Like so many events this spring in Massachusetts and around New England, the Brimfield Antique Flea Markets were canceled for May because of the pandemic. For the businesses that make the more than 50-year-old show come to life, it's a deep hit, and some dealers are salvaging what they can.
The flea markets fill 21 fields along a state road, where tens of thousands of people would have shown up this week to browse furniture, textiles, gadgets — and Victorian-era hats.
Field rentals and port-a-potties
Suzanne Collins and her husband own a small field, where they would have been renting space to 60 dealers, and their year-round restaurant would have been open. While she wouldn't say how much they stand to lose, she said May is their biggest show of the year.
"It will have a huge financial impact on all of us," Collins said.
May is the first of three annual antique shows. Others said revenue brought in this week generally makes up 50% of their year. But it’s not just the vendors and property owners who will feel the financial hit, Collins said. It's the many small supporting businesses in the region.
"It's the local restaurants, the convenience stores," Collins said. "There’s lot of young kids that will do portering or help people load. And then you have the port-a-potties" — and every field has a few.
It's also the food vendors, tent companies and trash collectors.
'Something deeper here'
Former Massachusetts state Senator Stephen Brewer, now an armchair historian — and a lover of a good deal — said the antique show is more than a cultural phenomenon. He said it's filled with economic multipliers.
"For example, literally six miles down the road on Route 20 is Sturbridge, and they have actually more hotel rooms than the city of Worcester — which is the second largest city in all of New England,” Brewer said. “And those hotels and motels [would have been] full of people that are either purchasing or that are selling at Brimfield.”
Unlike Sturbridge, Brimfield has very few businesses. There is a special "tent tax" that comes in with the dealers, but the town is losing that too.
Another big loss: revenue from parking lots.
Reverend Dawn Adams is the minister at the First Congregational Church of Brimfield, located next to the flea market fields. She said the parking money, at $10 a spot, makes up one-third of the church’s annual budget.
"May is at the biggest of the three shows, and we tend to get the largest amount," she said. "Last year, over the course of the three shows, we raised over $60,000.”
That essentially helps the church keep the lights on, paying for staff, building upkeep and ministering programs. But the flea markets are about more than revenue, Adams said. Some people park in their lot year after year.
“There are people that you get to know," said. "It's not just about a flea market. It's not just about an economy. There's something deeper here that is intriguing."
Adams has also watched the size of visitors' cars collide with the size of their imaginations.
“We’ve seen people come back to their car with tables and chairs and gigantic pieces, and it's like they’re driving a Mazda Miata! I mean, there's just no possible way to put that in a vehicle,” Adams said.
The markets may never go back to the way they were, Adams said.
For many it’s hard to imagine, but much of the Brimfield Antiques Flea Markets has gone live on Facebook this week. Hundreds of dealers who would have had tables out in a field are sharing videos displaying all they have to sell.
Some of the videos are produced with music; some dealers are almost inaudible. Others keep it simple and go for the compelling sales pitch: "Please, please take it all. We want it gone," said one voiceover.
Brimfield Live Online is the brainchild of Klia Ververidis, a longtime antique vendor and — with her husband — a new owner of a really large field that would have been renting space to more than 200 dealers this week.
"This would have been our inaugural show," Ververidis said. “But of course we couldn't have it, which was devastating.”
They stand to lose $400,000 between April and May. Ververidis thought maybe a few people could get together online and try to recoup some of their losses.
"And the next thing you know, hundreds of people wanted to do it," she sad. "So we opened it up to all the dealers at Brimfield."
By midweek, more than 17,000 people were following the page and dealers are reporting sales, Ververidis said. While there are some naysayers to running Brimfield this way, Ververidis isn't worried.
“I don't think you can ever replace the fields with anything online, but you can certainly enhance the live shows with things online,” Ververidis said.
People love to travel to Brimfield, see friends they’ve come to know over the years, and touch the antiques. Ververidis thinks they’ll keep coming — if they're allowed to — no matter what.