Design a strategy to find what you want

Special to the Times

Navigating Southern California's flea markets isn't always a day at the beach. In their own words, professionals share their shopping tips and what to do with what you buy.

John BertramL.A. architect

Every time I spend a weekend in Joshua Tree, I go to the Sky Village swap meet in Yucca Valley at 7:30 a.m. when everyone is setting up. It's people who have filled pickup trucks with stuff they want to get rid of, like the old days before the Internet made people believe that everything has some kind of value. Having a house in the desert, we have started what we call a tetanus garden -- a bunch of old tools and rusty whatnots that look good strewn around cactuses and succulents. I have also rescued a lot of old stainless steel sun lamps and medical lights and rewired them for those long skinny halogen bulbs, and they look great -- industrial but slick.

Amanda MastersL.A. interior designer

I speed-shop around the perimeter and into the middle, so I prefer the one at the Santa Monica airport. It's much more manageable in size; at the Rose Bowl I'd only be able to do the perimeter before passing out from the heat. There are so many things you can do with flea market finds. I've nailed antique cookie tins to walls as display niches, and I'm always having old candlesticks wired for lamps. The trick is to display something from the flea market as if it's important. If it's in the middle of the mantel, people will think it must be something good, and if it only cost you five bucks, so much the better.

Mark WorthingtonProduction designer, "Ugly Betty"

I always look around the edges of a booth to find the diamonds in the rough, like the pair of 1930s chrome waiting-room chair frames I got for $200. I had to spend another $500 on cushions, but it would've cost twice as much to buy the chairs complete. The key to bringing flea market finds into your home is to find a new use for them. When I was a theater student in college, I bought an old medical exam table -- with stirrups -- for a play. It was so heavy we couldn't use it, and it became our kitchen prep table, which got great reactions at Thanksgiving.

Jay JeffersL.A. and San Francisco interior designer

Everyone says go early, but at the end of the day, a lot of dealers would rather sell you something for less than wrap it up and put it back in their van. And dealers and shoppers throw things out all the time. I once saw a fantastic floral lampshade in perfect shape that had been left behind at the Rose Bowl. It turned out to be exactly what I needed for a vintage lamp that didn't have a shade.

Jeffrey Harris New York furniture and interior designer

My favorite booths are the ones that are the most chaotic because you never know what hidden treasure you are going to find. The scourge of flea marketing is when everybody is collecting the same things, but fads pass, so if it's something you love, collect it anyway. If you're anti-clutter, try putting your collections in glass-topped shadow boxes that you can put on tables or hang on a wall. I'm not above going to a craft store to buy them, but the best ones are the antique boxes I find at the flea market.

Bret WitkeL.A. interior designer

I shop the flea market for the extra things that give a place some soul -- like 1970s ceramics and lighting. My favorite is Long Beach. The dealers there are more diverse than in Pasadena and Santa Monica, and they're not as knowledgeable about what things are worth -- which is a good thing for me. I don't like to haggle. I'll ask once, "Is this the best price you can give me?" but if I want something, I'll buy it regardless.


Learn who specializes in the things you like and get to know those dealers. When they know what you collect, they're more likely to buy things you might be interested in. There are many ways to showcase flea market buys in your home. You can place designs by the same artist or from the same region or period together; you could arrange ceramics by shape, texture and glaze. I collect Blenko glass and group it together by color: tall orange vases in the bathroom, which is orange, and wheat-colored glass in the living room because it goes with a Pierre Cardin rug.

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