Antique Shows Have Made ‘Brimfield’ a Household Name
David Lamberto has witnessed the growth of the Brimfield Antique Show since he started participating some 30 years ago.
“It’s become known worldwide,” said Lamberto, who owns the Hertan’s ‘store’ (actually a field) where he started out parking cars for Jean Hertan decades ago; he later purchased the parcel before she died. “You don’t even have to call it the Brimfield Antique Show; just say ‘Brimfield,’ and people know what you’re talking about. It’s known worldwide just by that one name.”
In fact, few towns of Brimfield’s size (population 3,600) are known so widely for their main attraction. But this is no mere flea market. For six days three times a year — in May, July, and September — a mile-long stretch of Route 20 is ground zero for the largest outdoor market in the country.
“Prior to Six Flags — when Riverside Park was Riverside — Brimfield was the largest attraction in the region,” said Lenny Weake, president of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce, which includes Brimfield in its purview. “Six Flags has been quite competitive with that, but for years, the antique show was the only thing that filled all the hotel rooms in the area.”
It certainly helps fill the Yankee Cricket Bed & Breakfast, which former Ohio resident Bill Simonec built with his wife, Sherry, in 2001.
“I was downsized in 2000, so we moved here,” he said. “My sister-in-law lived in Sturbridge, and we loved the area.
“Bed and breakfasts are known either as destinations — 40 acres, a pond, and horseback riding, for instance — or for their location,” Simonec continued. “We picked location, three miles from the shows and three miles from Sturbridge Village. And we’ve been pretty fortunate.”
If they travel to Brimfield, they’ll encounter a mostly rural town peppered with a variety of small businesses, from the B&B and several restaurants to a print shop, a brewery, and an apple orchard.
Still, “the culture revolves around the antique shows,” Weake said. “People from all over the world come to Brimfield to attend the shows.”
Added Lamberto, “it has a significant economic impact on the region. I feel like it’s an exciting event that brings variety and diversity and culture to the area. It gives character to the town.”
What is a major event today began humbly, when a local auctioneer named Gordon Reed decided to hold open-air auctions on his property, and it grew into a successful flea market. “That was the only show until the late ’70s, when neighboring properties began accommodating dealers that couldn’t fit on the property of the show’s original creator,” Lamberto said. “It expanded quite a bit in the ’80s and ’90s to a one-mile stretch of Route 20 on both sides, and each property became its own show.”
He explained that field owners — who draw some 6,000 dealers a year and close to 1 million total visitors over the three annual events — went through a period in the early ’90s when the shows were expanding up to 14 days long. “Each event caused considerable traffic and disruption in the residents’ eyes. Because Brimfield is such a small community with a town-meeting type of government, the residents were able to come up with a compromise — the selectmen set a six-day period three times a year during which we can operate our shows.”
Lamberto and other site owners also formed an organization, the Brimfield Show Promoters Assoc. “We work together to improve the shows, and we have staggered the opening schedule.”
The shows have long been wildly popular, but Weake agreed with Simonec that recent numbers suggest a shaking off of the lingering recession, which put a damper on travel for many. And that helps hospitality businesses across the region.
“All the hotels fill up. There’s not a hotel in Brimfield, and only one motel in Palmer. All those people coming into our area are staying in all the surrounding communities; it’s huge for the whole area. The last show in May, you had a hard time finding a hotel room, and that includes everything from Sturbridge to Springfield And those people need to go eat somewhere.”
In addition, Weake said, “the town charges a permit fee for each of the vendors, so it’s a big economic engine for the town of Brimfield, for sure. They have done very well with the shows.”
The town — which, by most accounts, doesn’t have much in the way of new business development — could use that success, particularly following the recession and the 2011 tornado.
“The storm went right over our house and destroyed a lot of trees and did a lot of property damage,” Simonec said. “We were on the southern edge of the tornado when it came through. We didn’t have any house damage, but the landscape has been changed; it’ll be 10 or 20 years before it starts to come back.”
The economic recovery has been well under way, however. For example, Hollow Book Farms, which hosts a variety of social and recreational events, is back in business following damage from the storm, Weake said.
“It seems like, over the years we’ve been here,” Simonec added, “a lot of people like myself have moved into the area who come from a pretty good background — middle-class, professional — and it’s shown in the way the town conducts things. People are getting a little more interested in keeping the town rural and making sure things run properly.”
After the slow years he mentioned, when even the antique shows couldn’t totally fill the Yankee Cricket and other business felt the impact as well, “there seems to be a stirring in the economy. After the economy tanked, we had a lot of people struggling. A lot of businesseses are trying to make a comeback. I hear people saying it’s turning around and everything will get better, but I don’t think that’s going to happen for another 18 months or so.”
For now, he and others with a stake in Brimfield will take the gradual brightening of the economic skies they see, and enjoy the thrice-yearly event that has long been the largest event in town, Weake said. “As a general manager of a hotel in my former life, I know that people come from all over the world to the shows.”
“It’s a lot of things to a lot of people,” Lamberto added. “It’s a convention for antiques dealers to get together from all over the country, compare notes, catch up on stories, what’s happening, who’s had grandchildren, who’s had an event in their life. So it’s social in that way. It’s also business; they do a lot of buying and selling. And some come to make connections; they’re looking for things for their collections.”
He said the town has become more strict with permit requirements for sellers, but that comes with the territory of an evolving event. “It’s a balancing act between letting the businesses operate and doing so with the kind of control that keeps public safety as a priority.”
Still, he said, “it’s always an exciting time. It’s hard work, but it’s fun. You meet very interesting people from all walks of life.”
Despite the ups and downs of the economy, Simonec is pleased with his decision to relocate to Brimfield 12 years ago – whether it’s show time or not. “I love New England and love this area, and I’m glad we made the move. I’m happy we settled here.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org