Cover Story

Thrill of the Hunt

Brimfield’s Antique Shows: A Regional Treasure

Nearing its 50-year anniversary, the Brimfield Antique Shows are a tourism magnet for shoppers from around the globe. As the events continue to evolve, celebrity endorsements, technological advances, and increasing interest in the unique experience of hunting for treasures are creating a solid base for growth in this tiny New England town.

It’s one of Martha Stewart’s favorite ‘good things.’
It’s a constant haunt for staffers from Ralph Lauren, who come armed with cameras to snap photos of vintage fabrics that could inspire new clothing lines.

And recently, Oprah Winfrey caught wind of the oldest outdoor antique show in the U.S. and its acres of one-of-a-kind items, featuring it in her magazine, O.

Not a shabby following for a flea market that began back in 1959 with one man operating out of the tailgate of his pickup truck.
What’s now known as the Brimfield Antique Shows started with a local auctioneer looking for a way to sell some of his goods without the use of a podium and gavel, who began holding informal sales on Saturday afternoons. Other entrepreneurs saw passersby stopping to have a peek, and gradually began setting up their own tables of wares, and from there, it mushroomed.

Today, the shows, held three weeks out of the year in May, July, and September, are among the most widely recognized markets of their kind around the world, and are almost synonymous with the town of Brimfield’s name to many antique aficionados. The shows are sometimes still referred to as the flea markets or just ‘the fleas,’ but residents closely involved with the show, such as Bill Simonic, owner of the Yankee Cricket B&B and Web master for the privately maintained site Brimfield.com, say that’s become a bit of a misnomer.

“People come for the antiques before anything else — that’s why they’re here,” he said. “Plenty of people have tried selling plenty of other things on the grounds, but there’s nothing like seeing and touching something that might not exist anywhere else. There’s nothing like the hunt.”

The shows operate under an intriguing business model, too, with no one coordinator or managing body, but rather a number of property owners (also known as show promoters), local business owners, and dealers working in concert with the town and its government to make each week-long event a success.

The Brimfield Show Promoters Assoc. (BSPA) is a major driving force, made up of promoters — primarily those who own the fields and buildings that accommodate dealers, and line Brimfield’s share of Route 20. The Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce works closely with promoters and the town to promote the shows, and professional associations such as the Heritage Corridor Bed & Breakfast Group, made up of B&B owners, keep tabs on this important source of bread and butter. All of these groups serve as watchdogs over publicity, show information, developing regulations on the legislative level, and even the weather.

Each promoter advertises individually through the usual channels (newspapers, trade journals, radio, and some new forays into television), and sometimes, more frequently now than ever, as a group. There’s no official Web site for the shows, but many exist, including Brimfield.com, maintained by Simonic; BrimfieldExchange.com, maintained by Tim May, who also owns May’s Antique Market and the Brimfield Pocket Guide; and a site created by the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce.

All of the promoters’ fields that are flooded with dealers, buyers, and individual shoppers during the shows are individually owned plots of land — there are about 20 of them. In the off-months, these fields are downright desolate, but during show weeks, people line up on opening day like runners in the Boston marathon, maps in hand, ready to pick the tables over for the perfect find.

And, as various show promoters have realized over the years, one of the secrets of the Brimfield Shows’ success is that the proverbial ‘perfect something’ is different for everyone. Sometimes, it’s a Japanese tourist staying at the Yankee Cricket, shrugging off jetlag to be the first to find some specific vintage books. Other times, it’s a wealthy socialite looking for new furnishings for her vacation home. And sometimes, it’s Martha Stewart, looking at shabby chic teapots and tableware, and taking careful notes.

A New Day Dawning

While shoppers strain at the gates before a show opens at daybreak (“that’s part of the draw,” said May), most are unaware that a complicated, if not choreographed, dance is happening on the other side of the entrance.

May explained that the shows grew relatively unchecked until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when residents began realizing the lack of a pre-approved schedule for the shows, and the days dealers would begin arriving en masse were causing disruptions across town.

“It wasn’t until then that the town instituted new regulations on the shows,” said May, “and the result is largely what you see today, which works pretty well for everyone.”

The town government imposed limitations on the events — each of the three show weeks must now be identified more than a year in advance (they’re different every year, but begin on a Tuesday and extend until Sunday) — and approved by the Board of Selectmen. The 2008 show schedule kicks off on May 13.

Show promoters also work in concert with the town to secure police and fire personnel to staff the events, and even to keep an eye on the weather. While once, field owners and dealers came to the shows equipped with hand-held radios to listen to forecasts, now the town’s Doppler radar system helps tremendously in watching for storms and ensuring that no major issues — hurricanes, microbursts, and the like — sneak up on the tents that cover a third of the show grounds during the markets.

Don Moriarty, another show promoter who owns Heart-o-the-Mart, location self-explanatory, explained that dealers are assigned various opening times within that six-day period to lessen the stampede of new people into town all at once.

“All of the dealers open at different times because of logistics,” he said, “and as a result I think opening works very well.”

E-Brimfield

Over the years, promoters have watched the shows grow, change, and evolve with the times. There was a period when some feared that online access to the same kinds of items found in Brimfield, however vast, could adversely affect the events. But as the Internet matures, the opposite is proving true.

David Lamberto, owner of Hertan’s Antique Shows, said the tangible quality of the shows is likely one reason why.

“The education, the interesting wares, the nostalgia … all of these are things that connect people in a world that can be very disconnected,” he said. “The shows are a destination for antiques, but also for face-to-face interaction and an opportunity to see, feel, and touch things.”

Plus, said Lamberto, the sheer amount of items at the shows ensures that there’s something for everyone, and moreover that the events remain relevant in terms of design and decorating trends.

“People follow what the trade journals and Martha Stewart promote,” he said, noting with a laugh that, a few years ago, it seemed like everyone was toting a metal sap bucket or two back to their cars. This year, he expects to see large metal stars in people’s hands, ready to be hung on the outside of a house.

“Not only are we a source for these trends, we’re a source for ideas for designers, and we promote ourselves as that,” he said.

May added that technology is augmenting the shows’ role in the design sector rather than lessening it.

“It used to be that dealers had little black books and were constantly running back and forth from pay phones, with walkie-talkies in their hands trying to seal deals,” he said. “Now, technology is part of the evolution of the shows. Many dealers have Internet access. Buyers can take a photo of an item with their iPhone and send it to a colleague for an instant assessment. Instant gratification has become part of the game, and it’s not taking people away.”

Moriarty said that, as technology continues to become a greater part of everyday life, he has nothing but optimism for its role in Brimfield. Even the online auction giant eBay has become a complement to the events, not a drain.

“eBay and other online auctions are a big advantage for Brimfield, not a bane,” he said. “It has an impact on the volume of sales, and Brimfield isn’t always competing with online auctions. In fact, it’s an outstanding buying source.”

The Economics of Antiquing

There, Moriarty hits upon another hidden strength of the Brimfield Shows — the buyers. While many outsiders see the events as prime shopping time for homeowners and antique lovers, it’s also a hotbed for professionals such as antique dealers, shop owners, and online sellers, not to mention film and television crews that routinely visit Brimfield to find props and set design materials.

Camera phones, for instance, are not to be taken lightly on the grounds; often, they’re in the hands of ‘runners,’ people sent to the shows by major corporations including restaurants, magazines, film studios, and interior-design outfits to capture the flavor of a show and make purchases based on what are seen as hot sells.

“The 20 contiguous fields are a buyer’s mecca because of the social aspect and the opportunities to see people in the trade,” said Moriarty. “It’s almost like a convention.”

And, similar to conventions, the Brimfield Shows’ economic impact on the region is diverse and far-reaching, including the sought-after extended hotel stays and increased restaurant business. It’s estimated that the shows bring in between $30 and $50 million a year in revenue, and not just to Brimfield. Adjacent Sturbridge is home to more than 40 restaurants that are often filled to capacity during show weeks, and bed-and-breakfasts in the Quaboag area begin booking reservations a year in advance, if not sooner.

“The B&Bs and motels are filled in Brimfield, Sturbridge, and into South-bridge,” said Simonic, “and at this point, we usually start sending people toward Worcester and Springfield. Many hotels, even in those areas, have begun running special ‘Brimfield rates.’”

Essentially, Simonic said, an entire city — albeit a tent city — springs up in Brimfield three times a year, and the return to the region and even the state through room taxes is unmistakable.

“Brimfield has a population of 3,400,” he said, “but during the May show, which is typically the largest, there are a half-million people in attendance. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 dealers, 80% of whom are returning dealers who man the same booth at every show, and all of them need supplies — everything from gas to food to packing tape. The domino effect is very visible.”

Even the town’s churches have a stake in the shows. Moriarty noted that about a third of the budgets of Brimfield’s churches, including the First Congregational Church on North Main Street, is derived from parking fees during the antique shows, and many residents have had similar success.

“A lot of children from this town have gone to college thanks to parking cars,” he said.

The softened economy in the U.S. this year has slowed room bookings somewhat, said Simonic, but he expects that the numbers will reach similar heights as previous years, with a greater number of last-minute bookings.

“People are making their decisions in a shorter time period, so I think what we’re really losing is that long-term security we’ve had in the past,” he said, noting other trends, including solid interest in culture, history, and the antiques that are part of both among the European market.

“The shows get a great deal of international travelers,” he said. “Antiques are a major attraction and a huge market.”

The Future of the Fleas

Moving forward, promoters are hoping to continue to streamline the show-planning and organizing process, with the town’s needs always in mind as well as those of its many visitors. Next year marks the 50th year of the Brimfield Antique Shows, and Simonic said he and several others are now in the midst of planning events they hope will span the entire year, not just its three flagship weeks.

In addition, some of those varied groups working together in town are lobbying to extend public transportation from the Greater Springfield area to Brimfield to create a stronger connection between the westerly part of the region and the shows.

“We’d like more attention from the Springfield area,” said Simonic. “The tourism profile in the Quaboag Hills is still in its infancy, but we’re making progress. Better lines of communication and transportation between Springfield and here would definitely help, though we understand that it will take a little time.”

That sentiment is proof of an appreciation across Brimfield for things that take time to grow — sometimes, 50 years. It’s taken that long to build to a point where the atmosphere of the Brimfield Antique Shows is palpable in the air and sightings of Martha Stewart are commonplace.

“We could fill an encyclopedia with stories,” said Simonic. “They’ve become part of the area, and they add to the excitement that keeps people coming back. You can’t put a price tag on that.”

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