What do you write about when you’re a professor of non-fiction writing? For Maureen Stanton, it was something she’s loved since she was just a kid — the world of flea markets. “My interest goes back to childhood,” she says. “There’s this whole way that love of flea markets, of material objects, and of reclaiming things really starts from a very young age. Dump-picking with my mother, finding cool stuff at flea markets as a teen-ager, and furnishing my house with antiques — it’s always interested me.”
Stanton’s new book, “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money,” was published this week by Penguin Press. It’s been noticed by The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and the Associated Press — and has garnered a few more good reviews. That’s no surprise, seeing that Stanton has won accolades for several essays she has written.
An assistant professor in the English Department of the University of Missouri, Stanton has not been reluctant to dirty her hands in the flea market world. She has long been friends with an antiques dealer and flea market seller, named only with a pseudonym, “Curt Avery,” in the book. “I literally started writing the book about five years ago, but it really started in 2000 when I had the chance to go to an auction with Curt Avery and thought it was a really interesting scene,” she explains. “A couple years later I had the chance to do a flea market with him and thought it was even more interesting.”
At first Stanton thought she would write a magazine article on the topic, but her enthusiasm and research in the flea market world grew beyond that. “The pages just accrued, and I realized I had a book,” she says.
Stanton teaches creative non-fiction writing, from memoirs to essays to literary journalism. Her book grew as she explored topics such as the culture of flea markets and swap meets, the “Antiques Roadshow” TV series, and eBay. She delves into the history of American weathervanes, famous forgers, and eighteenth century stoneware. She describes in dirty detail the challenges vendors face with port-a-potties, weather, packing, set-up, tear-down, and selling at flea markets, auctions, and consignment flea markets. “It’s not a memoir, it’s not about me,” says Stanton, and she is right. The book takes an engaging stroll through the world of flea markets, stopping along the way for in-depth looks at the details of fascinating things — all sorts of things — and the people who buy and sell them.
Flea market culture
It’s at least partly the rebel in Maureen Stanton that inspired her love of flea markets. “I’ve always liked that flea markets exist outside the mainstream, as they appeal to my rebellious nature,” she explains. The “counter-culture” atmosphere of the flea market — the impermanence, the unpredictability, and the freedom — attract many to the industry. “I think that’s still appealing, and it still exists,” she says.
“Flea markets are great for people who are independent and entrepreneurial, who like the freedom, who don’t want to set up a store with the red tape and bureaucracy of that,” she says. “I think part of the fun of it is that every day is a spin of the wheel. You can wake up every day with the possibility that today is the day you’ll strike gold. But that luck factor is completely uncontrollable. The best you can do is equip yourself with the most knowledge and work hard, and if you are lucky, you’re lucky. And if you’re not, you’re not.”
That wildness makes flea markets inherently exciting, especially for those with a passion for it. “It’s not just about flea markets. It’s about the intersection of flea markets and antiques and peoples’ interest and love of collecting,” says Stanton. “You can’t separate those out. Those worlds intersect and collide. There’s a whole economy that has a heirarchy in terms of value of objects.”
One vendor’s trash may be a real treasure
Part of the appeal of the flea market may be the potential for treasure, but it takes more than luck to know treasure when you see it. “There are people selling things at flea markets that are much more than just cast-offs,” says Stanton. “There are some really valuable objects, historical objects, vintage objects. People have a lot of knowledge about these things.”
“Dealers need the knowledge to spot the thing that might be their ‘retirement piece,’ ” says Stanton, adding that a valuable thing can slip through your fingers because you fail to recognize it. If you don’t have the knowledge and you miss your golden ticket, “it’s tragicomic, in some ways,” she says.
However, few shoppers, and even fewer outside the flea market world, appreciate the expertise that the best vendors develop. “Dealers are not necessarily getting a lot of credit for the work it entails. It’s like earning a self-taught PhD. They do accumulate this vertical and esoteric body of knowledge. They are curators and keepers of our historical culture.”
Recycle, reuse, recession
Stanton has been wading deep into the nuts and bolts of the flea market business over a crucial period, as the country fell into a deep recession and a slow crawl out, maybe. What did she discern? “I started in 2005, when antique shows and flea markets were both doing well,” she recalls. “Then it kind of crashed for the antiques. Only lower-ticket and very high-end items were selling. But there also seems to have been an increase in traffic to flea markets over the past couple years. I think that’s partly because people have been forced to think more about what they pay for things. And also, it is free entertainment. What can we do? Let’s go out to a flea market where there are 100,000 people and it’s like a carnival. It’s fun.”
An interesting anecdote from the publishing world shows the reality of this trend. “I had a proposal for this project in 2006 and 2007 and it got shot down,” Stanton says. “When I shopped it around again in 2009, the book sold very quickly, and there were several offers. The economy was very bad then, and it hit the zeitgeist. I think the economy has sparked interest in flea markets.”
Another factor that encourages people to head to flea markets and swap meets, even in tough economic times, are environmental concerns, which are “starting more and more to influence people’s decisions,” she says. “I know it is influencing mine. Now they call it repurposing. If you buy a used table that’s 100 years old, it’s not only beautiful, but by keeping it in circulation, you’re not buying one from Ikea or Pottery Barn. And if I use this table that has a character that I like, I’m not throwing it into the waste stream.”
This attitude is growing, she thinks, especially with Gen-Xers and kids. “I think people know, and I do think there’s a message of reduce, reuse, recycle that’s resonating more, especially with young people,” she says.
Flea reality vs flea TV
In her book, Stanton visits a shoot for “Antiques Roadshow,” the famous PBS series. Although her fondness for the show comes through, she also exposes its underbelly in the people who go home from Roadshow events disappointed. The danger, she says, in TV shows like “Antiques Roadshow” and other newer entries, is that these shows may inflate expectations beyond reason. “Now everybody thinks everything they have is worth thousands of dollars, and it’s usually not,” she says. “It casts a spotlight on the monetary value of the object, not the historic or personal value. It skews the reality, because not everything is valuable.”
She also says that these shows make it look too easy to sell at a flea market. “It takes a lot of work to walk around a flea market for hours and hours and try to find a few things you think you can resell for a little bit more money. And it is not so easy to sell them. You can haul 300 things to a flea market ands sell 20 or 30 or 40. Then you haul them around again,” says Stanton, speaking from her experience working at flea markets with her friend Avery. “There’s a labor to it, and a long learning curve that gets a little bit hidden in some of those shows. They have to select and edit what’s most interesting,” she says.
However, there is incredible value to flea market items that the focus on dollars and appraisals fails to appreciate. “The treasure hunting part is just a lot of fun,” Stanton says. “Everybody should go out there and look for treasure, because people define treasure differently. I happen to love stuff on the dollar table that maybe no one else wants, but it’s some vintage cookbook from the 1950s or a promotional piece from a baking powder company that would make a wonderful piece of wall art. I think treasure is defined differently for different people.”
How does this relate to her book? “My idea was to expose people to this behind the scenes, what really goes on here, what it’s like. I think people are rediscovering the fun of going to the flea market.”
And she is still an avid fan. “I don’t work any flea markets now,” she says. “I did that in researching the book, but I go to them all the time. I want a bumper sticker that says, ‘I brake for flea markets.’ There’s something about them that’s just so appealing to me.”
For more information on Maureen Stanton’s “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money,” visit the book’s Web site at killerstuffandtonsofmoney.com.
Photo credits, with thanks: Maureen Stanton.