BRIMFIELD -- First, you have to let go of the fantasy that there is a master plan. The Brimfield Antiques & Collectibles Shows are gloriously random: Displays of antique furniture abut booths selling exotic birdcages; step around the canoes and you're eye to eye with hanging carpets. Some groups of dealers charge admission, others do not.
The reason for such chaos, according to David Lamberto, past president of the Brimfield Show Promoters Association, is that the shows take place on private property. Each privately owned field is a "show," with its own dealers, procedures, and hours, subject to the regulations set by the town.
The event began in 1959 when auctioneer Gordon Reid opened his field to a handful of dealers. Today there are more than 20 fields on both sides of a one-mile stretch of Route 20, hosting up to 5,000 dealers. Dealers come from all over the United States, Europe, and Asia, Lamberto said. There are three shows a year, in May, July, and September, each running Tuesday through Sunday, with many booths opening at sunrise on the first day. The shows attract up to 30,000 visitors a day, but because they are so spread out, it doesn't usually feel crowded.
The association puts out a brochure that is available at area visitors centers. Collectors can track down dealers in advance at brimfieldexchange.com; this website also publishes a pocket guide that is available at the show. The Brimfield Antique Guide publishes a rough map of the strip, showing the location of parking areas, restaurants, and portable toilets, though field names such as "Mahogany Ridge" and "The Meadows" offer no information about the wares on display in each field.
But if the weather is fine, as it was when we visited last July, and you're not pressed for time, meandering through the maze of displays makes for a pleasant day -- and buyers swear by the bargains. The variety of wares is mind-boggling: furniture, dishes, pots and pans, glassware, dolls, military paraphernalia, weapons, tinware, rugs, jewelry, folk art, weather vanes , model boats, dolls, clocks, trains, books, postcards -- every collectible you could think of.
Buyers and browsers seem happy to share their quests and their success stories. Admiring refinished furniture at George Blouin's tent, we watched Barbara Laime of Middletown, Conn., settle on a round oak dining room table with three leaves for $450. "We liked this dealer because he was willing to negotiate," Laime said. Her mother, Irene Laime of Old Saybrook, Conn., confided she had purchased two Hitchcock chairs for $30 each, and she was certain they were worth three times that much. The two women were with Irene's sister-in-law, Madeline Ehrlich, who had taken the red-eye from Los Angeles to join them. Ehrlich, who called herself a "huge Martha Stewart fan," had already tallied up a set of transferware dishes, an English pudding bowl, graters, a wooden scoop for dry goods, and fabric. She said she was looking for antique game boards but the ones she saw were too pricey. An SUV was waiting to haul everything back to Connecticut.
At the food court, Steve Bell of Belmont said he was looking for a brass ship's bell to put in his living room. His friend Linda Ellis of Norton recalled finding an antique Holly Craft necklace in green cut glass at Brimfield a few years ago. "Everybody asks where I got it," she said. Ellis said vendors are usually in the same spot each year, so it's easy to find someone you've done business with before.
We struck up a conversation with four women from McKinney, Texas, who were combining a "girls' trip" with some serious shopping -- so serious that they had hired one of the vendors from Texas who was exhibiting at the show to drive their purchases back. "The bargains are great, but shipping is a killer," said A'Lisa Adams, who was looking for furniture and accessories for her new upscale shoe boutique, Pumps. "A lot of dealers will drive your stuff back in their empty trucks." Lamberto said later that most shows have arrangements with shippers to transport furniture and other large items.
One of the busiest booths had nothing to do with collectibles. It was selling wheeled shopping carts to shoppers tired of toting their treasures.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.