“It’s been a week, and I’m still obsessing over a chicken made from an old toaster.”
Such is the risk you take when you go to a flea market. That item you passed on won’t get out of your head, and, like that Kitchen Aid stand mixer you once saw at Marshalls on Boylston Street for $199, it will never appear again.
We recently made a pilgrimage to Elephant’s Trunk Flea Market in New Milford, Conn., for a very good reason: We’d seen it on a reality show. Elephant’s Trunk is often the site of filming for HGTV’s “Flea Market Flip.” (The Brimfield Antique Flea Market in Brimfield is another location used by the show.) The basic premise is, the show’s contestants shop the flea market in one hour, buy unlikely-looking items (decrepit metal file cabinets, rusty bird cages), and then, with the help of the show’s experts, turn them into chicly repurposed household goods that New Yorkers will spend big money for — at yet another flea market. Up-cycled bar carts are huge; at this point, every apartment dweller in the entire New York metro area must have one. Paint it blue, and it will sell fast.
Cunning wannabe crafters that we are, we couldn’t wait to check it out and, like “Flea Market Flip” host Lara Spencer, use our incredible taste to ferret out fabulous flea market finds.
Set in a 55-acre hayfield, Elephant’s Trunk is New England’s largest weekly flea market. It’s open from April through mid-December, on Sundays only, and typically draws 500-plus vendors. People arrive in the wee hours of the morning to check out goods that range from antiques and collectibles to up-cycled wares and odd unidentifiable bits just begging to be transformed into something unique and industrial-chic. Even the eats are above par. Besides the typical flea market fare (steamed hotdogs), Elephant’s Trunk offers nearly 20 food trucks, including a decent barbecue purveyor. Typically, there’s also fresh produce and flowers. So even if you don’t bring home that mid-century table, you’ll likely return with a bunch of mums or an eggplant.
It’s always fun to play a game of “find the weirdest item here” at a flea market. Oddest thing we found during a recent visit to Elephant’s Trunk: a giant (uninhabited) wasp’s nest, hanging from a branch. “People love those — they hang ’em up in their family room,” the vendor said. “Oh, yeah,” said a customer. “My husband does tree work and brings them home for the Girl Scouts.” Who knew?
Another vendor was doing a brisk business selling beer tap handles, culled from the basement of a tavern. One customer was scooping these up in multiples, for 10 bucks apiece. Why? “We screw them onto oak barrel fronts. Man cave art!” the buyer said. Aha. Meanwhile, metalworking couple Kim and Jim Irons were selling yard art — dogs, people, chickens — made from old golf clubs, shovels, mailboxes, and other assorted junk. (They call their company “Repurpose Me.”) We watched a customer fall in love with a virtual kennel of these dogs, and then purchase three of them. Why? “They just make me smile!” she said. A $70 chicken was pretty irresistible, but we walked away — to our lasting regret, it seems.
We noticed several dealers selling vintage, treadle-style sewing machines with cast-iron bases. “People are putting marble on top and turning them into accent tables,” said dealer Ray Flotat from Winston, Conn., who happened to be selling a c. 1880s machine himself for $150. “That’s the best-selling thing there is,” said Flotat, who’s been collecting stuff for 50 years. While he loves this flea market, he’s not a huge fan of the “Flea Market Flip” effect. The show has hurt the market, he says, because “people want to be on TV, so they’ll sell stuff too cheaply.” Not to mention, “Lara Spencer doesn’t like me — I talk too much” to contestants.
On the higher end, we encountered 21 Tables. “I’m two trends in one!” says owner Frank Conroy, who combines live (natural)-edge wood slabs with steel and cast-iron industrial bases to create one-of-a-kind tables. Everything is sourced in New England, and much of it is salvaged. We fell in love with one priced at $900; many go much higher.
With more than 500 dealers typically set up, even an energetic shopper won’t see everything. But what you do encounter will be better than the average flea market fodder. While there’s lots of stuff, “there’s not a lot of schlocky junk here — no tube socks, T-shirts, or knock-off designer bags,” said our companion Paul Kelley, a flea market fan whose mother was a dealer in Newton. “It’s an interesting mix.”
Niceties for shoppers include free use of carts — useful for hauling those big finds to your car — and a parking area devoted to loading items.
But maybe buying more stuff isn’t the real lure here. For many, a visit to a flea market is a great excuse to hang out with a friend or family member, and do a little time-traveling together. “We walk around and I see stuff, and realize, ‘This was at my grandma’s house!’” says Arianne Beerbower of Fairfield, Conn., who was flea-marketing at Elephant’s Trunk with her mother, Nancy. “We see stuff that we used to play with as kids. It’s a walk down memory lane.”
And if you do buy something, you’re giving new life to an item that was sitting around gathering dust — like those mounted deer heads, or the once-loved American Girl dolls that are awaiting a good home. Maybe, like the three women we saw (toting old wooden wheels that they planned to refashion into wall art), you’ll be inspired to create something for your home, a la “Flea Market Flip.”
“When you’re here, you block out everything else in the world, and just focus on the hunt,” Beerbower said.
Not a bad thing!
If you go . . .
Open Sundays from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (see website for early bird timing and fees), through mid-Dec. $2 per person for regular admission; free from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Elephant’s Trunk Flea Market, 490 Danbury Road, New Milford, Conn., 860-355-1448; www.etlfea.com.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@