What $70 Gets You At a Flea Market

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I've been going to Upstate New York for the past few weeks with some friends who do many style-y things for a living, and one of them is that they collect antiques to sell in their store in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. They are good friends to have in many ways, but one of my favorite things about having these housemates is the way they can do a flea market like no one else. Lately, I've learned some of their tricks.

So this year, my summer travel souvenirs are mostly old funky things, and mostly for my kitchen of course. There are napkins that come with the musty odor of history and serving pieces that wear the nicks of time. I have perfectly seasoned cast-iron skillets and an ornate fish server I use for summer pies. I love each and every piece, and so does my wallet.

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At first it was intimidating; table after table of guys selling ammunition, funny old paintings that surely would look great in a Brooklyn antique store if you had the right eye, and a few vendors with lots of sass. So I started out with what I knew: linens. Usually sold by sweet older ladies with big cardboard boxes stuffed mixed up napkins, placemats and tablecloths, the linen market is largely ignored by people at flea markets who are there to get great bargains on larger items like furniture. Sitting beside one of these treasure boxes is a great place to retreat and dig for gold.

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Knives are some of the best finds at flea markets. They're often beat up and rusted or stained, but with a little steel wool, Bon Ami, and a sharpening stone, I've turned several knives into new favorites. A few weeks ago I drove through Hudson, New York and found a great antique store specializing in cooking implements. The proprietor had a wall of about twenty of these rocking choppers, at $79 each. The one above was $5 a few days later at the flea market. I didn't try to bargain on this one.

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The skillets needed a little TLC, but that's no challenge. You can follow our How To Season a Cast Iron Skillet tutorial and have perfectly non-stick and non-toxic skillets in no time. Prices on these range widely, but the best deals are usually on the rusted pans that need re-seasoning. Two important questions: 1) Does it have dents, grooves or pockmarks? and 2) When you set it on a truly flat surface, does it rock at all? If the answer to either questions is yes, walk away. There's another pan waiting for you!

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Each weekend I find a few things to bring home to my kitchen, or a one-day-dream house in the country of my own. Between my finds, and all the other flea marketers in the house, we have more than enough now to cook and serve our meals with incredibly high-quality yet inexpensive pieces of art. The tables are unique and relaxed and yet the food somehow feels elevated — whether it's sliced with that gorgeous old knife, or served on the Ironstone platter. All without even a hint of a chain store. How utterly liberating.

All the finds:

  • 22 linen napkins, $8
  • Long knife, $8
  • Rocking chopper, $5
  • 3 cast iron skillets, $14 
  • Enameled measuring cup, $1
  • Ironstone platter, $12
  • Iron slotted spoon and ladle, $5
  • Fish server, $10
  • Glass jars, $6
  • Wood pestle, $1

Total: $70

(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)