Before scouting out finds at a flea market, consider these bargain strategy rules


A flea market is like a high school dance. You go there hoping to fall in love and you do, over and over, always with the same type.

This idea dawns on you in time, and you tell yourself to stop ogling, say, Bakelite radios. And then, from a pile of flea market junk, another Bakelite radio begins singing to you like Circe. Buy it and consider yourself a collector.

Or don't buy it. Just walk away. But resist the impulse to walk back later. Your own true radio may have run off with another. To console yourself, you may rush to buy another thing, a better thing, you tell yourself. It's probably not your type. Never buy on the rebound. This is one of the rules of flea marketing.

Another rule is hide your feelings. Show you care about an object at the market and you lose the power to bargain.

"Flea markets are like subways," said Alan Lindenfeld, a New York architect. "The faces are without emotion."

Learn to play flea market poker the way the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi does. "I'll see a chair I can't live without," he said. "But, of course, I ask about a vase first, a mirror second, a book third, and then -- 'That chair. What's that chair?' "

Beware of friends. The perfect friend at the market is one who says "Atta boy," when you are about to make a brilliant buy and "Whoa there" when the buy seems dumb. The perfect friend does not collect what you collect. If both of you are on the lookout for tramp-art boxes in dark brown, carved with initials, shop in different parts of the market.

"Texans know this," said Kathryn George, a native of Austin who is an editor of Decorating Remodeling magazine in New York. TC "You walk into the market with friends, and then -- it's an unspoken code -- everybody disperses like buckshot."

When Ms. George heads for the fertile selling fields of Texas, the trunk of her car is loaded with packing materials -- institutional blue diapers and cardboard boxes. In New York, she walks or rides the subway to the parking lots and playgrounds that serve as weekend markets. Slung over one shoulder is an expandable red nylon knapsack and, tucked inside, another knapsack.

"On a good day both knapsacks are full," she said. "I'm hailing a cab with one arm and carrying a chair in the other."

Ms. George never goes to the market without these things:

* A tape measure. "Anything wider than 32 inches won't go through my door no matter how much I want it."

* A magnet. "I once found brass candlesticks, early 19th century, hidden beneath layers of spray paint."

* A magnifying glass.

* Lots of cash and a checkbook. "But I still bargain. If it's $6 and a fabulous buy, I still would like it for a little less. Maybe $5.50."

In bargaining with dealers, a knowledge of fleaspeak helps. Key phrases to toss out are "Can you do better on that?" and "What's your best price?" and "What's your take-away price?"

Saying things like "There's a guy back there selling the same stuff for a buck" and "My grandmother had six of those in her attic" will get you nowhere. Making ludicrously low offers will get you whispered about.

"Oh, we talk among ourselves," said Doris Epperson Griffin, who sells antiques at a market in the Georgetown section of Washington.

She finds that flea markets bring out the worst in some people. "They drive a $100,000 car, park a block away and walk over to bargain for $1," she said.

There are at least two schools of thought on the best time to go to the market. Serious collectors say get there early. Everything happens in the first 10 minutes. The pros trade among themselves. The choice objects change hands, several times. The rest is retail.

But serious bargainers sometimes drift in late when dealers are thinking about reloading their vans.

Ro Finamore, a book editor in New York City, has got 11th-hour discounts using another key phrase: "Do you really want to pack it up?"

The right-brain shoppers, the intuitive types, ignore the clock. "Whenever I get there, whatever I want will be waiting for me," said Emily Gwathmey, a writer who was winnowing through postcards at a market on Long Island the other day.

"The left brains operate at eye level, rushing around to score, to get something for $3 and sell it for $300," she said. "I'll look down and find the treasures they left behind."

"Price Guide to Flea Market Treasurers," (Wallace-Homestead, $14.95) was not written with right brains in mind. Its author, Harry L. Rinker Jr., has never worn the Star Wars wristwatch he was given on Christmas Day 1980. He was 13. Being the son of an antiques authority, he was aware that an object loses value the minute it is removed from its original packaging.

While the watch sits in its box appreciating, Mr. Rinker rides off to super flea markets. These are sprawling places where friends use walkie-talkies to spread the word on happy hunting in the aisle ahead.

Mr. Rinker's idea of a great market is one that keeps you going from early morning, sometimes 5 a.m., to early evening.

"If you're a Type A personality," he said, "your battle plan is to cover the market as thoroughly as possible and secure the objectives -- bargains, hard-to-find objects -- ahead of your rivals. You do not stop until total victory is achieved."

If that doesn't sound like you, relax. Just go to the market. Fall in love.

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