Flea Market Flair

Follow these tips, and with a little persistence you can find some real treasures at your local flea market.


By: Jennifer O'Neil and Kitty O'Neil

Decorators everywhere frequent flea markets in search of whimsical collectibles and cool conversation pieces, and with a keen eye, a bit of negotiating know-how, and a creative touch, you can, too.

When it comes to decorating, the flea market is a shopper’s paradise. Where else can you find a grandfather clock next to a giant ice cream cone from Frostee Freeze, and a roomful of Danish Modern furniture for less than the cost of a new sofa? Just wandering the aisles will fill you with ideas and inspiration. And with your creative touch, those cast-offs can become the treasures that make your home unique.

To get the most out of your trip to the flea market, it helps to have a mission. It will give you somewhere to start, and who knows what else you might find along the way? Be sure to pack a snack and bring a tote bag or, better yet, a folding shopping cart (that way you can keep going long after you’ve bought that 3-foot wooden tiki).

Shop Like a Pro

When you get to the flea market, have fun and browse. When you spot a must-have, don’t be afraid to ask for prices, and remember that negotiating is expected. Try the Seven Secrets of Savvy Shoppers to get a great deal:

  • Don’t gasp, squeal or coo when you see something you love. If you shout, “I can’t believe it! That’s the lamp I’ve been looking for my entire life,” the price just went up.
  • See something you want? Before you ask the price, decide what you’re willing to pay. If you think $15 is okay for that Mr. Peanut doorstop but have decided that $25 is too much, it makes negotiating a cinch.
  • To get a great price, don’t just ask about the one item you’re after. Start with the Howdy Doody nightlight and the Frito Bandito pencil topper before pointing to the fabulous Fifties Radar chair you really want. This approach doesn’t give away which item you can’t live without.
  • Don’t tip your hand that you know an item’s true value. Instead of calling it a “1920s Edwardian oak settee,” call it a ratty old couch. (Remember, it’s junk till you own it!)
  • Even if there’s a price shown on an item, ask anyway. The $100 tag on that cigar-store Indian could be from the vendor’s antique shop. It should fetch a lower price at the flea market.
  • Get out the cash for that claw-foot bathtub and then say, “Here’s what I’m willing to pay.” (You might add, “I know you don’t want to haul that 300-pound tub back home!”)
  • If the price is still too rich for your blood, walk away. Oftentimes the vendor will call after you and meet your price.

Amazing Makeovers

Searching for hidden treasures at the flea market can be overwhelming. It’s hard to see the gems among the clutter of lawn furniture and old housewares. But if you train your eye, you can spot a diamond in the rough. A pair of garden gnomes could make handsome bookends in your library. A wooden ladder can lean against a wall as a set of chic shelves. Just think outside the box and get creative.


Tray Chic

Flea markets are brimming with great items for your coffee table. A wooden toolbox tray makes a handy remote-control corral in an Old West living room. A gilded framed mirror gets new life as a magazine tray on an ottoman in a swanky parlor. Does your place double as the neighborhood movie house? A film-reel canister is set for rerelease as a silver-screen serving tray. Just open it up and use the bottom half to serve picture-show-perfect popcorn. For a double feature of fun, use the other half of the tray for dessert. That’s a wrap!

A Swizzling Display


Love flea-market shopping but don’t want to spend a bundle? Don’t have a mansion to fill with a dozen Wurlitzer jukeboxes? Then consider decorating with small, inexpensive items like matchbooks, knitting needles or political buttons. How to display these tiny treasures? Matchbooks look striking in a classic Ball jar. A collection of red and white fishing bobbers is a keeper in a goldfish bowl. Vintage swizzle sticks become a bouquet with a twist when placed in a neat bud vase. Cheers to that!

Home-Office Home Run


If your home office needs a major-league do-over, throw that dull den a curveball with the help of a few nifty bargains. How about a bowl of balls for your home base? Toss them into a freshly spray-painted wire bowl (use red paint to match the stitching) and you’ve got a winner. Play ball!

Practice some “fund shui” by keeping your bills out of sight till payday. Try revving up an ordinary wooden box with an old license plate, a common flea-market find. Add a few bolts to secure it to the top and start your engines! Balancing your checkbook just got a license for fun.

A cubbyhole cabinet, such as a bank of post office boxes or a card catalog, is an organizing essential for the home office. Swap the Dewey Decimal System for whimsical labels like “miscellany,” “this-n-that” and “whatchamajigs.” A little humor in the home office can make work more like play. And we could all use more of that!

The Perfect Perch


Bring spring inside by transforming an old birdbath into a charming entry-hall table. With a quick cleanup, a fabric lining and a round piece of glass, you’ll have a shadow-box table that’s just ducky. What to put in a birdbath shadow box? Something birdy, of course! How about a few ornithological postage stamps, miniature duck decoys and a vintage pair of binoculars? A wrought-iron garden chair beside the birdbath table will put you in the catbird seat. Finish the look with a framed page from a field guide and you’ll be sitting pretty.

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