Flea-Bitten

Haggling in Hell's Kitchen and Chelsea

"Yeah, you can put it in the shower—but it'll turn green," a dealer is telling a guy who is fondling a vintage metal hook, one of what must be a thousand hooks on a flea market table in Chelsea. "But I wanted it for my shower," the shopper says. "Ok—I'm gonna give you three bucks for it." With this the dealer explodes. "No you won't! It's five! You should know better!" She is seemingly in a rage, but two seconds later they are chatting amiably about the problems of brass and water again, their financial dispute on the back burner for the moment.

So it goes for citizens of the land of the flea, where the joy of weeding through things they not only don't need but in many cases didn't know existed is enhanced by the delicious love-hate relationships they develop with dealers over the years: arguing over prices, then running to the bank machine or storming off in a huff.

We should know. We've been visiting the 26th Street flea market—really a series of venues, indoors and out, in the area around 26th and Sixth Avenue—practically every weekend of our adult life. Thus we are pretty excited to learn that Alan Boss, who runs a lot of the 26th Street bazaars, is opening something called the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market on 39th Street between Ninth and Tenth.

A gaggle of Pee-Wee Hermans enjoying the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market
photo: Kate Lacey
A gaggle of Pee-Wee Hermans enjoying the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market

The very first weekend of the Hell's Kitchen Flea we head to 39th Street, an area previously visited only because it is the home of the Cupcake Café. Our foray does not begin auspiciously: The first booths we see sell flowers and apple juice, perfectly nice things in themselves that nevertheless strike horror in an antiquer's heart. Will this place turn out to be one of those markets that specializes in souvlaki and tube socks? Or will it in fact offer genuine collectibles?

The answer is a little of both. Yes, there is a tarot card reader (we spare her our lecture on how fortune telling has been illegal in New York for 100 years), but there is also a guy with a $10 basket of vintage ruffled panties under a sign that says petty-girdles, an expression not heard since Divine begged Mr. Pinkie for a free pair in Hairspray. Another dealer offers tin-topped crystal salt and pepper shakers; still another has a New York Times from 1872 and an art deco toaster bearing a tag that says it works. (We say, use this thing as a prop. We were once the proud owners of an antique fan and a 70-year-old toaster, both of which operated but exuded a terrifying electrical smell.) Though we walk around as slowly as possible, in less than an hour we are finished with the Hell's Kitchen market—it's only a block long, and how much time can you kill on one block?

We jump on the train—it's the first day of the $2 fare—and head back to the Sixth Avenue markets. In the 24th Street outdoor lot, the magazine guys have a wealth of stock from the '70s: Playboys at three for $12; Vogues for $20 each. Someone else has brought a truckload of chandeliers; a third vendor is selling an early-20th-century armoire restored to perfection and marked $495. (All prices quoted are pre-bargaining; it didn't seem polite to haggle merely for sport.)

It is our shameful secret that our favorite venue at 26th Street is the Showplace (40 West 25th Street), an indoor complex with incredibly high-end merchandise. (Ares Rare, an antique jewelry store late of Madison Avenue, has a mini-shop here.) Still, rarefied as this place may be, it remains a flea: Unlike at expensive shops, here you can look and look and never buy a thing and no one will make you feel like a creep. Downstairs, next to the coffee concession, there's a dealer specializing in rare antique silverware—we love the circa 1630 Charles I spoon—and most of the stock is in the windows, so you don't even have to go in.

Drunk with desire, we proceed down 25th Street and check out the New York Antique Center, where there is a nutty showcase containing artifacts that once allegedly belonged to silver-screen legends—Jean Harlow's shoes, John Barrymore's tie tacks, etc. There's even a sign that says, "A gift of our miniature Oscar with any purchase of $500." (If you buy the $695 marcasite M pin that supposedly once graced Ms. Monroe, you get the statue.)

Then again, some people don't like indoor centers at all, preferring the rough-and-tumble, hard-bargaining atmosphere of the outdoor lots. These purists are in trouble. Though there are still three outdoor markets in Chelsea, they belong to a vanishing breed—apartment towers and office buildings have eaten up several other longtime sites, and more are rumored to be on the endangered list.

Happily, this sad fate has yet to befall the mother of all Manhattan markets, the historic, decades-old dollar market on Sixth between 25th and 26th, so called because there is a $1 entrance fee. (Back in the day, this place had fancier merchandise than the other markets and the dollar was intended to discourage Lookie Lous.) This particular flea must be in all the guidebooks—it's full of foreigners, and a sign next to the guy taking the money says welcome in 10 languages. And it does have a fine selection, everything from Eames chairs to monocles, mink shrugs to Depression glass. But, that said, it doesn't really hold a candle to the Garage.

Here is what we love so much about the Garage (112 West 25th Street), where, by the way, you don't have to pay to get in: Not only is the merchandise wildly eclectic, but because the place is damp and musty, it actually smells like England, the country with the best fleas in the world. On this particular Sunday, the lady who sells early-19th-century diamond jewelry is in her spot at the north end downstairs; if you don't have $800 to spend today, a few feet from her is a table laden with costume jewelry, all of it $1. And the great thing is: Both these booths are doing a bang-up business. For some reason the Russian couple who sell great vintage clothes by the south entrance aren't here this week, but there's another dealer around the corner with a cache of unworn vintage neckties (called "new old" in the business) that came from Sulka, a venerable if defunct Park Avenue haberdashery, for a ridiculously cheap $8 each. And Mel's Silver Alley is set up as usual, groaning with everything from calipers to coffee pots (so what if he doesn't have a 400-year-old spoon?) We glance over at Mel's, then stop at a booth to admire a turn-of-the-century souvenir jewelry box with a cover that bears a painting-on-glass of Torino. It's marked $75 but the dealer says he's having a slow day, he'll take $50. We offer him $40; he says $45. We hesitate, then walk away. He'll be here next week, and so will we.

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