A passion for the peculiar find

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

HIS schedule may be packed with design commissions, photography projects and TV tapings, but Todd Oldham still finds time for one of his personal passions: the flea market. For Oldham, author of "Hand Made Modern," the reward isn't what you buy but rather what you experience -- the discovery of cultural relics that speak of another time and place. As we march further into the Internet Age, our questions and his answers on the future of this odd, beloved tradition called the flea market:

Question: How long have you been going to flea markets?

Answer: I've been going since I was a little boy. The number is in the hundreds -- incalculable, really. No matter what city I'm in, I try to find one. I'm super stealth: As long as it's within 45 minutes, I'm there.

You can usually find something of interest; whether you want to take it home or not is another issue. Maybe it's a used wig next to a screwdriver or some other odd combination that makes me laugh, or maybe it's actually some treasure -- I always can find something entertaining.

Q: Do you have a favorite?

A: I've managed to make it to the Melrose Trading Post [at Fairfax High School] three times in the past month. L.A. has one of the best, really.

I've been going to the Portobello Road antiques market in London since the early '80s. It's consistently amazing. Even Tokyo is starting to pop. They're getting little street sales that are the most random of them all: prewar artifacts, strange little artist offerings that are impossible to design. Because of the limited space in Japan, it's really highly edited. No huge boxes of wrenches, no tube socks.

New York is one of the sad flea-market stories. Big buildings took over the parking lots. It's nothing like it used to be in the '90s.

Q: What's your shopping strategy?

A: I've gotten up really early this month, while they're still opening. The Melrose one has such amazing stuff. I've seen red coral branches, a photo of Sharon Tate. You just never know what you're going to find. Because it's L.A., you have old movie stars who pass away, and their stuff gets tossed out.

Q: How do you decide what to buy and what to skip?

A: I know immediately. It hits you in the gut. I'm far more discerning than I used to be. It takes that perfect passion behind the piece for me to buy it -- that mysterious, odd sense that you don't know where it came from, but you can tell it was created out of passion.

The common thread of my favorites is that they're all paintings that have never ceased to amaze me. Paintings are getting harder and harder to find, though. In the '50s and '60s there was an explosion of people painting for pure enjoyment. Today, outside of art students, I don't know anyone who picks up a brush to doodle. There's no unity in motif, form or execution in the paintings I've bought. The thing that they all share is some sort of uniqueness that's undeniable, some remarkable lack of skill that adds up to something compelling.

Q: How have flea markets -- the merchandise, the crowds -- changed over the years?

A: I love that it has become such a far-reaching passion of different people. Young actresses, people with only a few teeth. Love that.

Q: What's the allure?

A: The sheer peculiarity. It's like you're bending time. At the Melrose market I bought a snail shell that's 102 million years old. Where else can you buy a "Frankenstein" movie poster and a snail shell that's 102 million years old?

Q: Will flea markets ever cease to exist?

A: No. People like the experience too much. EBay is marvelous, but the flea market is one of the most wonderful ways to reconnect with history -- to see it, to touch it.

Sunday at Melrose, I was flipping through a book about flower arranging from the 1940s. I didn't buy it, but I loved every moment looking through that book. The flea market is the great re-connector; there's no other opportunity like this to revisit the past.

Museums are a different sort of history. At flea markets, I find a lot of things that I may not buy but that I still enjoying seeing.

Q: Any final words or advice?

A: Stay out of my way if you see me there. [Chuckling] Any fool would know not to give away all of his secrets.


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