A Week in a Tent

How to Brimfield for first-time dealers

PREP

I’d never sold at an outdoor flea market, so I decided to start at the top and sell at Brimfield, the largest open-air flea market in the country.

I’d been to the Brimfield antique show only once before, with friends about ten years ago. It was a very hot day and totally crowded and overwhelming. There are approximately 6,000 vendors at The Show, and something like 130,000 shoppers! I didn’t think I’d ever go back.

After a lifetime of collecting, I started selling vintage and antiques last year, having quit my job and moved to the country. I had done a little selling online and at an indoor Sundays-only flea market in Boston before that. Now I sell at four antique malls here in the beautiful Berkshires.

I decided to give Brimfield a whirl because everyone kept asking if I was going to do it. It is THE place to sell out here, and people come from all over to buy and sell.

I started my Brimfield goal with a little online research, but most of the “how to Brimfield” guides were for shoppers. Helpful to read to understand the buyer’s perspective, but not quite what I was looking for, so I’m writing what I was hoping to read before I went.

Brimfield, which happens 3 times annually, is not centrally organized, although this website helps. There are over twenty fields, each independently owned & operated. Some specialize; most generalize. Fields have staggered opening days, so match your desired number of operating days to a field. I wanted to set up the day before, and I wanted a space under an existing tent, other than that I didn’t really have any parameters.

Although I sell a variety of different things, I decided to sell vintage clothes at Brimfield for a few reasons. Easy to pack and set up plus there’s no sales tax on clothing. Another plus, I already had good inventory. I contacted a friend of a friend who’s been selling vintage at Brimfield forever, but we didn’t manage to talk. I figured I’d wing it – how hard could it be?

I did ask some other vendor friends of mine for recommendations on doing it – many people I know had done it before, and generally had positive experiences. My buddy John didn’t think I could do it on my own, but other people thought I’d be OK.

I did a little investigating and made some phone calls in January of 2019. The Fashion Tent didn’t have any spaces. The next place I called didn’t call me back. The New England Motel field, which runs Wednesday-Sunday, answered the ‘phone and all my newbie questions. They had an inexpensive ($340) 10×20 tented space available next to someone else who did vintage, close to the food court and vendor bathroom, and a camp site in back of the field, so I signed up.

In true antiques tradition, none of the fields have very sophisticated web presences. The show does have a helpful app, though, which I used for the duration.

A lot of dealers and shoppers prefer Tuesday for opening day. The fields generally want you to be there for the duration, however, so if you sign up for a Tuesday opener, you are there through Sunday. A long slog.

I planned to stop by the field some day in advance of the show to get the lay of the land, but time got away from me, so I showed up cold. The New England Motel field is gated and only vendors can come in before the show opens. My husband was helping me set up, and we drove in, parked near where I thought my tent was, and asked somebody for directions since the spaces weren’t numbered. We were in the right neighborhood, and my friendly new neighbors pointed me in the right direction.

We unpacked the van (I was able to move my inventory in a mini-van and a hatchback), set up the clothing racks, and then set up my tent. Slava headed home, and I spent several hours setting up my new space. It was plenty of space for what I had, which was a relief. It almost felt too big! I’m used to selling in much smaller spaces than 10×20.

I had the dinner I’d packed, had a few drinks, and decided it was both a little too cold and a little too noisy to sleep in the tent, so I slept in the car. Never comfortable, but I had to get up like 5 hours earlier than I usually do, so at least I knew I wouldn’t sleep through my alarm!

DETAILS DETAILS

The New England Motel (NEM) field has real, plumbed bathrooms for vendors only where you can shower for $3. There are very clean port-a-potties for the customers. There are vendor camp sites for tents and campers, plus parking out back. There is also the Motel, which is difficult to get a room in. Basically you need to be on a waiting list for years for it. Only vendors can enter the field off-hours. There is security day and night. There are 400 vendors and a food court.

There are 4 basic kind of sites at NEM. I got one on grass that is under a tent the field sets up. There are open grass sites that are cheaper, but you need your own tent. The field provide a list of companies you can hire to pitch a good tent. There are also sites with concrete floors over which NEM sets up a tent. There are also “pavilion” sites, which have concrete floors and high, permanent roofs and vinyl tent sides that can be pulled down as needed. The pavilions are large, centrally located in the field, and house many vendors and the occasional pigeon. The most expensive to rent sites are by the side of the road – visible to people driving past.

Electricity is available in the spaces, but you pay $35 for it for the week. I didn’t get electricity, but will next time. The tents and pavilions have electric lighting for all, and you can usually find someplace to charge your phone. My neighbor said our tent’s electricity couldn’t support a hot water boiler, which was disappointing since I brought one to make tea. I think it would have worked in the bathroom, though.

More importantly, my vendor neighbors told me where to go to get coffee in the morning. This was important, and I daily had my portable coffee cup filled with high octane cappuccino. I was a real regular by Friday, the grumpy vendor remembering my order. I brought my own coffee cup so I didn’t have to worry about trash.

It rained and rained on Monday and Tuesday. While other fields were mud pits (due to mud at least one didn’t even open on opening day), NEM was well-run. They put down a lot of gravel on the field “roads” before we arrived, avoiding an overwhelming amount of mud. There were a lot of flattened cardboard boxes bridging the gap between road and tent. They worked for a while.

There are some very bright street lights in the field at night. The motel office, where you get shower tokens, bring up issues, ask questions, and reserve your space for next year, is open until 6pm or so.

I found sleeping in a tent to be totally fine. There were frogs peeping at night and birds cheeping in the morning. The other campers kept it down to a dull roar. Some campers ran their generators all night. I didn’t have any trouble sleeping on the ground after a long day of standing around in a tent. The extra sleeping bag Slava sent was very much appreciated.

DAY ONE

My field opened at 6am on Wednesday, so I was up wicked early. I had a thermos of hot tea and some breakfast before they opened the gates. I had my change organized in a fanny pack. My ‘phone was fully charged, and I had my little Square swiper for credit cards. I had water and snacks. I wore many layers of clothing from wool socks to wool long johns to heavy sweater and scarf, because it was 47F and drizzly! Not the best weather for opening day. I was hoping to remove a layer at some point, but instead I wound up going back to my tent for a wool hat.

Despite the weather, when the gates opened, crowds forked out $5 a head just to enter, and they ran to their favorite dealers. Many stopped in first at Randy’s vintage tent next to me. They eventually came to my tent, and I hope I’ll be on their radar for next time. I made the most money on opening day, in the first few hours. Dealers made up the majority of the buyers, and they liked my prices. Deals were made, and most paid in cash.

I was in space 162A, between two vendors who were also doing clothes and across the aisle from a third, so we had a nice vintage clothing corner. The guy next to me had been doing vintage clothing at Brimfield for decades, so he had a good following, which meant they came to see my things too. He said this was his final show, so I got some good deals from him on his final day.

Things had slowed down by lunchtime, and I got to spend some time chatting with my neighbors and checking out their wares. Everyone was generous, chatty, and helpful. The couple next to me were from down the Cape, the longtime dealer (Randy) next to me was from Sioux City, and the ladies across the way were from Tennessee. The two from far away have shops, and the Cape people only sell at Brimfield. I was pleasantly surprised at the geographical variety of the vendors. I’m only about 90 minutes from Brimfield. Close enough to do it in a day, but far enough to not be able to go home to sleep.

I was able to visit the nearby bathroom as needed – my neighbors were able to watch my booth. Since most booths had more than one person working in them, it was pretty easy. Everyone seemed trustworthy, although I did keep my money on my person.

The day was LONG. Most of the business was in the morning. All the vendors complained. UGH HOW CAN IT ONLY 11AM!!!

Our tent vendors closed up around the same time. Officially the field closes at 5, but we made allowances for people still wandering around. After closing up, I ate some dinner and went to see a movie in nearby Sturbridge. When I’m traveling alone, I like to see a movie. Especially when I’ve been outside all day and I’m sleeping in a tent. It’s nice to be inside for a few hours.

DAY TWO

All the vendors warned Thursday was the worst day at that field. They were right. I got my neighbors to watch my space while I walked around the field a bit. I found a fellow Great Barrington vendor and chatted with him. A film guy from Boston wandered by, so we had a chat. A couple of Boston girls who knew from FB or Instagram that I was there, stopped in. My husband sent a dealer friend of ours to deliver an extra sleeping bag. (My husband is the greatest!)

I went to another movie (John Wick 3!). I bought a bottle of vodka, but had to drive out to Palmer to find an open liquor store because Brimfield rolls up at 9pm or so. It was nice to have a little booze to send me to sleep.

DAY 3-5

The weather was lousy again Friday, so there wasn’t much action. I spent the evening reading and writing since I’d already seen the movies I wanted to see. The vendors predicted it would be a good day if the weather was good. It wasn’t. New England weather is notoriously unpredictable and change-able.

Saturday we had good weather, but more window shoppers than buyers. Frustrating! My sister, raised like me, a lover of thrift, came to visit. She’d never been to Brimfield, but was lucky to have an anchor in me, I think. She went to some other fields, bought one or two little things, gave me a break so I could wander around. We made a sale rack and re-arranged the shop. She brought me much-needed snacks and water!

Sunday, when many vendors pull stakes early and head out, was actually my second best day. I did some shopping on this day, although I never made it out of the field. A fellow vendor was getting out of vintage, although still doing antiques, so I bought a bunch of dresses from her. I flipped my favorite one right away, a 1960s wool sheath with a birch tree pattern. I would have kept it myself ten years ago. It looked amazing on the woman who bought it, and she loved it, so I had no reservations.

THE PEEPS

What can I say? I worked in film for a long time, and that industry is full of weirdos. I love weirdos, and am one of them. Vintage and antiques also attract a lot of weirdos, but also some fancy and hipster types. I had really good interactions with people at Brimfield, both vendors or customers.

My vendor neighbors were great. The couple next to me, with whom I spent a lot of time, were super. The woman did mostly clothes; her partner did mostly manly stuff connected to hunting and fishing. I loved chatting with both of them, and they offered a lot of good advice. He said their strategy was to do very gendered stuff – the clothes attracted the women, the guns kept their male partners happy to stick around while she shopped. They had all the inside stories on our vendor neighbors. They encouraged me to come back, if only because their previous neighbors were always wingnuts! I reserved a decision until the end, and decided to sign up for September.

The Tennessee ladies across the way provided a bit of drama. The main gal, who has a shop in Atlanta, seemed depressed and angry. Her partner was her picker, and I liked her a lot. They hadn’t traveled together before, and there was some definite friction. I tried to befriend them both – it never hurts to make friends. They had to leave early due to plans back down south – I hope to stop in and say hi on my planned autumnal road trip this upcoming fall.

The Michigan-based jewelry lady across the hall from them had a delightfully barby, bossy northeast-style personality. Plus a cute dog!

My fave customer bought an excellent 60s or 70s leopard pantsuit lingerie one-piece. It was pretty sheer. She asked, “Can I wear this out?” I said something like, “Well I guess it depends on what you like and what you wear under it. It’s pretty sheer!” She said she was going to a yoga retreat and would wear it with fancy underwear at the opening night party at which most peeps wear fancy outfits. I said she will be the sexiest yoga lady there!!

On Saturday, I ran into my fave antique dealer from Boston. He walked by me and complimented my t-shirt, and I was like HEY! I remember you! (unusual for me, btw). It turned out he was selling in my field, pretty much diagonal from me. He used to hang out with me at the flea market in Boston. He’s in his 70s, an eccentric gay WASP, full of fantastic stories. When Slava came to pick me up on Sunday, we stopped by his tent for outrageous tales and I bought something from him. I hope to see him again soon.

TIPS FROM VENDORS

The people behind me had nailed down a plastic tarp, so when you walked into their tent, there was something of a floor. For my needs, the grass was fine. I try to stay away from plastic. It was an interesting idea, though.

Some clothing vendors don’t provide a full-length mirror, on purpose. I did, just because it seems nicer. I didn’t have a dressing room, though.

Some vendors moved into better spots if other vendors left early. This seemed like too much work for me.

Some vendors who had been in my tent for a long time had very definite rules about how the tent should operate. Other vendors ignored their advice.

The tents along the rear perimeter of the field see the least amount of action.

Men who walk around with their hands in their pockets are not going to buy anything. This was not disproved!

THINGS I’D DO DIFFERENTLY

I should have spent a whole week at Brimfield as a researcher/shopper the season before setting up. I could have gotten a better idea of the difference between the fields and figured out which ones seemed to be the most attractive. I could have talked to vendors about what they did and did not like about their chosen fields. Also, I could have scoped-out the restaurants. I didn’t go out to eat dinner, as I was intimidated by the idea of eating with a million vendors, but it was probably quite nice.

THINGS I’LL DO AGAIN

I had a few things for sale that I hung in front of the tent that acted like mascots. A pair of handmade skull & crossbones curtains and a T-shirt that said Make America Skate Again. Both were eye-catching and stopped people in their tracks. Many came into the tent after commenting on them. Strangely, no takers (they were not expensive!). So, even if I sell the curtains before then, I will have something of a mascot next time so people can be like, “it was in the tent with the skulls” or whatever.

I had a heavy drop-cloth I put down over the mud moat that appeared on Friday. It worked well and made the tent more inviting.

Camping in a tent was nice, although a camper might be better since I could fill it with my stuff instead of renting a van. I had quiet nights. Going to the movies was a good coda, and on the last night I had a glass of wine with my neighbor. All in all, it was a successful show – I made enough and learned enough to be happy to go back and do it all again in September.

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