All around me dealers are packing up when suddenly I see it: Hanging high above my head at the flea market on Columbus Avenue is a biscuit-beige silk chiffon beaded 1920s frock, a dress worthy of Zelda Fitzgerald or Louise Brooks. My heart is pounding and I feel like I might faint.
Or maybe I’m just exhausted after a two-day Manhattan flea-market marathon. After hearing murmurs from aficionados that Manhattan is a really, really crappy flea-market town, I decide to discover for myself just how bad things really are.
And it’s true, we have no Rose Bowl, the legendary football-field-sized swap meet in Pasadena. And no tailgate sales (well, no tailgates). Sure, we have our share of unlicensed junk markets where the vendors appear to have fished their wares out of trash bins, and there’s a smattering of craft fairs where everything is lovingly handmade by the vendors themselves, but places that offer genuine antiques or at least the occasional aging collectible? Not so many. And for me and thousands like me, the fact that you might uncover a startling treasure like a copy of the Declaration of Independence tucked behind a painting of a rural scape you bought for $4 (this actually happened in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, in 1989) is what keeps us in the game.
My first stop is the Saturday-only Greenflea market at P.S. 183 on 66th Street between First and York avenues. I haven’t been here in years, partly because it is slightly off the beaten track—at least for me—but also it’s in a school, the merest thought of which makes me heave. (School was not my finest hour.) Because this venue also hosts a green market, the outdoor tables display not just old typewriters and moth-eaten mink stoles, but leeks and shoofly pies. Inside the school, which smells, alas, distinctly like a school, the offerings are slightly more upscale: vintage metallic handbags, enough costume jewelry to sink the Andrea Doria, and even an unlikely guy selling museum-quality silver pieces. (“Bring your wallet,” whispers a nearby dealer, who sells such items as 19th-century stamp cases and Edwardian baby spoons, nodding in his direction.)
Sunday is traditionally the better market day, so I wake up early, anxious to tackle whatever is left of the once flourishing Chelsea markets. Only a few years ago, a series of parking lots stretched from 24th to 26th, crammed on weekends with a mix of rare antiques, ephemera, and amusing if worthless garbage. Now these empty spaces have almost all been filled with high-rise apartment towers, leaving the remaining dealers to huddle in the Garage, a wonderful space on 25th just west of Sixth Avenue. Instead of heading straight for the Garage, my usual pattern, I force myself to take a closer look at the grubby tables on the corner of 17th and Sixth, a motley collection that bills itself somewhat loftily as the Chelsea Antique Collectible Flea Market. At first I believe that a far finer eye than mine is required to discern something worthwhile here, but I shortly notice $10 Jackie O sunglasses, boxes full of chandelier crystals, and even an eye chart in Hebrew. (This same dealer also sells swastika badges.)
Next, I take in a place on 25th between Fifth and Sixth, which for years has been known as the Grand Bazaar, in a lot next to the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, itself a genuine architectural antique. (Until 1943 this was Trinity Chapel Episcopalian; Edith Wharton was married here in 1885.) Though it is by no stretch of the imagination grand, this market is something of a bazaar with a distinctly international flavor: In addition to the typical flea-market goods, African dealers sell jewelry, masks, and textiles alongside Chinese furniture vendors. Tables of old clothes fall somewhere between hopeless and borderline-wearable, but a lovely if faded christening gown has enough life left in it for at least one more baby.
Though it breaks my heart, I cut short my weekly visit to my beloved Garage and head to the Annex/Hell’s Kitchen Market, way over on Ninth Avenue and 39th Street, which, when it opened, was intended to take the place of the original Annex at 25th and Sixth. That bustling outdoor market shaped more than one generation of New York collectors, and its absence continues to rankle. The Hell’s Kitchen market is only half filled on this gray afternoon. And half filled with what? Well, among other things, faintly sinister televisions enclosed in clear plastic and bearing a sign reading “Prison TVs $20,” a vast collection of cigarette lighters including one with a cartoon of the Three Stooges, depression glass candlesticks, and heavy valises from the days before porters were rendered unemployed by suitcases on wheels.
But interesting as these items are, one can’t help but grieve the loss of the original Annex—though when I do so vocally a few hours later at the Sunday-only Greenflea market on Columbus Avenue and 76th Street in the playground of I.S. 44, a vintage-clothes dealer laughs in my face. “I had a great time at 39th Street yesterday!” she fairly crows. “I was selling up a storm.”
The goods here are what you could mildly term eclectic; along with genuine collectibles, there are vegetables and underpants, handmade hemp seed soap, smocked silk scarves from India, and fake Balenciaga bags.
And then there’s Larry. Everything on Larry’s crazy table is $3 or less. Today, Larry’s down-market treasures include a pig cookie jar and a book of superstitions, but there’s such a crowd around his table that I decide to try my luck inside I.S. 44, where I soon stop taking notes and even forget, almost, that I’m in a school. I am entranced by the display of what appear to be a thousand and one tie tacks. I love the table of unframed plant and animal prints for $5 and $10 and the antediluvian National Geographic magazines. Then I see that shimmering flapper dress, which, it turns out, is a mere $200.
Furtively checking the amount of cash I have on hand, it suddenly strikes me that New York is maybe not such a bad flea-market town after all. If you could just string all our sites together—the raffish Chelsea venues, the wonderful Garage, the valiant 39th Street market and the two schoolyards—you’d have a venue that could bill itself without shame as a miniature, metropolitan version of the Rose Bowl.