From Tuesday to May 15, the town of Brimfield, Mass., population 3,600 or so, will swell to many times its size, straining to contain a flood of antiques dealers and the buyers who will rush the gates in search of treasure: a vintage shoe rack, a copper weather vane, a Staffordshire dog, an old postcard from Minnesota.
The founding father of this frenzy is Gordon Reid. In 1959, Mr. Reid, an auctioneer, invited 67 dealers to show their goods in the field behind his house. The event was popular, and became an annual event that expanded every year. By 1974, the year Mr. Reid died, he had 600 exhibitors and thousands of visitors. Others began to hold their own shows nearby, and today the antiques shows at Brimfield stretch across 21 fields on a mile-long strip of Route 20 — one of the largest outdoor antiques fairs in the country.
Mr. Reid’s daughters, Jill Lukesh and Judy Mathieu, grew up with antiques in their backyard, and they and their extended families continue to run what many consider the finest show at Brimfield. We spoke with them recently, as they prepared for the 2011 season.
Tell me about the first show.
Ms. Lukesh: I had a booth at it. I was 13 years old. My father put it together with an old-fashioned sleigh and antiques. It was quite a thing. There was a sign on an old breadboard with a painted thistle done by a local artist, and it said “Jill Reid Antiques.” I still have it.
Where did your father get the idea for an outdoor antiques show?
Ms. Mathieu: In 1947, we lived in Springfield, and our dad had bought the property in Brimfield to conduct auctions there. As time went on he decided that he would — Jill, you can tell it better than I can.
Ms. Lukesh: He had a dream that he wanted to bring together all of his antiques friends. He traveled all over New England visiting antiques dealers in shops, asking them to come and join him in this new idea of a show. It was based on the flea market in Paris. It was called, at that time, Gordon Reid’s Famous Flea Market. Now we’re called J & J Promotions.
Now there are so many fields and shows, a visitor can’t possibly see it all. Where to start?
Ms. Mathieu: Don’t try to do the whole thing. Go online or look at trade publications to choose the fields that you think you want to visit. Narrow it down to the fields that open on the days you’ll be there. Then you can do others if you have time. Don’t let it overwhelm you.
What’s your advice to someone coming for the first time?
Ms. Mathieu: Know where you park your vehicle. I can’t stress that enough for people. There are many, many parking areas, and it is easy to become confused. Ask someone at the field that you may be parked at what the name of it is, or find something you recognize so that you can find your way back.
What else?
Ms. Mathieu: Dress comfortably. You will walk and walk and walk. There’s a lot of walking. And the weather changes. It’s New England, so you just never know. We jokingly tell people to bring everything from bathing suits to fur coats. And you’re apt to see just about everything.
How much time should you allow?
Ms. Mathieu: It depends on whether you specialize or not. Some people can do a field in no time, because they’re looking for just cast iron, or just silver. But if you’re a general dealer looking for all kinds of things, it can take hours and hours.
Is it important to get there early?
Ms. Mathieu: A lot of the antiques dealers feel the early bird catches the worm — there are many people here at daybreak. Most people feel they have to be there early in order to get the best deal.
The more leisurely buyer will go in a little later. We have four gates, and there should be quite a crowd at each one, ready to enter at 8, when we open, and many of them run. And they run to specific spaces because they know what type of merchandise the dealers carry.
Do you suggest bargaining?
Ms. Lukesh: Oh, certainly.
Ms. Mathieu: Always ask them if it’s their best price. Even if you’re not a dealer, just ask them if they’re willing to bargain with you. And most of them are.
Ms. Lukesh: And they will. There’s a lot of competition in town so they’ll definitely make a deal with you.
Ms. Mathieu: Seldom should you ever pay sticker price.
Ms. Lukesh: Like a car.
Once you’ve bought that highboy you’ve always wanted, how do you get it home?
Ms. Lukesh: Make sure you get a field and a booth number, and the dealer’s name so you can go back and find it. And a receipt’s a nice thing to have. Find out what time the dealer is leaving so that you get back in time. Some dealers take until 8 at night to pack up, and others pack up and leave as soon as the gates close. You don’t want to go back at 5 and find out your piece is either missing or left out there in the field or that somebody walked off with it. Not that they would do that, but it’s your responsibility once you’ve bought something to keep track of it.
Does each field have its own personality?
Ms. Mathieu: Yes and no. Many of them have antiques, but there are also many that now allow reproductions and newer merchandise. Which is —
Ms. Lukesh: — pretty unfortunate because we’d like to think of it as all antiques, but it is not.
Ms. Mathieu: What’s distressing is when they group J & J together with the other shows and call it “The Brimfield Market,” and it really isn’t — it’s many separate locations. It is not the Brimfield Antiques Show. It is the J & J Promotions show in the town of Brimfield.
Why is the distinction important?
Ms. Mathieu: The concept of it in the beginning was antiques and old collectibles, and Jill and I have stressed through the years that that is what we wanted to show. And we’ve held up to the integrity that our dad would have expected, and we’re very proud of that.