How To Shop A Flea Market (and Other Resale Markets)

I’ve always admired women with authentic bohemian style. It’s a look – and an attitude – that is difficult to pull-off unless it’s bona fide and is characterized by a free-spiritedness I don’t possess. My friend Eileen possesses these qualities in spades, however, especially when it comes to decorating her charming bungalow, high up in the hills above Los Angeles.

Eileen’s home is finely, carefully curated. Every piece in her home, from the fabulous original paintings on the walls (several of which were painted by her mother-in-law, Gretl Stephens, a professional painter), to the rugs on the floors, and every object de art in between, has a story and a history. And nearly every piece was purchased second-hand from a flea market, antique store, or consignment shop.

Since my husband and I remodeled our home two years ago, we have been very selective about every item we’ve purchased or placed in the house, and while the space is clean and uncluttered, it borders on spartan and cold. In an effort to discover how we can weave a little Old World flavor into our decidedly New World abode, I sat down with Eileen to glean some juicy tips about how to shop for quality, lovable, second-hand goods, and asked her to join me for a trip to the Rose Bowl Flea Market. Here’s what Eileen had to say:

Want to see how our trip to the Rose Bowl Flea Market went? Click here or scroll to the end of the post to see the video of our trip, the incredible antique table Eileen uncovered, and the fab mirror I brought home with me.

PRESENT PERFECT: First, tell me a little about your home

EILEEN: I found our home on the Redfin app. It was like a kick in the gut as soon as I saw the listing online… love at first sight. It literally had everything we were hoping for: location (great schools plus kind of off the grid, up in the foothills) with tons of character. I knew it was our house as soon as I walked through the door. In fact, I started crying in the living room! I can’t explain it, other than to say I have a love affair going with our house.

The house was built in 1926 as a permanent residence, which was a departure for the area as many of the original cabins and bungalows were hunting lodges or weekend retreats. The love and care put into the build is apparent; for example, the diamond pane windows were made in England, shipped to the US by boat and then trained across the country.

Though the house is 20 minutes from Los Angeles, I feel like I’m a world away when I’m home. We are a stone’s throw from the Angeles National Forest. The first time we brought our son to see the house he said “it smells like Portland!”. The air is sweet and you can hear the birds in the morning and coyotes at night. Though the house and lot are relatively small (1000 and 4,000 sq ft, respectively) it’s our little slice of heaven.

We hope to be good stewards of this place while it’s ours. We are trying to remain true to the style and character of the house and be thoughtful about what we bring in. The Stickley loveseat in the living room, while not old (it’s like late 80’s), is a nice fit with bungalow style of the house, and goes really well with the very old original Stickley chairs our family gifted up when we moved in. The loveseat was a find from the Huntington Collection, a consignment store in Pasadena. It was a steal and we were lucky to grab it before someone else did.

stained-glass-front-door
The entryway and stained glass window panes on the front door of the home Eileen shares with her husband, Ned, son, Thomas, and their two dogs, a Vizla named Soze, and a rescue mutt named Bandit.
stone-fireplace-hearth
The stone fireplace hearth has been well-used for more than 90 years.
gretl-stevens-painting
One of several original paintings Eileen and Ned have collected or inherited over the years. This one is by Gretl Stephens, Ned’s mom.

Why do you shop at flea markets?

While the ‘stuff’ in my house is just that, I truly do enjoy finding pieces that fit my ideal of a cozy, welcoming home. Flea markets are endless treasure troves of unique items that you could never buy in a box store – plus there are great deals to be found! I also like that I’m recycling by buying pre-loved items.

Despite my introverted nature and tendency to get a little nervous in big crowds, I love going to the local flea markets in Pasadena – it’s my kind of sport, I guess. The term ‘flea market’ doesn’t exactly convey the nicest image, and I think folks picture a bunch of rickety old junk filled with, well, fleas! People are often surprised to learn just how much of my house is furnished from flea-market finds – and how many well-made and affordable items can be found there.

stickley-loveseat
The Stickley loveseat was a consignment store-find.
antique-stool
A hand-carved stool, found at the flea market.
dutch-doors
The bespoke, diamond pane dutch doors were imported from England.
antique-chair
This antique chair was a baby shower gift from friends after Eileen’s son was born.

Did you grow up shopping at flea markets? Did your mom take you to them as a kid, for instance?

No! In fact it drove my mom crazy when I started shopping at thrift stores in high-school. I remember when I showed her a ‘new-to-me’ thrift find and she was horrified, saying “someone could have died while wearing that!” The swap meets I frequent do have a large selection of clothes, shoes and jewelry for sale, but I tend to hunt for house stuff when I’m there. So my answers here relate to how I source those items.

When did you start shopping them yourself?

In my 20’s. We had just moved to Pasadena from the Westside. I was in total nesting mode but didn’t have much money to decorate. My sister-in-law had the most beautiful home and would always mention the Rose Bowl swap meet (for some reason we all call it the swap meet and not the flea market) as the source of her many treasures that I admired. So I went with her once and I was hooked. Part of the fun for me is going with people. I have two girlfriends that I go with regularly who have such a great eye (I learned most of what I know about how to shop a swap meet from them), but have also met up with neighbors, friends and family members for Sunday Funday outings. And my adorable husband will always be my wingman if I ask him.

guest-house
The house’s guest house, complete with stadium seats reclaimed from Dodger Stadium.
old-world-kitchen
All the woodwork in the kitchen, including the glass-front upper cabinets, is original to the house.
farmhouse-sink
An old farmhouse sink, installed well-before they became popular.
old-banjo
A makeshift banjo – another flea market find – rests beside a bright green ukulele near the fireplace.

What is the first item you purchased at a flea market? Which flea market was it? Do you still have the item? How much did you pay for it?

It was the Rose Bowl swap meet. I wish I could remember what I bought that day, but it was 15 years and five moves ago, so in all likelihood I no longer have that ‘first item’. In retrospect, a great ‘first item’ purchase would’ve been a rolling shopping cart, or ‘granny cart’ as my friends and I affectionately refer to them. After hauling things around a swap meet for hours in a bag or backpack, a cart with wheels starts to look almost as appealing as the frozen lemonades for sale! I finally broke down and purchased my very own granny cart (they are always for sale right inside the entrance to the Rose Bowl, I think I paid about $25). Now when I go to a swap meet I always have mine in tow.

“Flea market” is a broad term now. With the onset of eBay and other virtual markets, there’s a lot of used items available online. Which sites do you like best and how to you negotiate a purchase online? Is it different than the way you do it in person? What do you recommend people look for, ask, etc. when buying used pieces online?

I do most of my bargain hunting locally instead of online. There is something to be said for holding, touching and seeing an item in real life. Having said that, if I do shop for used home furnishings online, I stick to sites that offer buyer protections, such as eBay. Sometimes there is an opportunity to negotiate online depending on the format of the listing, but it is definitely different than a face-to-face interaction. However I will probably make a better informed decision about the price I end up offering or paying online for a couple of reasons. First, I have less of a sense of urgency about things I’m shopping for online, kind of like ‘I can come back to it later’, whereas if I walk away from something at a swap meet there is a high likelihood I will never see it again. So I’ll  take more time to research something I’ve found online against how much comparable items have sold.

In terms of recommending what to look for or ask for when shopping online, I would inspect all pictures very carefully and read the item description thoroughly. Some virtual marketplaces enable questions or communication between buyers and sellers. Some even offer to verify authenticity of items, which is great. I recommend people ask any questions they might have up front, even request additional pictures if needed. Definitely research your shipping options: something can seem like a great deal but the cost of shipping could negate and savings you might have realized.

Finally, know who will be covering your cost if the items arrives broken, damaged or not as described by checking into seller protection or shipping insurance before you make a purchase. The old saying ‘buyer beware’ really rings true when it comes to online shopping!

boys-bedroom
Thomas’ bedroom, with windows bordering each side of the bed.
lion-cabinet-pulls
These lion head cabinet pulls are a favorite flea market purchase of Eileen’s.
lion-crest-coat-hooks
A whimsical, Narnian-esque coat hook in Thomas’ room.

When you go to a flea market, do you have a list of items you are looking for or are you only browsing?

Both. I have a running mental list of items – a vintage daybed, some martini glasses and a bookcase are some examples of what I’m eventually wanting to buy for our house (if I can find the right piece for the right price at the right time – added so my husband doesn’t freak when he reads this J). So when I go, I know generally what I am looking for and have rough measurements if it’s a bigger piece. But other than the thrill of the hunt, browsing is at the heart of a swap meet experience – there is literally everything under the sun to be found. Most of the time I simply admire the cool things I see that aren’t on my list or I know I won’t use. I do leave open the option for a impulse buy, though! If I spot something that fits with the unique look of our funky old cabin/bungalow, I reserve the right to grab it. Or if my eye wanders to something that would make a thoughtful gift, like the pretty salad servers I bought my mom for Christmas one year, I’ll go for it. And honestly, every single time I’ve gone looking for a specific item I’ve been disappointed. I recommend keeping an open mind and allowing yourself to enjoy the visual feast.

What guides your decisions when you make a purchase? A great deal? An emotional connection to an item? 

You ask the best questions! In addition to how I answered your earlier question about getting things on my ‘list’ and leaving room for great finds, I would add a couple guidelines. First of all, stick to your budget so you can enjoy what you buy without remorse. And just like falling in love, you have to listen to your gut: I have been known to talk myself into things that I knew in my gut wouldn’t work for practical reasons, but I loved them so much that I brought them home anyway. Ultimately these items didn’t last long because of the reasons I ignored – measurements weren’t quite right, they needed more repair work than I was willing to pay for, etc. Now I’m better at walking away when I know in my gut that it won’t work – even if I love it – and leaving it for someone else to love.

bohemian-bedroom
Industrial lamps flank Eileen and Ned’s bed. The birdcage wallpaper was installed by the previous owner.
blue-nude-painting
Another beautiful original painting graces a bedroom wall.
bathroom-stool-antique
Eileen has an eye and a penchant for hand-carved stools and has put this one to good use in the bathroom.

Do you ever sell items at a flea market or online market?

Ha! No. But my friends and I always joke about how we should all go in on a booth! After recently moving and realizing how much ‘stuff’ we accumulate, I’m dedicated to only having (and bringing home) pieces that we need, will use frequently and work for our space and lifestyle. And while I don’t keep things we aren’t using, I also I don’t sell home bits and pieces online very often – I’ve sold two things on eBay in as many years. I donated a lot of items when we moved, and continue to do so as I cull through belongings we aren’t using.

Tell me about price and negotiating with vendors. Do you have a rule of thumb you follow, like “never accept the first price offered” or “walk away and come back 30 minutes later”? How do you get the best deal and when do you know you need to walk away?

I have four dedicated go-to’s when I’m treasure hunting for the best deals: The Rose Bowl and Pasadena Community Center swap meets are two favorites – you can definitely bargain there to get a lower price. Huntington Collection is a resale and consignment store located dangerously close to my office and I’ve found beautiful pieces there (like the Stickly loveseat in my living room that I got for literally a fraction of what they sell for, if you can even find them!) but you cannot bargain on prices there. Finally, Ben McGinty’s shop in Altadena, McGinty’s Gallery at the end of the world has the coolest treasures and Ben also sells his stuff at the Rose Bowl swap meet. In fact, lots of small shop owners or antique dealers are regular sellers on the flea market circuit to take advantage of the huge crowds they draw, and will be willing to negotiate prices there more so than in their stores.

Many sellers at the swap meets don’t list prices; you have to ask. This starts the conversation, and most sellers are expecting buyers to negotiate. Sometimes I don’t feel the need to bargain at all: if the first price a seller offers is in line with what I think is fair, or better yet, seems like a total bargain, I buy it. When I do negotiate, I try to be respectful; if the seller gives me a price that is not even close to what I’d pay, I thank them, compliment the item and let it go completely. Sometimes sellers will cut right to the chase and tell you their absolute lowest price, or that they aren’t willing to negotiate on a certain piece. The ability to strike a bargain could depend on other factors, like the time of day or weather. For example earlier in the morning there is a greater selection, but vendors are likely to bargain more towards the end of the day so they have fewer things to haul away. And if you are willing to brave a swap meet on a rainy or very hot or cold day, you could get a better price because fewer people are out. Or you just might catch a seller on a good day – or during a coffee break – to score a great deal.

dressing-table
Eileen’s vanity in the basement she converted into her private dressing room.
dressing-room
Making the most of every nook and cranny, pipes double as a hanging rod for Eileen’s dresses.

Do you have any especially memorable flea market stories?

One time I found a ceramic elephant in great condition that was perfect for my son’s room (he loves elephants!). I asked the seller for his price, and his reply seemed so reasonable that I immediately handed him the cash. As he was packing it up, his partner returned to their stand with two coffees in hand. I told her how much I loved the elephant. She smiled and agreed, and the man who sold it to me said to his partner ‘I couldn’t remember how much you were asking for it”. The woman replied that she’d been asking $120. She almost spit out her coffee when she learned I’d already paid…. $20! We all laughed and she honored the price I was initially given. That elephant is still one of my favorite finds. What can I say? Sometimes you just get lucky.

dogs-waiting-front-door
Home is where the dogs are. Bandit and Soze watch on as Thomas leaves for the afternoon.

Want to learn more? Watch my adventures with Eileen at the Rose Bowl Flea Market and hear more tips about what to bring, when to negotiate, and how to spot a diamond in the rough.

(For more videos like these, subscribe to my YouTube channel.)

Out of curiosity, I decided to do a little investigative work into the table Eileen wanted, but lost. Since I had filmed her interaction with the seller, I knew the table was “a Dunbar”, which had no meaning to me, and had a unique, flip-top that I’d never seen before. With only these two clues I went hunting online and – lucky for Eileen – I found a nearly identical table to the one she lost…for a whopping whopping $5,250!. As it turns out, there are at least a dozen websites like this one, dedicated to connoisseurs and collectors of Dunbar antiques and anything associated with Dunbar’s founder, Edward Wormley.

When I told this to Eileen, she chalked it up to one of many flea market regrets she’s had, but was relatively unfazed. For one thing, the one we saw was most likely a reproduction and not original. (The seller also said it was “from the 20’s”, which is unlikely.) Remorse aside, she stands strong behind her own philosophy that an objects value is fungible, depending on it’s worth to you. “I knew that seam down the middle of the table would bother me. Knowing I might be able to turn it around and sell it for a profit doesn’t change that,” she adds.

distressed-mirror
My first genuine flea market purchase (and only full-length mirror in the house) blends nicely with the other rustic pieces in our otherwise transitional-style home.
flea-market-painting
The one that got away. I ended up finding the perfect spot for this painting after returning from the flea market, but it’s likely gone for good.
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