“Twenty Acres of Antiques”
Text & photographs by Fred M. Dole, 1975
“Three times a year the population of Brimfield, Massachusetts is increased sevenfold by those who come to gawk and shop at a flea market billed as the “Greatest Antique Show Under the Sun”
Take the small Massachusetts village of Brimfield; stir in avid antique lovers; blend with a new concept in antique sales; mix in seventy dealers and about two hundred buyers; cook at medium heat for fifteen years, sweetening the pot each year with innovations, more dealers, and buyers; season with Yankee ingenuity, patience, understanding, and hard work. The mulligatawny that results is Gordon and Madelyn Reid’s outdoor flea market, billed unabashedly by Reid as the “Greatest Antique Show Under the Sun.” Here, three times a year, gather hundreds of antique dealers from across the United States and Canada and 8,000 to 10,000 buyers and browsers who come to pore through the exhibits.
Spread over twenty acres is a phantasmagoria of glassware, furniture, brass beds, toys, dolls – an infinite variety of collectibles that often jams up traffic for miles along Route 20 from Sturbridge to Springfield. It is one of the largest outdoor shows in the nation and although it may seem a mass of crowds and confusion, Reid so successfully organized the event that in its fifteen-year existence there have been virtually no dissatisfied dealers or unhappy buyers.
Gordon Reid, who died late in 1974, was a modest, obliging man with an easy smile and a soft voice. A native of Manchester, Connecticut, he was the son of Robert M. Reid who was known for the colorful sales he held up and down the Connecticut River valley. With his sons, the elder Reid conducted thousands of auctions (241 in one year alone) over a thirty-five year span, until his death in 1942.
Gordon Reid sensed that times were changing. “Each time we sold out a herd of cattle,” he said, “we were selling ourselves out of business. Once a farm was sold to a developer, it was never operated again. The other day I sold the contents of an attic in Thompson, Connecticut. That attic will never be full of antiques again. We had two virgin attics last year. In time, there won’t be any attics full of antiques anywhere in connection with estate close-outs.”
Moving to Brimfield in 1946, the Reids and their three children remained in the auction business, serving banks and estates from Worcester to Springfield. In 1959 they got wind of a new development, a station-wagon-tailgate sale, held in Salisbury, Connecticut, under the direction of Russell Carrell. In the fall they attended a similar sale in Higganum, Connecticut, under Betsy Forbes’ direction and were fascinated with what they saw. And from those two shows came the notion of introducing the flea market to the United States.
The history of the term “flea market” is difficult to trace, but Reid believed it has western European origins. “The explanation we like,” he says, “is that it started in one of the big European cities, Paris, Madrid, or possibly London. Most of the things brought to the flea market were items stolen by poor, lower-class people. They made a livelihood by stealing, and they lived in places where they carried body lice. Many of the articles bought at the flea markets harbored the lice, and the name was derived from that. People started saying that if you buy something, you’re going to get fleas.
“There was no way of proving whether it would take hold or not, but we decided to have our first show in May 1960. We spent the entire fall, winter, and spring scouring dealers through personal contact, not just through ads in the paper. We drove thousands of miles; I can’t estimate the number of people we called on. We had a nice reception; most of them knew us from the auction business. Some frowned on our idea. Others wished us luck but wouldn’t join us at first. Eventually they did, once the flea market had proven itself. Now, they’re some of the best boosters. We wound up with just over seventy dealers through that personal contact. It could never have been done through advertising alone.”
About 300 people attended their first flea market, and the Reid’s scheduled a second show for September 1960, beginning a twice-yearly schedule that saw the number of dealers increase to 700 and the buyers to nearly 10,000 by 1974. In 1970, a third show in July was added, and in 1973 the event was scheduled over two days because of the physical impossibility of checking in the larger number of dealers on one day.
The town of Brimfield is intimately involved with the shows. Twenty town constables and police officers direct traffic and parking; about thirty teenagers help get the dealers settled, clean restrooms, and run errands; the Congregational Church sponsors a pancake breakfast and roast beef dinner; Girl Scouts, the fire department, and other community groups take turns supervising a parking lot behind the Town Hall; and at least one thrift-minded resident pays his property taxes from the money he makes by allowing people to park on his front lawn.
The flea market was originally intended to be a sideline to the Reids’ auction business, but its phenomenal growth put a major dent in their available time. Behind each show are months of hard work and careful planning.
Preparations for last year’s spring show began at the previous spring’s sale, when application forms for dealer spaces were passed out. In the fall of 1973 things started hopping when application mailings, preparation of advertising copy, and the writing of news releases for national antique magazines began in earnest. Over the years the Reids systematized the complicated procedure of keeping track of reservations through the use of color-coded forms, notebooks, and charts. All the dealer spaces were assigned prior to the show, and no dealers were permitted to drive in and set up unannounced. The 300 choice spots closest to the barn and refreshment stand are numbered and are usually occupied by dealers who have been attending the shows for several years. The other 400 dealers are assigned to spaces that are handed out on a first-come-first-served basis on the morning before the show.
By March 15 all spaces were sold, and Reid began to return checks, which continued to arrive right up until show day. Sometimes a dealer with a numbered space failed to register within the time limits and had to be satisfied with whatever he could get the day before the show. “But,” Reid believed, “they accept it because they know we try to treat everyone the same and show no favoritism It’s the only way to do it.” Even his daughter Jill, an avid dealer, did not have one of the choice locations; she had to wait for the space she was assigned until another dealer dropped out of the show.
As soon as the weather warmed up, the Reids began the task of preparing the field. The grass had to he cut, signs repainted, and the dealer spaces marked out with lime and staked with numbers. Improving the property has been an ongoing concern. A part of the Reids’ forty acres, given over to parking for 2,000 cars, gets a fresh surface of gravel each spring. Increasing crowds require additional comfort stations, and the long waiting lines at the single pay telephone mean that more booths must be installed. In 1974 the large tents that served for auctions and the food concession were replaced with an open steel-span building dubbed the Auctiontorium.
Weather was one of the few ingredients in his recipe that Reid could not control, but he had bright, sunny days for most shows; it rained on only two Saturdays in the entire fifteen-year history of the flea market. This good fortune became famous with dealers, who assumed that with Gordon Reid running the show, the weatherman would be on their side. One dealer commented on this pattern of sunny days to Reid’s son, who replied, “Well, the Man upstairs was good to him again,” at which a woman dealer interjected, “The Man upstairs, hell; Gordie tells Him what to do!”
In the final hectic week before the show, the Reids carried out last-minute chores and resolved final problems. “We don’t sleep very well that last week,” Gordon Reid observed one day last spring. “We suffer for everyone — not trying to build ourselves up — but we can’t help it; we’re just built that way. What can we do so that everyone there is going to be happy, and what can we do for them that we haven’t done? And it always happens that you think of things during the night. We’ll even wake up with an idea once in a while. I think it would build up tension in anyone. I don’t see how anyone could go through it without these emotions if their heart were in it at all. You go through the same thing at an auction sale. The preparation of an auction sale is just as important as the sale, and it’s the same with a flea market. The preparation is what puts it over. You can’t do it haphazardly and have a good show.”
By Thursday afternoon, dealers were arriving in the Brimfield area and the Reids hired a police officer to block the entrance to prevent dealers from setting up on Thursday. Madelyn insisted that they go out to dinner that evening, and when they returned they stayed out of sight. Past experience had taught them that if they were seen, eager antiquers would sneak past the officer and plead to he let in early.
On Friday morning long before dawn, dealers were lining up on both sides of the entrance and by 6 A.M. the line stretched for two miles in both directions. It took Reid’s cashier and attendants about a minute to check each dealer in, and when the necessary details were taken care of, a volunteer on a bicycle led the dealer to his space. Although the show did not open officially until Saturday, buyers were allowed in on Friday. They huddled around the dealers’ trucks to see items unloaded, and it was not unusual to see buyers pitch in and help so they could have first pick of the merchandise. By noon, what was a vacant lot was rapidly becoining a panorama of colors and activity, as striped awnings were unfurled, tents set up, and the antiques unpacked and displayed.
Reid, with seemingly limitless energy, was on the move for the two days of the show, alternating his time between duty at the PA system in the barn, supervising transactions in the cashier’s tent, and making himself accessible to dealers out in the field.
At the barn, Reid greeted the perplexed, the weary, and the lost with calm assurance, fielding the same questions over and over again without annoyance. He possessed that rare ability to convince people that for the few moments they talked together, nothing else mattered to him except their conversation.
At 10 AM. on Saturdays, Reid finally turned the show over to his dealers. “I think our dealers are the best I’ve ever seen in any show. They’re the ones who put it over. Once they’re in here, it’s out of our control. It’s up to the dealers to sell our show, and they’ve done a terrific job. Their friendliness and enthusiasm are contagious; the feeling spreads through the whole show.”
Typically, several exhibitors came to the barn last year concerned over people who had not returned to their booth to pick up items they had purchased. Others came asking Reid to page people who had received incorrect change or who had forgotten packages at the booth. One exhibitor wanted to find a man whom he had charged too high a price for an item. And, of course, during the show many dealers came to the barn just to say hello to Reid. Some were old friends; others he met for the first time, but all were there for the same reason: to join the Reids in making this one of the most colorful and electrifying outdoor events in the Northeast. Even rain could not dampen their good spirits. At the May 1974 show, the skies opened wide in a torrential downpour shortly after most dealers set up on Friday. Out came the umbrellas and plastic sheets to cover the tables, and business went on as usual. One dealer grinned, while emptying water from his glassware, “I was 6’7″ tall when I came here. Now look at me: 5’2”. if this rain keeps up I’ll be a midget!” Saturday, though, in Gordie Reid tradition, proved to be bright and sunny, and the dealers’ spirits soared as the public began to move through the displays.
To insure a smooth operation, Reid made himself available to dealers and buyers from 6 a.m. on Friday until late Saturday night, when the show closed. When he could steal a moment, he caught a catnap or ate a sandwich, but once the action was in high gear he had to cope with a constant barrage of demands and responsibilities, and he would go for nearly forty-eight hours without real sleep or regular meals.
Sunday was clean-up day, and it was a full one for the thirty or more teenagers who tackled the awesome pile of paper plates, cups, newspapers, bags, and other refuse left behind by over 10,000 people. When the grounds were clean, the tension began to fade and on Sunday evening the Reids could relax for the first time in more than a week. It was a brief respite; Tuesday’s mail brought in the first load of applications for the next show.
Reid believed that the flea-market concept would continue in popularity, since so many new collectors are continually becoming involved. And he had some definite advice to people considering starting a flea market.
“Most of them don’t start properly because they won’t put enough into advertising. They won’t spend any money. They want to start on a shoestring. It they would mild go out and spend a couple of thousand dollars, they could put one over. If it starts sour, it’s awfully hard to sweeten it up. There’s a lot of room for good shows. The dealers want good shows and the public is excited about a good show, too. Especially now, with the price of gas what it is, if they call find twenty or thirty good dealers in one spot, they’ll go there rather than driving around to half -a-dozen shops in an afternoon. Antique shows or flea markets — call them what you will — are the thing.”
The most important factors in Gordon Reid’s success were personal contact and an interest in people. As he described it, ‘We’re wrapped up in the auctions and in the antique flea markets. We couldn’t do anything else if we wanted to, I don’t think. We’d rather be cleaning out a house, making an appraisal, driving our truck, or putting up the tent. When you enjoy your work, why, it’s not work.”
With the three 1975 shows sold out, the Reid family is making preparations for overflow crowds. Madelyn knows how busy she will he, but she is determined that everything will be up to Gordon’s standards.
This article originally ran in the May 1975 issue of Blair & Ketchum’s Country Journal, and is reprinted with the permission of Fred Dole and Gordon Reid’s daughter, Judy Mathieu.