Award-winning columnist, Saralee Perel, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Her novel, Raw Nerves, is now available as a paperback and an e-book on Amazon.com.
Brimfield: The Irresistible Asylum
Three times a year for six days at a stretch, Brimfield, Massachusetts, is transformed from a quiet New England town surrounded by apple orchards to what is billed as the largest outdoor antiques and collectibles show in the United States, or as I call it - Loon Mountain.
In a frenzied carnival atmosphere, more than 5,000 vendors pack their display tents with everything from estate jewelry to antique stuffed goats. And en masse, like an enormous cloud of bees, we shoppers maniacally swarm from booth to booth in a frenetic quest for the nectar within.
The population in “normal” Brimfield is about 3,000. In “lunatic city” Brimfield, it’s over 30,000. Although it’s a makeshift town, it has it’s own cultural norms. So if you go, you’d better know the jargon and the rituals.
For instance, you probably know you’re supposed to bargain. It’s a self-esteem thing. If you don’t bargain, you’ll feel shame. But there are certain things which give away the fact that, although you may be bargaining, you are willing to pay the original asking price. These things are:
1. You mouth the words to your partner, “I don’t care how much this costs. I’m taking it.” Vendors read lips.
2. You get over-excited about something. “Oh my!” you squeal. “This is exactly like my grandfather’s pocket watch. The one he had when his plane crashed. It’s even got his initials on it!”
3. You have some stupid signal with your friend that means “I have to have this.” First of all, if you must do this, do not touch your nose or your ear. You’ll get laughed out of Brimfield. Don’t cough, wink or clear your throat. And for heaven’s sake, don’t blurt out some cockamamie pre-agreed upon statement that won’t make any sense in context. In other words, while you’re rummaging through fabulous Bakelite jewelry, don’t pick up the perfect bracelet and say, “Did you know that the fear of being buried alive is called taphephobia?”
I’m not saying that the sellers are bad people, just that they’re savvy. They’re trained lie detectors. They know that your pupils dilate when you’re lying or excited and that the plain wedding band you’re wearing is really a big brilliant diamond you’ve turned around on your finger to disguise your wealth.
After hours and hours of traipsing through the fields of tents, you’re basically like a patient who has just come out of general anesthesia. You’re disoriented, delirious, exhausted, in pain, and snapping at anyone that you perceive may be disagreeing with you.
My husband, Bob, and I made our yearly pilgrimage to the show this past May. Brimfield is the ultimate psychological test of a relationship. If you can make it through one full day, you’ve got a good shot at a life-long commitment.
By the end of our first day, my backpack was crammed with three McCoy planters, four Fire King coffee mugs and two 16 inch Ironstone platters. I bent over to look at an ottoman.
“We don’t have any room for that,” Bob said.
I slowly straightened myself up and looked at him with venomous hatred in my eyes.
“No room?” I growled through clenched teeth.
He took two steps backward.
“You’ve said that over a dozen times today,” I said, drawing out each word.
He cautiously continued to back up the way you’re supposed to when a mad dog is debating on sinking its teeth in your neck.
“If you say that one more time,” I snarled, “I’m going to go up in the attic and bring down all your mother’s useless gigantic silver platters that you’re so sentimental about keeping and use them as stepping stones in the muddiest part of the yard.”
“I promise I won’t say it,” he said, looking scared.
“And that also goes for statements like, ‘We already have one. It’s the wrong color or size.’ And all your snotty unappreciated cynical comments about the vendors like, ‘He has 20 more of those one-of-a-kind perpetual calendars in his van.’” I grabbed his chin with one hand and squeezed, “DO YOU FULLY UNDERSTAND HOW YOU TAKE ALL THE FUN OUT OF THIS?”
I trudged over to a soda stand to order my seventeenth bottled water of the day. While I was in line, a woman sitting at one of the picnic tables behind me keeled over. Three policemen rushed over to revive her. A half hour later, this same woman whizzed by me in a mad dash to get to a LuRay lug bowl before I did. Something unearthly comes over us in Brimfield.
At the same display, I noticed a sugar bowl in the rare LuRay color of gray. It was only twelve dollars. “Look at this,” I whispered to Bob.
“It’s ugly,” he said.
“I know.” I reached into my pocket for my cash.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“You think I’m going to let this kind of deal go?”
“Where are you going to put it? On the shelf with the pastels?”
“Of course not. I’ll stick it in the attic.”
I paid for the sugar bowl and sat on the ground in exhaustion. By now, both of our heavy backpacks were full and we were each carrying three 1940s’ style umbrellas in our arms. I decided to ditch the Ironstone platters.
“You can’t just leave them here,” Bob said.
“Actually, I can. I did last year with the gargoyle.”
We both had to roll over on our hands and knees in order to stand up. But we shlepped onward and came to a booth filled with nothing but Fiesta.
I thought the vendor was dead.
Her body was slumped over and her head was face down on the table. I watched to see if she was breathing. “Are you OK?” I nudged her shoulder.
“Fine,” she said, without lifting her head or moving at all.
Like most Brimfield fanatics, I never know when to stop. By four o’clock, we’re all clunking around like drunken Frankenstein monsters and we’ve lost the muscular ability to keep our bottom jaw up.
But, I ask you. Why don’t we stop? We don’t need more things in our houses. We don’t have extra money to buy antiques. Our attics are already full of half of the stuff that’s for sale in Brimfield. And we’re bushed - big time.
The answer? Because there’s always a chance that just around the corner, in the next field, on a table way in the back of someone’s booth, we’re going to find that extraordinary prize - an RCA radio just like the one we listened to every night after supper when we were little, the oil lamp with the milk glass base that our mother would light when the electricity went out, the phenomenal deal on Quimper that we’ll never in a million years see again, or the Wedgwood creamer that would finally complete our grand collection.
You have two more opportunities to see the show this year. The next dates are July 11th through the 16th and then September 5th through the 10th.
If after reading all you’ve just read, you still want to go, let me tell you three things.
1. You’re sick.
2. You will have a wonderful, worry-free time.
3. There are only portable toilets.
Bring toilet paper.
And so, the magic of Brimfield is not only the variety of wares for sale in the circus-like town, it’s the variety of folks you will meet. It’s the wild, bustling metropolis that sprouts overnight - a siren, beckoning to thousands of hopeful people. It’s the prospect of reliving memories of days gone by, if only for a brief moment, when you hold that milk glass oil lamp and once again see yourself sitting at the Formica kitchen table during a lights-out blizzard, while your mother transfers food from the Frigidaire to the ice box.
If you go with the single intention of getting a great deal on a item you’ve been seeking, you’ll be missing out on most of the fun. And as in most of life’s events, it’s often what inadvertently and unexpectedly happens on our journey that matters most of all. Look around at the people. See them as more than dealers and buyers.
Don’t rush through the fields. You’ll never see it all. And you’ll miss what’s right in front of you. Stand still for a moment and let your senses drink in the colors, the throngs, the medleys of chatter. Get crazily caught up in the crowds. And when you go home, the memories of the experience will be the most valuable of your collectibles.
And that, when it comes down to it, is the irresistible nature and the tantalizing allure of Brimfield . . . that will keep you going back for more.