July 24, 2017 5 Comments

How to Shop for Vintage

Secrets of a Stylist: 10 Tips for Scoring Big at the Flea Market

Anyone who has come to my home knows that our home decor is an eclectic mix of modern and vintage. Each piece tells a story: about a place I traveled, how it was handed down to me, how I picked it up at a random antique mall in the middle of nowhere or how I even picked up from on the side of a curb or a flea market.

(Pictured above rare Flea Market Find, Yves Saint Laurent Couture Necklace picked up at Flea Market outside of Chicago, Watercolor Print Artist Signed Picked Up at Flea Market in Wisconsin)

And the Vintage Meet Modern Collective is no different. The pieces are sourced from all over the world, primarily from auctions, fine estates, some even from musicians and jazz singers in Chicago or collectors passing on their treasures. And then there are the pieces I dug, hunted, and scoured for. You can ask my dear friend Lisa from Suzy’s Timeless Treasures, I find no pile intimidating and if there was ever a prize for reuniting a pair of earrings or creating a demi parure amongst the chaos, victory is usually mine.

Admittedly, I still get a rush searching for treasures at the flea and over the years it has lead to some pretty fabulous scores in both my personal collection and for the Vintage Meet Modern Collective.

Brooklyn flea market

Brooklyn flea market

(Shopping Earlier this Summer At the Brooklyn Flea.) 

If you have never shopped a flea market or are overwhelmed at just the thought of it, today I’m sharing 10 of my top tips for scoring at the Flea Market.

  1. Know Where You are Going
  2. Dress Appropriately
  3. Carry a “kit”
  4. Do a little homework
  5. Ask Questions
  6. Cash in King
  7. Inspector Gadget
  8. The early bird gets the worm, but don’t count out the power of being fashionably late
  9. This isn’t Antiques Roadshow
  10. Instinct is everything

1. Know where you are going. Not all “flea” markets are the same. Depending on where you live the whole market experience can be yin or yang. I have gone to a true flea markets that start at 4:00am in a parking lot and I just recently, visited the Brooklyn Flea, which was a much higher end almost antique or artisan style marketplace. This is why I tell people, don’t be turned off by the word “flea.”  If you enjoy a true flea market experience where there are tables of hardware equipment right next to an antique dealer right next to a table full of socks --Go nuts! They can be a great place to score treasures. For example, I recently visited the Rosemont Flea Market in Chicago, which is one of my favorites (I’ll share where I like to shop in another post soon), and bought an entire box of gorgeous high end Old Hollywood Glam Earrings fit for Marilyn or Audrey on a table that was full of vintage auto parts. And I got them for a song because the dealer just wanted to move them so he could focus on his specialty, which was, apparently, hood ornaments.

But there is another side to shopping fleas, too. Recently, I shared a video of our day at the Brooklyn Flea down under the Bridge in New York (see above video). This type of flea market, has a bit of everything and if you enjoy a more curated type flea experience, it would be perfect for a beginner on the hunt for some new treasures.

(All pieces above sourced at a local flea market, including the vintage jewelry boxes, which are in pristine condition. All available @ VintageMeetModern.com)

2. Dress Appropriately. I have never been to a flea market where there was not a lot of walking involved, sometimes acres, even miles. Wear comfortable shoes. Dress in layers. Some flea markets have indoor and outdoor spaces so you may go from heat to air conditioning to a humid barn space, so keep that in mind when picking out what to wear.  Don’t forget the sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. You are still in a large open space so be sure to care your purse or wallet close to you. I often carry a large tote to carry my purchases (more about that in Tip # 3) and I wear a crossbody bag to keep my phone, wallet, and necessities close to me. I also try to keep my purse light that day since I will most likely fill up my tote.

3. Carry a “kit". There are a few things I would always recommend bringing when going to a flea market, antique show, antique shop, thrifting, or even meeting with private clients. Here we go...

  • Water, hydration is important especially when walking around
  • Hand wipes, sanitizer, even gloves if you like to rummage
  • Plastic Bags (large and small) not all dealers and merchants have items to wrap your things up pretty . I buy a lot of little items so I like to carry a variety of ziploc bags.
  • A tote to put your treasures into (I carry a tote with another tote that folds up in my bag incase I hit the mother load)
  • A loupe or magnifying glass to examine items
  • A tape measure - whether you are looking at clothing, housewares, jewelry, accessories, furniture, a good tape measure can help you decide whether something will fit your or fit into your home appropriately.
  • Money - you will need this for sure, lol
  • Tissue paper or bubble wrap
  • A cart with wheels if you plan on staying all day or plan on getting larger items
  • Flashlight (both for early morning or late night excursions and to get a closer look at items)
  • Small Snacks - many flea markets have pop up spots to eat but it's always a good idea to have some small portable snack with you just in case they don’t or you are on the go the whole time.
  • Your phone (good for looking up items on the fly or taking pictures of items you like and want to revisit later in the day)

These are all things I keep in my “kit” and I find them all to be most helpful. I even keep a loupe and tape measure in my purse at all times because you never know when an opportunity might present itself.

4. Do a little homework. You don’t need to become an expert but I would have a idea of what you are looking for. Whether you are looking for home decor or a dress for an occasion or accessories, make a list so you don’t forget or even bring a few pictures of things you like. You can easily become overwhelmed when shopping at a flea market.

Also, dig a little deeper. If you are beginning to really get into a type of jewelry, pottery, or a type of furniture, do a little homework. The internet plus good old fashion books can teach you a lot.  Learn what to look for. You don’t have to become an qualified antiques appraiser but knowing a little bit about what you are looking at will help guide you towards buying authentic pieces of higher quality and at a fair price.  It might even help you spot something rare!

5. Ask Questions! The lifelong student and teacher in me is going to say , “there are no stupid questions!” Yes flea markets can be busy but many times the people who are selling are passionate collectors themselves. It works to your advantage to learn from them. They can educate you about what your are looking at and sometimes even make better suggestions. Sometimes they can give you the history of a piece which is quite fun. If you find someone who specialized in something you love, you may even exchange cards or information. Many times the best relationships are formed when someone asks about a piece. If you are a lover of a certain type of jewelry, a fan of mid century modern lighting, or a collector of Pucci and Gucci, ask the dealer to keep you in mind if they come across other pieces. They could become your own personal shopper in the antiques and vintage world. Take it from me because my own personal sources run deep. Which leads me to my next point...

It’s not about haggling. Haggle away if that is your style, but keep in mind flea markets are a great place to get a good deal but the dealer is there to make money,. Have proper etiquette and try not to insult people with ridiculously low offers. Instead, remember cash is king. Ask a dealer if they will give you a better price if you pay cash (you can still ask for a receipt if you need it).  Cash works well because dealers don’t have to pay a processing fee. Also, even though we are all connected to modern technology, squares and readers don’t always work in remote fields or concrete buildings and not all dealers have them.

7. Inspector Gadget. The items you do find at flea markets are still mainly one of kind and vintage, meaning they are rare and out of production. Unless you are into the shabby chic look, do inspect your items carefully. Which includes turning them over and making sure nothing is loose. For jewelry, look to be sure there are no dead, missing or cracked stones, wear to the plating. Make sure the clasps work and are tight, etc. Look for a makers label or copyright. If you are a fan of certain designers, like I mentioned earlier, do a little homework, get to know the maker's mark to check for authenticity. For clothing, turn the garment inside out, check the zippers, seams, etc. Do the same with pottery and glassware, unless imperfection is the look you are going for, pass on things with deep cracks or dents. Spend some time with the items you are interested in, now is the time to use your magnifying glass, flashlight, or even ask a dealer if you can take it into better or different lighting if you need to. Items can’t be returned so it is a bit of “buyer beware” situation.

8. The early bird gets the worm but sometimes it can pay to fashionably late. If you're an avid collector of something or know that the location you are going to is going to have some rare items, it's always best to go early. The early bird does get the worm, and if you are going to beat an army full of trained antique dealers and collectors, you will want to be there early, too. However, if you want some great deals don’t hesitate to hang around until the end. It’s true, most people don’t want to have to pack everything up at the end so if you go closer to the end or had your eye on something you saw at the beginning of the day, it never hurts to go back at the end of the day and ask a dealer what their best price would be,. Chances are you will get something at a really great price just so they don’t have to pack it back up.

9. It’s not Antiques Roadshow. I love Antiques Roadshow. In fact my husband and I watch it pretty regularly, almost like a date night. We ohhhh and ahhh over hearing people unearthing things from their basement worth a cool $250,000. There are plenty of treasures to be had at the flea market but keep in mind, it’s important to choose things you will treasure. Chances are your $10 vase is probably worth more than the ten bucks you paid but probably not going to be worth running to auction house and cashing out to retire with. Likewise, if you come across a dealer who is telling you that everything is more expensive in his booth or on his table because it came from a castle in France, beware and don’t empty your wallet unless the dealer has proof to back things up. If you are truly looking to buy something authentic, work with professionals like Vintage Meet Modern, Antique Dealers, Fine Auction Houses, etc where authenticity is always guaranteed.

10. Instinct is everything! If you love it! If it called to you! If you were attracted to it, if you picked it out of a pile of plenty - chances are your instinct is strong and it was meant for you. I truly believe this. We joke in even in our own business, the one that got away, the Holy Grail, the lost treasure --- if you can’t stop thinking about it, get it!

“Nothing haunts us like the vintage we didn’t buy.” There is a lot of truth to that, many times the items you will find won’t ever easily be found again so now is the perfect time to add it to your collection and let your personal style shine. Your style, your closet, your home is a blank canvas - adding something unique is powerful, memorable. I guarantee you that what you are attracted to and carefully considered bringing into your life is a reflection of your own personal style. So get it and enjoy! It will serve as great memory and reflection of who you are, and chances are will be a great conversation-starter as well. It's always fun to have someone say….”where did you get that?” and know that the only one who has it, is you!

Happy Hunting,


5 Responses

Joan Berrios
Joan Berrios

April 18, 2020

Loved this article. Great tips for shopping at Flea Markets.

Joan Berrios
Joan Berrios

April 18, 2020

Loved this article. Great tips for shopping at Flea Markets.


July 27, 2017

As someone who loves yard sales and auctions, these are some good tips! Makes me want to go on a treasure hunt!

Angie Sandoval
Angie Sandoval

July 24, 2017

Wonderful advice and tips! Thanks for sharing with us!

Theresa Marie Daily
Theresa Marie Daily

July 24, 2017

This is such an amazing & helpful post! I love flea markets they’re awesome! These tips will deff come in handy next time I’m at one! Thanks for sharing this! (:

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