Massachusetts's Own Road Show
In Brimfield, antiques hounds can find everything they need -- or don't.
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.
4 The shoppers. Brimfield's a people-watching bonanza. It's fun to speculate about why that middle-aged couple wanted that brass headboard, or whether those black-clad New Yorkers are wishing they'd worn shorts. Even the obnoxious folks -- of whom there's no shortage -- provide entertainment. My favorites are the walkie-talkers, couples in divide-and-conquer mode hoping to cover more territory than they could if they stuck together. This breed of shopper apparently thinks electronic communication devices only work if you yell.
5 The weather. Brimfield goes forward rain or shine. Pick the wrong time and you'll slog through muddy fields, bumping into the umbrellas of the neophytes who've forgotten that antiquing is a two-hand sport. Bring your poncho or buy one there. But time it right and you'll spend the day under blue New England skies, a breeze riffling the walls of dealers' tents.
(A tip: The July show is traditionally the worst attended. Even in Massachusetts, the temperature can top 90, and dusty heat emanates from the packed-dirt fields.)
6 The food. Choices from the vendors that line Route 20 range from kettle corn to deluxe Texas barbecue sandwiches, pilgrim specials (turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce and stuffing), corn dogs, buttery lobster rolls, sausage/pepper/onion subs and -- be still my heart -- half-chickens grilled on an open grate. If there's a better $6 meal on Earth, I haven't found it yet.
Junior antiquers will find plenty of burgers, fries, hot dogs and, best of all, ice cream. Ben & Jerry's has a presence, and on weekends a double-decker bus that's been converted into an ice-cream parlor pulls into town.
7 The lemonade. Okay, so maybe you wouldn't travel all the way to Brimfield for lemonade. But once you're there, nothing tastes better than Brimfield's signature drink. Intermingled with the antiques are booths serving up fresh-squeezed citrus, served in tall plastic cups with plenty of ice and sugar, and the squeezed-out shell of half a lemon -- all for about two bucks. (Bonus: Brimfield is replete with well-kept port-o-potties.)
8 The balletic traffic cop. Managing the constant flow of cars and pedestrians along Route 20 requires a fleet of police personnel. They all do a fine job, but only one does it memorably: Scott McCarthy, an officer from the neighboring town of Wales, moves with military precision, pivoting on his heels, snapping his white-gloved hands into position, extending his arms with controlled force. He's become a Brimfield institution, and it's not uncommon for people to photograph him.
9 The endless possibility of it all. Anyone who's antiqued knows the pain of opting to "come back later" for something, only to find it's been sold. Desire for the object escalates, burning in your chest, and from then on, you feel an empty spot where the thingamabob should have been. You know you'll never find it again, but Brimfield offers some hope: If the obscure object of desire is lurking anywhere, chances are it's here.
Every time I go, I search for a pair of painted-plaster figurines posed as jazz-era dancers whose purchase I delayed some 15 years ago. Who knows how many times they've reappeared at Brimfield, hiding in that last booth around the corner . . . the one booth I missed.
Jennifer Huget last wrote for Travel about Vermont's Dog Chapel.
Details: Brimfield Antiques Market
Brimfield, Mass., is an hour's drive from Bradley Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn. Southwest flies there from BWI for as low as $98 round trip. To reach Brimfield, see below for directions from I-91.
From the Beltway, it's an eight- or nine-hour drive. Take I-95 north to I-91 in New Haven, Conn., to I-90 (Massachusetts Turnpike). Travel east to Exit 8 in Palmer, Mass.; turn right after the tollbooth, then left at the first traffic light onto Route 20 east. Continue for about eight miles.
You'll start to see lawns full of stuff for sale, but don't get bogged down on the outskirts -- keep going until you see lots of items on both sides of the road, then park where you can. Expect to pay $5 to $6 to park in a person's back yard or a church parking lot; some fields that charge admission (usually about $5) include parking in the cost.
WHEN TO GO: The next Brimfield runs Sept. 2-7; different fields open and close on different days. Check one of the Brimfield Web sites listed below for specifics. If you're looking for first dibs, arrive early. Some shows even sell opening-day tickets the day before so you don't have to wait in line. But if you're just browsing, midmorning is fine. Crowds thin toward late afternoon, and some fields stop charging admission altogether -- but arrive this late and you may find some dealers packing up.
WHERE TO STAY: Options grow limited as the show draws closer; some Brimfielders book rooms a year in advance. Check the sites listed below for options, which range from budget motels to chains to B&Bs. If you get stiffed locally, you'll have to go farther afield. Check www.brimfield.com for a list of Connecticut choices.
INFO: Before you go, get a copy of the indispensable Brimfield Pocket Guide, (413-245-0961, www.brimfieldexchange.com), which lists dealer specialties, maps, hotel information, shipping, and field opening and closing schedules. Or, the bigger and denser Brimfield Antique Guide, available through Brimfield Publications (508-764-4920, www.brimfieldguide.com).
For general information: Quaboag Valley Chamber of Commerce, 413-283-2418, www.quaboag.com; Massachusetts Department of Travel & Tourism, 800-227-MASS, www.mass-vacation.com, or Central Massachusetts Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-231-7557, www.worcester.org.
-- Jennifer Huget
© 2003 The Washington Post Company