Massachusetts's Own Road Show

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By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 17, 2003

Antiques are getting a bit old, aren't they?

Antiquing used to be about the thrill of the hunt. Nowadays, all you have to do to find a replacement for Grandma's Roseville vase is type "Roseville" into eBay and wait for the list to scroll. And what about all those folks on "Antiques Roadshow" who've somehow stumbled across Civil War relics in their attics? The hobby's become so diluted by amateurs, it's enough to make a veteran antiques hound start shopping at Wal-Mart.

Thankfully, there's still Brimfield, a Western Massachusetts antiques show expansive enough to accommodate eBayers and experts, aficionados and amateurs -- even dogs and small children.

Brimfield, which started in 1959, bills itself as the nation's largest outdoor antiques show. Held three times a year (May, July and September; the next one is Sept. 2-7) in the otherwise quiet town from which the show takes its name, Brimfield comprises more than 20 privately owned and operated markets amassed along a mile-long stretch of Route 20.

I've been a regular for the past 20 years, often competing for deals with other Brimfielders from as far afield as California, Germany and England. And I'll be going back.

Here are nine reasons why.

1 The ambiance. Brimfield is no eBay, that's for sure: Shopping via an online auction site is a transaction; shopping at Brimfield is an experience. For fans of old stuff, there's no substitute for walking among tables and tents full of junk and jewels, hoping your eye might land on an item you suddenly can't live without.

At Brimfield, serious collectors wear hats or T-shirts advertising their passions, from guns to Barbies to lunchboxes. One year I found myself circulating through its vast acres unable to break step with a gentleman who, upon entering each booth, barked out "Marbles and marble-related items!" by way of making his needs known.

2 The dealers. There are more than 5,000, hawking everything from hat pins to tiki mugs, flit guns to safety-patrol badges, scary-looking medical devices to marbles and marbles-related items. Last spring, I met Bobby Pastoreck of Butler, Tenn., who was selling hand-blown bottles that his father foraged years ago. "He dug up 10,000 bottles between ages 10 and 21," Pastoreck says. "I'm trying to get rid of this [stuff]. But sometimes I buy stuff. I don't really need more stuff, but I keep buying it anyway."

Then there was Gary Sohmers, a 20-year Brimfield fixture and expert on pop-culture artifacts who's made a name for himself as an appraiser on "Antiques Roadshow." Sohmers is a grownup kid with a graying ponytail, Hawaiian shirt and booming voice like a game-show host. He rents two booths and fills them with all the junk -- comic books, records, trading cards, board games and toys, toys, toys -- that your mom threw out when you went to college.

3 The stuff -- and the prices. You want a 12-foot statue of Bob's Big Boy? I saw one at Brimfield -- for $3,000. You want stained-glass windows without the church? No problem. Vintage eyeglass frames? Oversize busts of Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony? A wooden bobbin? Two taxidermied squirrels? You can see that much just driving into town.

Prices tend to be lower than those in, say, Manhattan or even at tonier outdoor shows like Connecticut's Farmington Antiques Weekend. But the price tag is just a starting point: Haggling -- polite or otherwise -- is generally expected, and I've never paid list price. The last day is the best time to snag bargains; some dealers would rather sell an item cheap than have to pack it up and haul it home.

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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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