the impression of always having been there, even if the house is new or freshly renovated.”
Anita Sweeney, Antiques Dealer
“Seeing so many people with a common interest gather together is a beautiful representation of tight-knit New England artistry,” says Anita Sweeney. “Brimfield is an inspiring place for artists, fashionistas, and designers — its uniqueness is unparalleled and I am honored to contribute as I have for decades with the many, many other dealers who I count as my friends. We come together season in, season out, May, July, and September.”
Her pick: Custom jewelry. “Brimfield is an international event, but local dealers look to New England and the 1940s and ’50s, when Providence, Rhode Island, was the capital of custom jewelry production. We show a number of high- and lowbrow pieces.”
Bruce & Sherry Senecal
An elementary school teacher and a retired policeman from Rhode Island. The couple, who shop Brimfield regularly, considered these Oktoberfest benches from German Favorite Antiques, 703-268-9091; germanfavoriteantiques.com, for an outdoor dining area, but settled on some antique pedestals that they used as a base for a long table in their backyard.
“We love Brimfield,” says Sherry, “and have been going for four or five years now. We make a day of it and bring a picnic lunch and some wine. I’m also an artist, so I like to find interesting things, mostly for making outdoor pieces. My husband has even made some art pieces out of old tools. We are drawn to old things with character, especially things that have that industrial vintage mix.”