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Looking for Antiques? Join the Crowd and Flee to Brimfield

June 12, 1988|BETTY LOWRY | Lowry is a free-lance writer living in Wayland, Mass

BRIMFIELD, Mass. — Three times a year in this small south-central Massachusetts town, the stage is set for antiquers and their obliging kin.

"Brimfield Weeks" are the most prestigious flea markets in the United States, and probably the largest. The first of three annual weeklong events was held earlier this month; the remaining two are July 3-9 and Sept. 11-17.

More than 5,000 dealers, attracting about 50,000 people a day, have given the village (population 1,907) designer signature status in collectibles.

A Prestigious Label

To have been "bought at Brimfield" is worth a tag line in any American country-style magazine or book. It is the name that decorators and antique shop owners are most likely to drop for "insider" effect.

Yet Brimfield's is not just one market but a dozen-plus lining the Old Boston Post Road (U.S. 20) midway between Boston and the New York state line.

But for many visitors it is only the beginning of "going antiquing," the obsessive recreation of summer in an area also celebrated for quaint inns and outdoor museums.

Brimfield was the brainchild of the late auctioneer Gordon Reid, who began with 40 dealers on his farm, Auction Acres, in 1959.

His daughters Jill and Judy still dominate the scene as owners of J&J Productions. The pair have their own major two-day shows during Brimfield Weeks, Antique Acres and Auction Acres, with as many as 1,600 antique dealers (no auctions). Dates are July 7-9 and Sept. 15-17.

"There are so many imitators now, we thought it would slow down," Judy Reid said, "but every year there are more people who want to participate. We get calls from all over the world."

'New York Price'

Longtime dealers remember when it was just New Englanders and New Yorkers. "We still talk about a 'New York price,' but the truth is that the big spenders are as likely to be from Dallas," one man said. "We get buyers from Australia, England, even Saudi Arabia."

The game begins at Brimfield Common at the intersection of U.S. 20 and Massachusetts 19, and continues for a mile west and acres deep. Many Brimfield regulars spread their antiquing over several days. They arrive early for the smaller markets, come back a second day for the next-to-largest market, May's, then return another day for the J&J shows.

Parking lots start to fill at dawn when free shuttle buses begin their runs. It is a rain-or-shine proposition that goes until dusk, with tents, tarps and an occasional permanent structure providing shelter, hot and cold food and other comforts.

Brimfield is conveniently near the re-created farm community village of Old Sturbridge, where visitors can see spinning wheels turning and blacksmiths hammering, or they can take a buggy ride in 1790 to 1840 style.

Boston, with its museums, galleries and history, is 90 minutes east by turnpike. The Berkshire Hills, home of summerlong festivals of music at Tanglewood, dance at Jacob's Pillow, summer theater starring Broadway and TV names in repertory roles, is about an hour west. Restaurants in restored homes and inns with four-poster beds and rocking chairs are part of the ambiance.

Brimfield, however, is not the cheapest antiquing arena in New England. Along the back roads and byroads are barn sales, church thrift shops and ma 'n' pa antique stores open "by chance or by appointment." Those with the knowledge and patience to sort through the junk may find bargains, even treasures.

On weekends the outskirts of hamlets such as Amherst, N.H., and Norton, Mass., fill with traders operating out of pickup trucks.

First, the Mud Dries

Although auctions and antique shows take place throughout the year, the serious parts can't begin until the muddy pastures are firm enough for vans to reach barns and unpaved lots can sustain tents and tables.

Further, some areas are singled out as "strips" or "triangles." The terms are not geometrically precise. There is, for example, the "antiques triangle" of southern New Hampshire linking the pretty 18th-Century towns of Fitzwilliam ("14 antique stores in search of a village") to West Rindge (auctions nearly every night) to Hancock (with the oldest functioning inn in the state).

The triangle, loosely drawn to encompass the Sharon Arts Center southeast of Peterborough, has at its heart the beautiful, climbable Mt. Monadnock.

A Vermont triangle goes from Woodstock south to Rockingham, then northwest to Middletown Springs. This is Maxfield Parrish (American illustrator and mural decorator) country, and his inspiration is everywhere. In the county town of Windsor a permament state crafts exhibition/salesroom is in the old town hall.

Connecticut's best-known triangle is near the New York border with Litchfield the top point, Roxbury on the south and Farmington on the east. On Long Island Sound an antiques strip of note runs from Old Saybrook to Stonington.

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