The New York Flea Market Scene


It’s a freezing spring morning, but Sue Whitney, the co-author of Junk Beautiful: Room by Room Makeovers with Junkmarket Style, is preternaturally cheerful despite the weather, smiling gamely behind a book-signing table at the Hell’s Kitchen flea market. In front of her are three examples of the kinds of things she has made out of rotten junk over the years: a former Boy Scout flagpole turned into a toilet-paper holder, a pair of violin necks employed as picture frames, and a nasty old birdcage that has become a lamp. Whitney, who has pale blue eyes and looks a little like Florence Henderson, is here to autograph her latest tome, but she is also willing, at the least provocation, to demonstrate her techniques firsthand.

I have a bone to pick with the author. When I leafed through her book earlier in the week (I like anything with “junk” and “makeover” in the title), I saw instructions on how to decorate your veranda, sex up your laundry room, renovate your capacious home office, and other hints to enhance Xanadu-like spaces. (Though why, if you owned one of these palatial spreads, you’d be forced to decorate with junk isn’t addressed in the book.)

So what is Whitney doing hawking her book in Manhattan, where so many of us live in one or, if we’re really lucky, two unspeakably miniature rooms? “Even if you live in a studio, you can pull ideas,” she tells me gently, opening her book and pointing to a picture of a bathroom that she says in reality is a “tiny, tiny little room—things photograph a lot bigger than they are.” I’m warming up, but then she kills the mood by flipping the pages and showing me a closet that a client “didn’t need,” so Whitney turned it into a vanity.

A closet that you don’t need? What language are you speaking? People I know spend hundreds of dollars every month to rent storage spaces, just so they don’t have to pile their extra stuff in the middle of the living-room floor. Whitney, who lives in a 3,800-square-foot house in Minneapolis, doesn’t know from storage space. She recommends organizing your things in clear plastic containers, an idea that I never cared for—the whole idea of storage is to shove things into some dark corner or musty trunk and never see them again, not have them staring at you accusingly through the transparent walls of an ugly cheap tub.

Maybe I’m just in a cranky mood because I hate the Hell’s Kitchen flea market, which to me will never hold a candle to the old Chelsea flea district, where there were once at least four big parking lots devoted to antiques and collectibles every weekend. Now, slick overpriced apartment buildings have cannibalized those former lots, and the extant flea-market landscape is composed of one sad lot plus the famous bilevel garage on 25th just east of Sixth, which is still fabulous but which, rumor has it, is also doomed—dark whispers among the dealers say it’s slated to close in November.

Whitney is undaunted by my sour face. In fact, she offers to stroll through the flea with me and tell me what’s so good about it. It’s funny, but as soon as I see things through her eyes, the market seems a whole lot better. While I tend to concentrate on itsy-bitsy girly gunk—Bakelite mirrors, beaded purses—Whitney, a former private investigator (guess she always liked searching for the unfindable), is attracted to industrial detritus—rusty surveying tools, metal-rimmed crates, wooden hat molds, even a collapsible laundry basket. She nearly has a heart attack of joy when we discover pairs of push-pull brass doorplates for $50 a set.

We discuss the regional differences in flea markets. On the coasts, you tend to find a lot of vintage fashion (she suggests you line an old purse with plastic and use it to hold bath soaps); Minnesota is the place to buy hatchery stuff, like one of Whitney’s favorite items, a chick transporter.

Whitney is so transfixed by a rotting hardware-store cabinet that she doesn’t appear to be listening when I whine for the millionth time that I guess the Hell’s Kitchen market is sort of OK, but it’s not like the old days, it’s way over on the West Side, blah, blah, blah. Then a guy overhears me and says: “What about that market that’s opening in Brooklyn next week? That should be great!”

Brooklyn? That’s even worse than 39th Street and Tenth Avenue. Nevertheless, the following Sunday morning, I scamper onto the subway in search of this new Jerusalem. The day doesn’t begin well: Incomprehensible weekend-service changes leave me dazed and confused blocks from the flea, but a pair of nice ladies who surmise by the fact that I am flapping haplessly along Fulton Street guess my destination and are kind of enough to point me in the right direction.

For all this effort, there had better be diamond-encrusted Fabergé eggs for a dollar, I’m thinking as I trudge to the schoolyard of the Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, where the market is held. When I finally get there, there isn’t any Fabergé (surprise), but I do find a whacked-out 80-year-old doll with just a single hank of hair on her head (the sort of thing I like) for $65, and an old tweed coat with a bizarre furry mantle that would make you look like Ethel Rosenberg, but in a good way, for $50, and even a spectacular lipstick-red chair sporting a carefully typed-up description stating that it’s a “Czech Functionalist Armchair” and costs $1,350. Even the T-shirts, normally the bane of my existence, are minimally witty, displaying pictures of Tom Waits and the acronym WWTWD.

Well, if he lives in Brooklyn, Waits might just toddle over to this market, and if I lived in Brooklyn, I’m sure I’d come back, too. But as it stands, though this is a perfectly lovely neighborhood flea, if it isn’t your neighborhood, I’m not 100 percent sure it’s worth the schlep. The truth is, what Manhattan needs—what all the boroughs need—is far more of their own flea markets, just like this one. Flea markets on every corner all summer long! Why not? Why can’t all those hideous high schools, loathsome places I couldn’t wait to escape from, redeem themselves by hosting tables of junk every weekend?

I flag down a car-service sedan and take my leave (I’m usually pathologically cheap when it comes to transportation, but desperate times call for desperate measures: The train is broken, and there aren’t even any yellow cabs around here—I’m starting to feel like I’m in L.A.). As the car pulls away, I notice a woman leaving the market staggering under the weight of what appears to be a four-foot-high metal gear. She looks as happy as Sue Whitney discovering a chick transporter.

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