Todd Farm Antique
Show and Flea Market

Lulu Liu (May 2009)

It doesn't get much more small town, USA than Rowley, Massachusetts. On the map, it's a little dot by the sea, the second to last stop on the commuter rail going north, population 5,500. Main Street runs through the center of town. The pharmacy, the church, the town hall, the burial ground, all in a line. Railroad Avenue ends at the Rowley station, just one stop each way from the more illustrious towns of Newburyport and Ipswich, MA. On Sundays, trains run on a 2 hour schedule. From Boston, the ride is an hour each way, slow out of the city at first, weaving under, over, roads, bridges, and factories, picking up speed as settled land gives way to swamps and open fields. The weekend schedule sees a surprising number of passengers. But up at Rowley station, there's no one. Just open air and asphalt and the faint rumble of a receding train. The road toward town begins at the other end of the parking lot. Town center is about a mile away.

Sundays make Rowley famous, as people from all over the area pour into the little town to attend one of the largest antique flea markets in New England. During the spring and summer months, the Todd Farm Flea Market and Antique Fair on Main Street opens its gates every Sunday at day break to the thousands of customers who will eventually pass through it. The market is held rain or shine, outdoors on a giant, grassy lot, a picturesque setting for such an event. On one side the lot is bounded by a main road, on the other it falls gradually into the company of hills and pines. I'm there at dawn, on a tip from an old-timer. Don't sleep in, he said. You'll miss all the action.

It is a crisp, blue morning and vans and trucks and trailers are parked bumper-to-bumper and merchandise is spread out before them like trophies on blankets, chairs, fold-out tables. The time is 5am. It is mid-April and the moon is still high in the sky. It is promising to be a cold and clear day.

Of course, many of the private vendors who will put their livelihoods on display arrive well before sun rise to begin unpacking and shopping-- their flashlight beams waving like searchlights in the dark. Many of the best deals are to be had in these pre-dawn hours. Vendors buy from other vendors and resell for higher prices later on in the day. Sometimes prices on merchandise can double, triple through this kind of cannibalism as it moves from lot to lot around the market.

Many of these folks have made a living out of antiquing, and talk about living out of their vans, driving 200, 300 miles a day for their buy-and-sell business. “Especially some of the young folks,” someone says. “They'll live like bums but they'll make two hundred grand a year. Or more. In this business, you'd never even know it.”

The first shoppers arrive not long after the vendors. They're armed with coffee and cigarettes to combat the early morning. Some vendors and customers object to having their photos taken. Francine explains. “People are paranoid,” she says in a low tone. “Some of these folks are making tens of thousands of dollars and not playing a dime of tax on any of it, or they're estranged or going through divorce and don't want information about this extra source of income to get out.”

“Now, some of these women especially are without a doubt spending their husbands' cash without them knowing,” she adds, with a wink. “Now it's all stuff you don't have to worry about at least for a long while.”

Chuck and Francine had arrived with the first wave of vendors. They've made a ritual out of making coffee and tea every Sunday morning which they share with other dealers. They appear to own one of the largest and most diverse lots, stuffed full of art and furniture, silverware and dolls and jugs and anything else whatsoever under the sun. Chuck picks up a wooden carved mask on display. “It's imported,” he says to a potential customer. “It's very distinguished.” When asked how long he'd been in this business, he replies, “50 years,” definitely exaggerating a bit.

Francine had joined him, though, for the last 15. “It's impossible to live with somebody in this business,” Francine admits. “They take pack rat to a whole new level. You either gotta leave them or you gotta join them.” Are they married? “We're partners,” Francine replies. She means both in the business and personal sense.

Before long, Mike Jones shows up at the lot with his big white dog named Leah. Mike spots the camera hanging around my neck and begins to chat excitedly about his other hobby, photography. “You should send your pictures to Brad Todd,” he recommended. “See those pictures on the webpage? I took those.” His eyes light up when inquired about the object he is cradling in his arms. “It's a [So-and-So-Brand] kerosene lamp from [So-and-So-Time] in perfect working condition,” he responds. “I bought it for 150 but it's worth a lot more. Great find, good deal. I'll probably re-sell it on eBay for two, three times more.” He laughs. “ This is a great place, isn't it?”

A certain vein of humor seems to run through the market. It revolves around shyness in front of the camera, but, still, they seem to enjoy the attention. “Don't take pictures of this guy, he'll break your camera,” vendors would say about themselves or their neighbors, jokingly. One gentleman dashed over just in time to cover his friend's face before the shutter clicked. “Good thing I was here,” he panted.

The market is busiest in the morning between 9 and 12. There's a certain rhythm to the day, a woman explained later. In the early morning it's mostly the vendors going around to each other's lots. People are tired but they're wired for the day, there's a palpable excitement when the first few customers show up at your lot, and they're usually other vendors. She continues. When it gets busy, though, everybody returns to their own lot to sell their stuff. And it goes on like that for a while. Eventually it starts dying down and the mood drops. People are tired and cranky and wrapping up. She thought for a minute. “Melancholy. That's the word for the end of the day.” It's a certain kind of sadness.

Not all vendors make a living out of these weekend excursions. In fact, most are simply entertaining a hobby or finding an outlet for their creativity. A man in a baseball cap is laying out charming, hand-made signs on a table. “I make them,” he says. “I've been making them for 20 some years.”

Another vendor walks over in a stained T-shirt and black shorts. During the week, he is a financial consultant for an insurance company. He's the proud owner of a false tooth and a degree in International Relations at Brown University. “You don't see me looking like this at my day job,” he chuckles.

That is not to say that some folks don't make a lot of money, even doing this on the side. Richard Dowling sells hand-made magnifying glasses. “Let me show you something you've never seen before,” he says, opening up his suitcase, clearly a practiced line. “I'm the only one in the world doing this.”

His secret? He attaches fancy old ladies umbrella handles to magnifying glasses. The edges of the glass itself are plated with silver or copper or bronze. He sells them for upwards of two-hundred dollars each. He pulls out a business card. “Bill Dowling, Antique Manifying Glasses,” it says, and extends an invitation to visit him at Brimfield (an annual flea market event) in a few weeks.

After you've been doing this for a few years, you start taking some highly specific knowledge for granted. It's afternoon, the lot is quiet. A gentleman, when asked how business has been today, replies that it's not so good, but it's to be expected early in the month. “People pay their rent at the beginning of the month,” he explains. “This is when they're most aware that they don't have any money.” So when is business best? “Middle of the month. End of the month they start saving up to pay their rent again.” He spots a customer eyeing his cassettes. “$5 for the whole box,” he says.

For some, the weekly event is a family affair. Toward the end of the day, business is slow, and CJ is just hanging in there. He and his dad are presiding over the yet unsold merchandise at their booth. It is past one o'clock. CJ is 6 years old and appears to be enjoying himself. “I woke up at 4am today,” he says with a big smile on his face. “I'm exhausted!”

CJ has some advice for my trip out west after graduation. “San Francisco is too far,” he says. “You'll never get there without my help.” His dad checks his phone and makes small talk with potential customers. What do you think I should do? He points to the map. You should take a plane to Texas, here, and then walk.” But how will I get across the desert? I will die of thirst. He pondered the thought for a minute. "Ah, it's simple. You must bring 70 bottles of water with you.” He then confides that he gets embarrassed when his sister is right about something and he is wrong.

It is 2 in the afternoon and the place is emptying fast. The air fills with clouds of dust and the crackle of gravel pressed under rubber tires. A friend of the family comes over to say goodbye. “See you next week, CJ,” he says, towering over the boy. “Bump for a good day.” “Bump.”