Brimfield Antique Show | The Ultimate Antique Treasure Hunt
It all started simply enough, in the 1950s, in one big field. Today that area, now known as J&J Promotions, is but one of a number of privately owned fields, the individual names rife with a certain carnival mystique: Crystal Brook, Heart-O-the-Mart, Hertan’s, The Meadows, New England Motel, Quaker Acres. Technically, Brimfield runs from Tuesday through Sunday. But opening days for the main fields are staggered, to give each an advantage. Some open at sunrise; others charge admission for that first crack at fresh goods. But no one does it quite as spectacularly as May’s Antique Market, the chaotic scene we witnessed at the beginning of the story.
“I’ve done May’s for 30 years,” says Donna Heinold, an “estate specialist” who’s barricaded behind an eclectic collection of doorstops and pincushions. Unlike other fields, where dealers can set up in advance, “May’s has no presale or set-up of any kind, and they police the field to make sure no one’s putting anything out. The gate opens at 9 a.m., they blow the whistle, we start pulling things out, and it’s a free-for-all.” By noontime, she says, the buying frenzy is over.
The thrill of the chase is palpable at Brimfield, along with the ever-present prospect of encountering the unexpected. To that end, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re buying or selling. It’s a fine line, anyway.
“I’ve been collecting for years, selling for two,” says Cheryl Krumrine, who’s driven all the way from West Palm Beach, Florida. She points to rows of exquisitely detailed antique bookends set up in her shady booth at The Meadows. “It’s how we all start. So it doesn’t look obsessive; it just looks like I have a business.” She hefts a Lincoln Memorial set ($459). Bronze Pompeian figures listen in silence; bookends are fine art at this level of collecting, and her buyers are as obsessive as she is, sometimes collecting 10 sets at a time.
“You’ve got to hold things, touch them,” she muses. “Then you get a sense of what’s real.” Brimfield is all about real. Touching, turning things over, lifting, rubbing–turns out we’re still a tactile, sense-ridden species after all.
Back in the field spreading out behind the New England Motel, Ron Bethoney, the unofficial “mayor” of this particular show, cooks up a tantalizing mix of onions and sausages on his camp stove first thing every morning. Incense, he calls it, saying, “I’m just burning it to bring you down here.” Animated and feisty, he’s a veteran who started setting up at Brimfield when the original founder, Gordon Reid, was still around, but then stopped coming in the ’80s. One day he said to his wife, “What happened to all our money?”
“We stopped doing Brimfield,” she said.
His booth is crammed with tables of glassware stacked on Lucite shelves and huge antique copper doodads that gleam like the sun. His grandfather in Brockton, Massachusetts, was a brass polisher, and young Ron used to wake up at 2 a.m. to help him polish brass ticket-booth grilles. His strategy at Brimfield? “I try to bring more than 1,000 items and make at least $10 on each,” he says.
No strategy is set in stone, however: “You come back here on Sunday, and if it’s still here, make me an offer–it’s outta here. I’d rather have you come back. Give people a bargain, they’ll be back.”
Oh yes, they will. Who can pass up the ultimate treasure hunt? The thrill of the chase? The mystery of what and why we chase? Everyone has a story at Brimfield, and more often than not, it’s a story of love and obsession, echoing in the voices all around you.
“Any more violins coming up?” asks a cowboy who’s bare from the waist up. A woman shakes her head at a friend: “My husband’s neurotic about buying signs.” A slender old man gently lifts a bottle of Madeira and peers at the label. 1851: Moby-Dick had just been published and the New York Times was brand-new.