It’s flea market season in Wisconsin. From Maxwell Street Days in Cedarburg to the Antique Flea Market in Elkhorn to the 7 Mile Fair in Caledonia, virtually every weekend you have a chance to indulge your inner picker and find a hidden gem in a junkyard.
So what are the secrets to a successful trip to the flea market? I asked the expert. Jeanine Burkhardt is the owner of Chippy Shabby, a vendor of vintage furniture, knick-knacks, accessories, pieces of architectural reclamation and pretty much anything that has a charming, timeworn patina.
A former L.A. interior designer, Burkhardt can comb a flea market like nobody’s business, and she has it down to a science. "There are bargains to be had out there," she said. "You have to have an eye and you have to be quick."
Here are Burkhardt’s secrets to being a successful picker.
Be prepared. "A lot of those dealers don’t take charge cards. I go to the bank the day before and get a lot of cash. I want to wear some really comfy shoes and sunscreen. Dress in layers because you get there early in the morning and then you’ll want to change when it gets hotter. Bring some snacks – they have all sorts of food lines there, but that’s just it: lines! When I’m on the hunt I don’t want to spend time in a food line."
Have a vision. "Before I leave for a market, I see if there are certain things I want to add to my collection, and I write that down. If I’m looking for, say, a cute little cabinet in a spot I have, I want to stick with what I’ve envisioned. If I envision something white and chippy, I want to stick with that – not get something blue or green. You can get overwhelmed and think, ‘Oh, I’ll take it home and I’ll paint it.’ But if you’re not a painter, it’s not going to happen. It’s going to get shoved in the garage."
Know how to haggle. "It’s pretty common at the big markets. But there’s an etiquette to follow. Most dealers will mark an item with a little room to move. So a good rule is a 10-percent rule or just a bit less than 10 percent. Be gentle; use phrases like ‘What’s your best price?’ or ‘Do you have room to move on this piece?’"
Do some recon work. "If you have a dealer you really like, find out where they are and visit their booth first. A lot of the dealers have blogs and will tell you where they’re going to be. I draw a map on my blog so my customers can find me. And a lot of fairgrounds will post maps on their websites so you can get your bearings."
Prep your car. "Have blankets, bungee cords and wet wipes. You don’t think of it, but blankets help pad something if you found an unexpectedly fragile item, and bungees can secure something to the roof. I always carry wet wipes because the stuff gets really grimy."
Do a thorough inspection. "I look things over really good; I turn things over to see what’s underneath. If you’re getting a dresser you want to make sure the drawers work, you want to make sure it wasn’t sitting in water for years. Most dealers don’t clean or repair their stuff – the prices should reflect that. And remember – are you really going to fix it if it’s broken?"
Prices aren’t always too good to be true. "Don’t be suspicious. People might not know what they have, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Go with your gut. "When you see it, buy it. I can’t tell you how many people email me pictures of something after an event and I have to tell them it’s been sold. Stuff moves fast, especially if you’re at a busy market."
You can find love in unexpected places. "A lot of times when I get into a market the first thing I see is a cute little piece that’s dirt cheap and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t need another table, but it’s so cool and the price is right.’ If you have an emotional attachment to something, you’re always going to find a place for it somewhere in your house."
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.