It’s 5:00 a.m. on a May Sunday in Massachusetts, and still dark outside. Curt Avery sits in front of me in his fully loaded pickup truck, part of a mile-long line of dealers waiting to get into the Rotary Club flea market. We inch along for an hour, as the rising sun evaporates dew from my windshield. Inside a chain-link fence, flagmen wave dealers into allotted spaces. Avery is peeved because the setup is disorganized and he must wait in line instead of being able to quickly park and then “pick” the show, antique-world parlance for plucking hidden gems off other dealers’ tables. Ahead of me, I see him brake, jump out of his idling truck and sprint down a lane where dealers who arrived earlier are setting up. Half a minute later, he jogs back and tosses what looks like a small footstool into the front seat. He moves his truck another thirty feet, spies something down another aisle and leaps out to buy it. Drive-by antiquing.
He finally pulls into his spot and immediately a man materializes, nosing around the back of the truck, but Avery has come mainly to buy, so once he unloads sawhorses and plywood, he locks his truck and we cruise the aisles. The gates don’t open for another three hours, but the “show” starts the minute Avery passes through the chain-link fence. By the time the unwitting public arrives, it will be over, the good stuff gone. There will likely be no great finds left. This is the show before the show, when dealers trade with one another out of their still unemptied trucks. Coffee cup in hand, Avery hunkers down the lanes. I follow. “Fresh blood,” he says, spotting a Ryder truck. A rental truck can mean that somebody has inherited an estate, or some other one-time circumstance. Amateurs. People who don’t do this for a living, who haven’t taken the time to research their stuff, who want to turn a quick buck. The objects are new to the market; they haven’t been floating around from show to show, the ink on the price tags faded or blurred illegible by rain. “Fresh tags can be good,” Avery says.
As we approach the Ryder truck, Avery scans the objects, like the Six Million Dollar Man with telescopic vision. Twenty feet away from the table, he sings a ditty into my ear: “I just made a hundred doll-ars.” He picks up a butter churn, a small glass canister with a wooden paddle wheel inside, pays the asking price of $40. “They made very few one-quart butter churns,” he says out of the dealer’s earshot, “because for all the work you did, you only got a little butter. You do the same amount of work in a two-quart churn and double the butter. Once they figured that out, they didn’t make too many of the one-quarts. They’re rare.” This bit of esoterica—and Avery has hundreds of such factoids—will earn him a clean C-note when he resells the one-quart churn for close to $200. This is my first five minutes in Avery’s world, and he makes finding treasure look easy. But the easy money is deceptive. Avery’s apparently effortless profit is the result of years of being on the scene, gleaning tips from other dealers, working at an auction house for minimum wage, studying obscure reference books. “It’s a long education,” he says. “You really don’t start until you spend $100. I can remember the first time I broke the $100 mark. It was traumatizing.”
Now the Ryder truck woman is unloading a variety of two-inch-tall, delicately shaped perfume bottles. Avery picks one up, asks how much. “Five bucks,” she says. It’s an anomaly to see Avery gingerly handling the fragile bottle. He was a wrestler in high school, and still has the wrestler’s form, a low center of gravity, with beefy arms and legs and a barrel chest. He has tattooed biceps, a wild mop of carbon-black curls, and a five o’clock shadow by noon. With his dark, deep-set eyes and heavy eyelashes, he’s handsome in a rugged, Bruce Springsteen way.
As the woman unloads more bottles, Avery picks up each one, asks the price. Same as before, five bucks. Finally he says, “How much for all of them?” He walks away with a shoe box of thirty antique perfume bottles for $100. Probably some woman who collected perfumes died and her collection, her lifelong passion, ended up in the hands of these people, who didn’t know its value, and—it would appear—didn’t care. Avery will later sell the bottles on eBay, most for $20 to $50 each, and one for $150. This is capitalism down and dirty, no guarantees, no regrets. There is a rebellious, outré air to the flea market, “suburban subversive,” one researcher called it, “libidinous,” said another.
“Flea markets,” Avery says, “are the carnal part of this business.”
The term “flea market” is from the French marche aux puces. In mid-to-late nineteenth-century Paris, biffins (rag-and-bone men), chiffonniers (rag men), and pêcheurs de lune (“moon fishermen”) sifted through trash in search of resellable items—glass, nails, animal carcasses, human hair, rags, cans. Hair was used to make wigs, carcasses rendered into candles, animal bones used for buttons or glue. Metal and glass were melted and recast. Sardine cans were fashioned into cheap toys, like tiny tin soldiers. An estimated thirty thousand ragmen hooked scraps of cloth out of the trash to sell to paper producers. Stories of the flea market’s origin vary. One account claims it arose when the municipality of Paris began to collect trash to prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases, like cholera. In 1884, the government of Paris passed an ordinance that required every building to be equipped with a lidded garbage can, an effort spearheaded by a city official named Monsieur Poubelle. His name is fixed in history—poubelle is French for garbage can.
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