Finders Reapers

At Flea Markets, It Pays to Play by the Rules

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008; Page H01

Amy Rutherford owns Red Barn Mercantile, a home furnishings and accessories store in Old Town Alexandria stocked with new merchandise and antiques she finds, restores and repurposes. The style is sophisticated and family-friendly.

"Our antiques are not precious," Rutherford says. "They're usable."

She finds many of these pieces by scouting small shops, attending auctions and traveling to at least 10 big flea markets a year. Typically joining her on these excursions is her mother, Barbara Esmond. A second-generation antiquer, Esmond refinished furniture for her mother's antiques store in Tulsa while in high school. Today, she refurbishes pieces for her daughter's store.

Rutherford recently invited me to join her and her mom on a day trip to the Lucketts Spring Antique Market, an annual weekend flea in Loudoun County with more than 100 vendors. As someone who frequents flea markets, I accepted immediately and looked forward to tagging along and watching the experts in action.

This weekend, about 600 dealers will descend upon the Washington area to set up shop at the D.C. Big Flea in Chantilly. Before the end of the year, at least a half-dozen other fleas will be held across the region. But these are not ordinary shopping experiences. To get the most out of these markets, having antiques-spotting skills and knowing how to haggle are key. And the best way to learn is by example: watching the pros use their trained eyes to seek out pieces with potential and bargain their way to the best deals.

When the gates at Lucketts opened at 10 on that cool morning, mother and daughter wasted no time. They found their first piece within minutes, a weathered and wobbly warehouse dolly. Esmond will eventually clean, restore and refinish it, and Rutherford will sell it as a coffee table. After a quick consult and some haggling with the dealer, the dolly was slapped with a bright orange sticker: SOLD.

One of the keys to successful flea marketing, Rutherford says, is being able to look beyond an item's original use. A chest of drawers, for example, could make a comely buffet in a small space. A stone trough could be used for plants or, turned upside down, as extra seating. An antique wooden ironing board would do well placed behind a couch as a console table or, as Rutherford herself uses one, as a bedside table.

Other things to consider: how much an item will cost and how much work it needs. "Be realistic about how much time or money you're willing to put into the project," Rutherford says. "It's not a bargain if it just sits in the garage and never gets used."

The next piece Rutherford spotted was a plain wood podium, which she envisioned as a stylish side table. But after a closer look, she determined the restoration would require too much time and be too costly, so she decided to pass. Esmond disagreed. Moments later, the piece was theirs for $50. "Mom's the one doing the work," Rutherford says, "so she has the final veto power." (All told, Rutherford said later, the podium had to be stripped, sanded, painted and distressed, and the bottom was replaced.)

Rutherford says her favorite finds are utilitarian, such as a 1930s worktable she discovered at a previous Lucketts market. "It's unique; it has history and character," she says. "My philosophy is if you can buy it old for as much as, or less than, something new, then you have made a great investment. There's a misconception that antiques are fragile, but if they've lasted 80 to 100 years, then you know they're good, sturdy pieces."

Rutherford was visibly excited about her next find: an industrial-size wire basket on a stand with wheels. Price: $60. With a simple canvas liner inside, she said, it would be perfect as a hamper in a laundry room, for toy storage in a child's room or placed in a guest room to hold pillows, linens and towels. We chatted about other possibilities while she waited patiently for the vendor's attention.

But that proved to be a mistake.

When the vendor finally turned to Rutherford, it was too late. The basket had been sold just moments before. Clearly disappointed, Rutherford chalked it up to the unspoken rules of the game. "All's fair in flea markets," she says. "I wasn't assertive enough. Lesson learned."

With the sting of the wire basket loss still fresh, Rutherford set her sights on the next vendor and homed in on something even better: a rustic wooden bread cart on wheels for $65. It was fantastic, and I was momentarily furious I hadn't spotted it first. The find was so fabulous, in fact, that the letdown of the wire basket mishap was instantly forgotten. According to Rutherford, the possibilities for this piece are endless: a bin for recycling ("It's important that we do it, so why not do it in style?"), a place to store magazines and catalogues, a laundry hamper, a toy chest or an all-purpose catchall in any room. "But," she says, "I'd love to see this in a really modern space. Or in a stark white bathroom holding towels."

Her instant attraction and obvious affection for the bread cart made me wonder: How can she bring home so many great pieces and not keep any for herself?

Two months after our outing, I visit Rutherford's shop. Some of the antiques from Lucketts are still in a queue waiting to be refinished, but others have made their way to the floor, scattered among newly made neighbors. Shapely milk bottles and their wire holder sit atop a late-1800s pine buffet. Old glass Barbasol jars with black screw-top lids are in the window display next to an upholstered nursery glider and a dog bowl filled with biscuits. I continue to browse but don't see the bread cart. "I just want to see it. I don't want to buy it," I keep saying to myself.

When I inquire about the cart, Rutherford tells me it's in her office. Then she adds, "I just might have to keep that one."

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