Last month, the holiday shopping focus was on big-box retailers. With all the competition out there, it would seem you could buy every gift you need at a retail store. But Marsha Bemko, executive producer of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, says there has never been a better time to shop for one-of-a-kind, pre-loved items.
“It’s low-hanging fruit,” Bemko said. “You pay less than full retail at flea markets, and you’ll look like you spent a lot more. There are bargains out there to be had.”
We’re not talking about shopping at Goodwill for silk ties or secondhand furniture (although we fully support that kind of thrift shopping). For the holidays, vases, colored glassware and handmade items are the obvious gifts for picky loved ones, and they’re easy to find at secondhand markets.
Bemko gives us some tips for haggling on price and finding memorable gems that you won’t see in stores.
• Why people don’t shop flea markets: There are some people who avoid flea markets. Here are two reasons why:
First, they’re called flea markets: If you’re among those who are turned off by the term or the idea something might be older than you, we’re tempted to say, “Great, more for us!” It would take too long to convince a modernist that something old can be beautiful. We’re not even going to try.
Second, they’re intimidating: Some markets are so vast, they can be difficult to navigate. But Bemko assures us that it’s easy when you’re spending in small amounts. “Used objects are almost always less expensive than new ones,” Bemko said. “You don’t have to be a terribly savvy shopper to buy at flea markets. You won’t go wrong until you start to spend a lot of money.”
• Know your limits: Most of the time you’ll be paying cash, so have a finite amount of bills in purse or pocket to keep you from overspending. “Say, ‘I’m going to find fill-in-the-blank,’ and then set forth a reasonable budget before you go,” Bemko advised. Otherwise, you’ll tend to overspend. But she also reminds us that part of the fun of antiques is taking little risks. “First-timers who are going out there without a huge budget can really learn from taking risks,” she said. “But if you’re spending $10,000, you need to worry about authenticity and you need to be cautious.”
• Half of antiquing is showing up: Although you can get great antiques on eBay, there’s no substitute for in-person shopping. “When you really want to comparison shop, you’ll need to go to more than one place on foot,” Bemko said. You can use the Internet for research, but this is one realm of shopping where you’ll want to touch the products beforehand. “You can’t get a sense of feeling, what’s really old and what’s reportedly old, without going in-person.”
• Take your time: You don’t order the first item on a menu, so why would you stop at the first stall and buy everything you see? It’s a common rule: Prices are higher in the front of the market. Start in the back, and scope out everything before you buy anything.
• Take the smartphone: The smartphone is your weapon. It’s not that people will lie about products, but often, people just don’t know how old or rare something is. Use the Internet as a resource. It’s especially important if you’re about to buy something that is marked up because it’s “one of a kind.” “With certain one-of-a-kind objects, you’ll go online and see hundreds of them,” Bemko said, indicating that they’re not unique gifts. “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s rare.”