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Brimfield antiques market on the decline

Will the rise of Etsy, Pinterest, and crafty cute be the ruin of America’s premier antiques market?

Brimfield’s main road cuts between nearly two dozen fields.

Zack Wittman

Brimfield’s main road cuts between nearly two dozen fields.

A WOMAN IN HER 60s enters the tent of Gary Sohmers, who calls himself “The King of Pop Culture.” His booth, which is set up along the main road through the antiques-filled pastures of Brimfield, is stuffed with $20,000 worth of rock ’n’ roll records, baby boomer toys, and mid-century gewgaws. Sohmers, all ponytail, Hawaiian shirt, and hyperkinetic energy, riffles through a few boxes of old magazines and vintage ads the woman is hoping to sell.

“Nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares,” he says, more to himself than her, between quick glances at Rolling Stone magazines featuring the Beatles, early Saturday Evening Post covers, and a few 1950s Alberto Vargas-style pinup posters. Sohmers is 62 years old and a veteran of 13 seasons as the pop-culture expert on WGBH’s Antiques Roadshow. He hasn’t missed one of Brimfield’s three annual events since 1984, but turning a profit at the shows, like turning a profit in the rest of the antiques business, has gotten harder. He says he’ll probably do about $3,000 in sales this week. That’s not what it used to be. “In the 1990s, the July show would get fifty thousand people,” he says. “Now it’s ten thousand.”

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“The problem,” he says, “is that Shirley Temple is worthless, nobody knows who Howdy Doody is, and no one cares about the Lone Ranger.” He tells the lady she doesn’t have anything he wants. Then he points to rows of cars at the back of the field. “All of that,” he says, “used to be more booths.”

Brimfield is still the premier antiques market in the United States, but attendance and sales have been on the decline. It’s hard to get solid data, however. There is no central authority for information on the shows — each of the nearly two dozen fields where sellers set up is independently operated, and the things the field operators tell you don’t always mesh with what the dealers tell you. “The numbers have always been hard to pin down,” says Bob Wyss, a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of the 2006 book Brimfield Rush. “The promoters are, well, promoters.”

Walking among the fields and talking to old-timers, there’s general agreement that Brimfield’s sales and attendance have been waning. Charles Zubal, a 75-year-old retired gym teacher from Niskayuna, New York, has been selling at Brimfield since 1978. “It’s a ghost of what it was,” he says. “But it’s very difficult to get out of. It’s an addiction.”

Zack Wittman

Pop-culture expert Gary Sohmers is a veteran of “Antiques Roadshow.”

Buyers, too, say that Brimfield lacks the undiscovered treasures it once offered, in large part because the Internet has made more savvy sellers of everyone. Lincoln Sander, executive director of the Antiques Dealers Association of America, remembers going to Brimfield 30 years ago. “I could make $10,000 in three days,” Sander says of those times. “You can’t do that anymore. With eBay and Antiques Roadshow now, everybody knows what they have.”

Sohmers says he’s kept his business afloat by changing his product mix. He shows me circa 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures that sell regularly for $50 each to nostalgic thirtysomethings, and he’s seen rising demand for vintage video games, especially original Nintendo eight-bit cartridges. His booth also has recently released LEGO products — new in box, as the vernacular goes — and an elementary school-aged boy stops by and haggles him down from $15 to $10 for a set. This is nothing like the rock ’n’ roll memorabilia Sohmers dreamed of selling when he entered the business. But at least his pop-culture wares are doing better than some other specialties. “People used to look down on my stuff,” he says. “Now they don’t, because the Victorian stuff doesn’t sell.”

That’s a sore spot with Brimfield’s most pedigreed field operators, Jill Lukesh and Judy Mathieu, the daughters of Gordon Reid, the antiques impresario who held the first Brimfield show in his cow pasture in 1959 (he optimistically called it “Gordon Reid’s Famous Flea Market”). Sixty-seven antiques dealers showed up that year, and by the 1990s more than 850 would crowd onto the field of Jill and Judy’s J&J Promotions. But for this year’s July show, the pair hosted just 250 dealers (they expect 350 for the fall show, September 2-7). The drop-off, Mathieu says, is a reflection of a declining market, increased competition from other fields, and her own stringent standards for what sort of merchandise belongs here. Twenty other Brimfield landowners have opened their fields to dealers since the 1950s, and, Mathieu says, they’ve undermined the purity of Brimfield.

Mathieu polices her field for dealers whose merchandise doesn’t conform to her ideal. She checks references before renting space and requires that all vendors are “bona fide antiques dealers.” The nearby pastures full of reproductions, Barbie dolls from the 1990s, and used Coldplay CDs grate on her. “They’re all run independently, and I guess whatever they feel they have to do, they do,” she says. “You can’t say it in nice words — find some nice words, Zac — they’ll rent booths to any type of merchandise.”

7/12/14 Brimfield, Mass. Molli Kirkpatrick stands outside her shop, "Strange Desires" at the Brimfield Flea Market on Saturday evening, July 12, 2014 in Brimfrield, Mass. (Zack Wittman for the Boston Globe)

Zack Wittman

“People want different. They want weird. The old-time dealers say, ‘It’s not really an antique,’ but that’s not what it’s about anymore,” says Molli Kirkpatrick, a 23-year-old Brimfield dealer.

WITH MERCHANDISING THAT SEEMS to blend the classic Brimfield tradition with the flea market style that annoys traditionalists, some of the event’s youngest dealers are finding success. That’s partly because even as overall attendance at Brimfield declines, the number of buyers in their 20s and 30s is rising. “My sense is that they’re urban and urbane,” says Don Moriarty, the 76-year-old promoter behind the Heart-O-the-Mart field. “You see them all in the fashionable high boots that I used to wear fishing when I was a kid.”

There are plenty of young sellers, too. Molli Kirkpatrick, a 23-year-old University of Massachusetts Amherst grad, calls her booth Strange Desires — after a headline she saw in a vintage True Confessions magazine. She lives in Brimfield with her antique dealer parents. Her father sells mostly clocks, and her mother specializes in antique dolls. But their daughter’s wares are more eclectic. With a product mix united by her own tastes rather than categories defined by price guides and auction houses, Kirkpatrick will ring up $10,000 in sales this week, leaving her a tidy profit after the $600 she’ll pay in rent. “People want different. They want weird,” she says. “The old-time dealers say, ‘It’s not really an antique,’ but that’s not what it’s about anymore.”

She shows me necklaces she made by stringing together antique keys, sawed off at the stem. She’s sold several for $55 each here and at smaller venues like the SoWa Vintage Market in Boston’s South End. She brought two 1940s fashion mannequins to Brimfield this year that she’d picked up for $40 at a yard sale. The mannequins are of little value to antique collectors, but then Kirkpatrick wrapped them in barbed wire she’d found at a barn sale for a quirky house-of-horrors look. She sold them for $150 each.

“I think of myself as a vintage dealer and artist,” she says. “There still are 18th-century pieces that are worth a lot of money, but the way it’s going is that it’s more about your setup, how you merchandise things and how you portray yourself as a dealer.”

Emily Sawich, Kirkpatrick’s friend, stops by the booth. She sells antiques, vintage clothing, and jewelry with her boyfriend, 25-year-old Justin Pomerleau, who recently opened Vivant Vintage, a retro shop in Lower Allston. Kirkpatrick shows her some jewelry, but Sawich passes. “You should sell that,” she says. “I can’t really upcycle it.”

Zack Wittman

Some of the wares Molli Kirkpatrick sells at her booth, which she calls Strange Desires.

“Upcycling” — a play on “recycling” — is a term that describes modifying old things to turn them into new things, and it’s the hottest trend at flea markets around the country. Sally Schwartz, proprietor of the 10,000-visitor-per-weekend Randolph Street Market in Chicago, says that when she started the event in 2003, upcycled merchandise was less than 5 percent of sales. Today, driven in part by the handmade craft sensibilities repopularized by Etsy, it’s as much as 25 percent.

Even Kirkpatrick’s father, Doug, unwittingly finds himself in the upcycling business at the July Brimfield. “We brought some old grandfather clock cases, really just as ornaments,” he says. “We sold them to people who are planning to re-purpose them.”

“When I started in this business in the mid-1990s, there was no such thing as upcycling,” Schwartz says. In particular, she says, much of the early 20th-century furniture that no longer fits with modern styles is finding a second life with upcyclers. “It’s there, it’s made, it works well, but it doesn’t look fun. These young designers have no rules, and no one told them they can’t do this or that. It takes young people to haul this well-crafted but boring furniture out of estates, to change it, and to bring it to flea markets.”

Dealers like Sawich and Pomerleau infuse their businesses with a definite hipster vibe. But even among young dealers who affect a more traditionalist persona, the approach to product selection and merchandising is different from their predecessors’. After graduating from Middlebury College with a degree in history, Adam Irish was considering law school until the world of old things lured him away. While working an entry-level job at the Justice Department, he found himself carting oil paintings he’d purchased at an auction house during his lunch break back to his desk, past the curious eyes of security guards. With the help of a credit card and a sympathetic property manager, the 28-year-old now owns Old As Adam, a shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that he bills as a “Vintage Haberdasher and Cabinet of Curiosities.”

Irish’s Brimfield booth is eclectic: He has a three-panel painting of Odd Fellows fraternal icons, probably from the early 1900s, a tea set with a White Star Line sticker on it from around the same time, and a period diorama of a World War I U-boat battle. There’s also a framed architectural study from a 1920s Harvard design student. “My vibe is gentleman’s club,” he says. “I’m into high-quality craftsmanship. Throughout the twentieth century, we perfected the art of having stuff break. This isn’t even about the things I sell, really. It’s about sharing what I love.”

7/12/14 Brimfield, Mass. A few remaining customers browse the merchandise at the Brimfield Flea Market on Saturday evening, July 12, 2014 in Brimfrield, Mass. (Zack Wittman for the Boston Globe)

Zack Wittman

A customer browses among traditional antiques.

THE CENTRAL SHIFT in the antiques and collectibles business dates to the rise of eBay: The market for all but the rarest collectibles was flattened once people could log online and find 40 copies of any issue of Life magazine, with starting bids of 99 cents. Things that once seemed scarce were found to be not so scarce, after all. On top of that, tastes have shifted. Schwartz says that her 17-year-old daughter couldn’t care less about her mother’s collection of vintage lighters. “She told me she’s gonna sell them when I die. She’ll use the money to buy iTunes. That’s all they care about.”

Harry L. Rinker, an antiques and collectibles author and syndicated columnist, says the world of highly focused connoisseur-collectors has practically evaporated over the past few decades — and that to survive, Brimfield will have to continue to evolve into a showcase of the eclectic. “It’s not a collectors’ market anymore,” he says. “It’s a decorators’ market.” These days, it’s all about the Pinterest-ready look.

How long these upcycling trends will last remains an open question. Several traditionalists I talked to hold out hope that the hipster dealers will grow up and transition into higher-end categories — but for now, the weird world of reclaimed, salvaged, and one-of-a-kind seems to be the future.

Gary Sohmers sees that, and he’s trying to prepare for it, though not always successfully. A few minutes after he’s proclaimed that midcentury nostalgia no longer has a market, a woman in her 50s enters his booth and reaches into her suitcase to try to sell him a Milton Berle ashtray. He gives her his usual line about how no one cares, but, ultimately, he can’t quite convince himself. He offers her 10 dollars for it. She insists on 15. He caves, peels the money off the roll in his pocket, and tucks the ashtray into his display case.

Falmouth native Zac Bissonnette is the author of The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute, scheduled for release in February. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

More coverage:

- Design New England on Brimfield

- In Brimfield, hunt is on for culinary antiques, collectibles

- Please discuss: Seven books about antiques

- More from the Magazine

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