BRIMFIELD — For her sophomore year at Holy Cross, Abby Ruettgers, who grew up in Carlisle, lugged a vintage 1950s kitchen unit with an enamel pull-out counter, tin-lined bread drawer, and glass-front cabinet, to college to use as a dresser. “I cooked intricate meals in my dorm room, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone.” She still has the piece, which has graced seven different apartments, and counting.
Now, as an owner of the South End shop Farm & Fable, which sells vintage cookbooks and both new and vintage kitchenware, Ruettgers, 33, scours Brimfield Antique Show, where she has been scouting for culinary collectibles since she was a teenager. The show, which is composed of 21 individually managed shows, includes over 5,000 vendors that line named fields on both sides of a half-mile stretch of Route 20 in Brimfield, just outside of Sturbridge. It happens over a span of six days, three times a year, in May, July, and September.
Ruettgers says that May is ideal for discovering the best stuff, since vendors have been stockpiling all winter, but that also means higher prices. Items in July come in at reduced rates, and September is especially good for striking deals, since vendors aim to unload wares before winter.
In May, as is her ritual, Ruettgers sets out at 5 a.m., stopping at Starbucks for a Trenta iced coffee before hitting the highway. At a little after 6, she pulls into the parking lot of the First Congregational Church at the start of the fields (the location also allows her to easily peel out of town in the afternoon). Ruettgers loves how even the church crew is excited. “They tuck a ticket on your windshield and say, ‘Have a great show!’,” she says, “It’s super New England-y.”
Unlike the New Yorkers who represent J.Crew and Martha Stewart, who Ruettgers says are easily identifiable in “fancy galoshes and designer frocks,” she wears ratty yoga pants, a puffer vest, and neon sneakers. Finery won’t serve you well, as dealers associate a slick appearance with corporate budgets. Frugal buyers should also keep this theory in mind. If a booth is highly styled, more closely resembling an urban boutique than country junk shop, move on.
Ruettgers brings an envelope stuffed with cash, which ensures the best price. She also drags a wire grocery cart behind her. She advises taking items at the time of purchase, rather than circling back later. “You think you’ll remember where a particular booth is, but you won’t, even if you geo-tag.” (In May the app Brimfield Flea Finders was launched, to help with grounds navigation.)
Moving swiftly through the crowds is key for Ruettgers, though she always stops at Faddy’s for apple-cinnamon doughnuts. At the show, she suggests knowing what you’re looking for, lest you wander aimlessly, overwhelmed. Also, she says, get to know the dealers. “If they know you appreciate what they have, and that you’ll pay a fair price, they’ll hold back pieces for you next time.”
This year Ruettgers’s buying list includes cocktail glasses, cocktail shakers, and wooden catering crates. Wire caddies that hold sets of glasses, perfect for carrying up to roof decks, are huge sellers at Farm & Fable. So are pinup glasses from the 1940s — glasses with pictures of clothed ladies on the front, but naked on the reverse. She scooped up 10 this trip, all of which have already sold.
Last September, Ruettgers bought crates that came from a Connecticut catering company, which she filled with vintage books to adorn Harvard Square restaurant Alden & Harlow. She had planned on picking up more, but ultimately passed due to high pricing. Bill Ziobro of Found Again Treasures in Sturbridge confirms that there’s been increased interest in them. He brought 300 from a dairy farm in Norfolk, and sold 115 the first morning. He also sold 50 soda crates.
Instead, Ruettgers bought a red and white cooler emblazoned with the phrase “Pleasure Chest” from Ziobro. Other goodies she picked up on this trip include a Moulin Rouge-themed cocktail shaker, a crystal punch bowl, a food scale, a diet pamphlet from Domino Sugar, and a cow crossing sign from a Vermont farm. She would have liked more cocktail glasses and shakers, but prices for those also seemed higher than usual.
As for the antique that got away? Last year she splurged on red metal marquee letters that spell out Farm & Fable. Later that afternoon, the dealer hunted her down saying his partner was furious he let them go. Ruettgers sold them back, at a profit, but is sorry.
“I wish I had kept them.”
Farm & Fable
251 Shawmut Ave., South End, Boston, 617-451-1110, farmandfable.com
Brimfield Antique Show July 8-13, Sept. 2-12, www.brimfieldshow.org