FLEA MARKET. FLEA MARKET. It’s a phrase that, while composed of two undeniably inauspicious individual words, never fails to exhilarate me. My mind is overrun with wondrous images of rows and rows of delightful and unique stalls, housed in striped canvas tents, displaying their wares on trestle tables remnant from 1940s churchyard sales, and manned by collectors and brokers as varied and interesting as their merchandise.

I see designer leather goods at snap-up prices, retro suitcases overflowing with colourful silk scarves, and veritable heaps of vintage beads and clip earrings, glinting under a cheerful afternoon sun. I envisage miles-worth of second-hand books in wooden crates, with everything from old Boys’ Owns, penny paperbacks and dilapidated auction house catalogues to venerable leather-bound tomes, medical dictionaries and encyclopaedia sets. I expect magnificent chipped chandeliers in blue glass, floral tea sets, fifties thermoses and picnic baskets, draws full of lockless keys and mismatched silverware, alarming joiner’s, shipbuilder’s and dentist’s tools, reels of nineteenth-century French ribbon, Victorian lace…

And I take it as given that there will be hundreds – nay, thousands – of milk bottles and jam jars (ripe for effortless flower-arranging à la your local trendy reinterpreted-milk-bar-cum-overpriced-café – wander North Melbourne or Fitzroy and you’ll see what I’m talking about.)

Everything at the flea market in my mind is impossibly cheap; everything is wonderful (and yet, remarkably, no one else has snapped up all the good stuff before you’ve even dragged yourself out of bed). The market is in a slightly narrow, slightly winding street lined with Parisian apartment buildings with rows of shop-fronts with painted wooden shutters. This is the image in my mind, no matter where and when the market is posited to take place.

Needless to say, the reality is almost always rather disappointing. For starters, there are never nearly so many stalls as I imagine, and they’re constructed of a white plastic sheeting that is terribly practical and lacking in romance. The people behind the trestles are usually bored, sitting on plastic milk crates and more likely to be delving into Styrofoam containers of Chinese take-out than 80s editions of Vogue. The smells wafting through the air are of cooking fat, chico rolls and pop corn.

But if you accept that, really, nothing – not politicians, not books-to-movies, not men, let alone a mere antiques market – will ever live up to the wonders of your imagination, there is much joy to be discovered in a junk yard sale.

I recently stumbled across the markets along Columbus Avenue and in the 77th Street schoolyard in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. There were antique and vintage collectibles –Victorian real and 60s plastic jewellery, books and lithographs, postcards and light fittings – and plenty of new handcrafted items. While these included the inevitable brightly coloured, cheap leather passport holders and ‘novelty’ toys, there were also some jems among the many stalls lining the street. I picked up a vintage silk scarf, bright yellow and adorned with sweet little green swallows, a snip at $5, a few old postcards of the Empire State building, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod, complete with their original messages in lovely longhand, and a pretty little silver bow necklace from Julie Nolan, whose delicate designs are handmade in Brooklyn.


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