Hidden Gems And 'Killer Stuff': A Flea Market How-To

Originally published on July 14, 2011 7:24 pm

The flea market day starts long before the crowds stream in, says author Maureen Stanton. And that's when the real deals go down.

"The dealers are here, sometimes right at the crack of dawn," she tells NPR's Laura Sullivan. "The antique dealers, generally, are 'picking' the other tables ... looking for the thing that they can resell for double or triple or 10-fold."

Stanton has written a new book about this growing subculture, Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America.

Her main character is a man she calls Curt Avery. That's not his real name; she agreed to the pseudonym because he wanted to stay under the radar.

"He can look at a batch of things and he can find the thing that's valuable," she says. Stanton spent months on the road with Avery, observing the flea market subculture and absorbing his extensive knowledge.

Stanton writes that Avery developed his "laser vision" over the course of two decades and has a house full of bad purchases to prove it.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. And I'm standing here at the Capitol Hill Flea Market in Washington, D.C. And I'm here with someone who really knows a lot about this kind of place. Here name is Maureen Stanton, and she's written a book called "Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea Market America." And we're going to see if we can find some of those hidden gems today. And we should say that we're taping this first thing in the morning. We're here pretty early, but we're already late. I mean, really, this is late.

MAUREEN STANTON: This is late. For a flea market that opens to the public at 8 o'clock, the dealers are here sometimes right at the crack of dawn when the light's out - unpacking, and they're trading amongst each other. I mean, the antique dealers generally are picking the other tables - they call it picking the field or picking the tables - looking for the thing that they can resell for, you know, double or triple or tenfold.

SULLIVAN: One of the things that really came out in your book is that this going on here is an entire subculture to itself. I mean, these are people that are traveling the majority of the year. They're up - you know, they work 80 to 100 hours a week, they have to sell, they have to buy constantly. And there's, sort of - I mean, it's got its own kind of underground kind of culture going on.

STANTON: Yeah. And there is. There's a - just like any subculture, there's a language and there's a knowledge base. Some antique dealers just - they have shops, but they'll come out and do big shows several times a year.

SULLIVAN: The main character in your book, who you give the name of Curt Avery to, he - I mean, Curt Avery was able to run through the flea market. He would get there first thing in the morning, I mean, hours before anybody else even showed up. And he would be able to run through in 15, 20 minutes, just pick exactly the items that could resell - $5 item for a hundred, in some cases, a hundred, a $200 item that he resold for thousands of dollars. And he makes it look really easy. Like, oh, we can all just show up and go grab these items, but it's actually not easy at all. I mean, how would you describe his job?

STANTON: Well, he's at this point now where he has developed this knowledge. So I call it his antique laser vision lens. And he can look at a batch of things, and he can find the thing that's valuable, and he can tell right away. But it's taken him 15 to 20 years to get there, and he has a houseful of mistakes, as he'll say. You buy the thing and you take it someone who's more knowledgeable. You say, check this out, what do you think, and the person will say, well, that's, you know, that's a repro, that's not real or this is cracked or this isn't the one you want because it's not the right form or the right color.

SULLIVAN: How much do you think Curt Avery makes every year?

STANTON: It probably varies, but he's probably making, you know, maybe, say $80,000, something like that.

SULLIVAN: Eighty thousand dollars? I mean, that's a lot of money.

STANTON: It's a lot of money. But don't forget you have to pay for the objects, so there's the cost of the objects. And sometimes he's making 10 times what he paid. Sometimes it's just double, you know.

SULLIVAN: And of course, there's the hours. I mean, he was on the road three-quarters of the year. I mean, he was sleeping in his car, sleeping in a tent. You know, he was working 80 to 120 hours a week.

STANTON: And he's really driven. He's, you know, and he's driven both by just his ethic of, you know, workaholic kind of thing, but he's also driven by the passion. And, you know, when you think about it, that if you have that knowledge now that you might find that thing worth 50 or a hundred or even more, I think that, you know, you want to be out there looking because that could be the day.

SULLIVAN: In one case, he did walk by a really, really great item four, five times in a day.

STANTON: And that was a Shaker piece. It was a yarn winder the Shakers used to make their own yarn out of fleece and it...

SULLIVAN: And we should say that the Shakers were a 18th century religious sect that made some really exquisite furniture.

STANTON: Furniture and, you know, many objects. And so he walked by this yarn winder four or five times, and many other knowing dealers, very knowledgeable main dealers walked by it. And he eventually looked at it a little closer for a minute, thought, it looks good. You know, it looks - has nice paint. I might be able to get $300 for it. It was priced at $90. When he looked at it closer a little bit later, he thought this looks like it could be a Shaker-made object. So he discerned that it was Shaker and he brought it to an auction, a specialty Shaker auction, and he was able to sell it for $6,500. So for $90...

SULLIVAN: It's a good profit.

STANTON: It's a good profit. But to make a living, you got to do that 20 times a year. And so that knowledge paid off. Shaker objects go for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

SULLIVAN: So I'm talking to Maureen Stanton, author of "Killer Stuff and Tons of Money," and we're here at the Capitol Hill Flea Market. And let's go to talk to this guy because he looks sort of interesting. What is your name?

JIM CAM: My name is Jim Cam(ph).


CAM: But I'm called the map man. That was the name given me by the people who came by.

SULLIVAN: It looks like you have hundreds, thousands...

CAM: Hundreds - here, I have probably hundreds. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Hundreds of maps here in this booth. Well, this is Maureen Stanton.

CAM: How do you do?

SULLIVAN: She wrote a book about how to shop at flea markets and...

CAM: Oh, wow.

SULLIVAN: ...sort of the culture of flea markets...

CAM: Oh, my.

SULLIVAN: ...and the passion for the old items.

CAM: Oh.

SULLIVAN: And this is sort of exactly what she was writing about...

CAM: Oh, yeah.

SULLIVAN: ...is this - I mean, you have a passion for these maps.

CAM: I was - I would do this anyway. I would be doing this in my front lawn, probably, sadly. But no, I'm one of these people that had boxes of things floor to ceiling before I did this. People like that need a store, OK? That's the answer. So I now have my little store.

SULLIVAN: Maureen, you talk about this occupational hazard...


SULLIVAN: ...that a lot of dealers have. What did you find?

STANTON: Well, I saw that most - the - lot of people get into the business because they're supporting their own habit.

CAM: Yes.

STANTON: And so they'll sell other things they don't want or lesser things as they move up the ranks and their objects that they collect. But - it's a passion, but I feel like the collectors and the antique dealers are each their little curators preserving a little part of American culture and history.

SULLIVAN: Maureen Stanton, author of "Killer Stuff and Tons of Money." And you can find all of her tips on how to shop at flea markets at npr.org. Maureen, thank you so much for coming out shopping with us today.

STANTON: Thank you. It's always a pleasure to go to a flea market. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.