If 2020 had gone differently, thousands of buyers and sellers looking to strike a deal would be en route to Massachusetts today for the Brimfield Antique Show, the East Coast’s premier antique show and flea market. Due to the pandemic, though, all three of its scheduled events were canceled this year. Flea markets on the West Coast faced the same fate, with Pasadena’s beloved Rose Bowl Flea Market — which offers pieces ranging from mid-century furniture to hard-to-find vintage garments — also calling off the entire summer’s calendar of events. Since then, in an effort to preserve some semblance of the summer flea market season, both the Rose Bowl and Brimfield have gone virtual.

On August 25, after being shut down since March 25, the Rose Bowl Flea Market announced a collaboration with Free People that would bring some of its vendors online. The partnership is set to last six months and involves 18+ vendors — including Foundation Vintage, Ritual Vintage, and Nomad Vintage — taking their assortments of one-of-a-kind vintage clothing items to FreePeople.com. “When you buy a piece of vintage, you’re ensuring that the history of that piece continues on,” says a representative from Free People, adding that the partnership was designed “to ensure that those unique items might still find their way into a forever home.” As part of the partnership, Free People also interviewed some of the flea market’s top sellers for its website in an effort to bring the IRL experience of scouring a booth, chatting with the owner, and potentially finding a hidden gem to (virtual) life for the shopper.

Brimfield went the Facebook Live route for the first event in May, and, has since, continued hosting virtual events. The choice to go digital was made by Klia Ververidis, of Hertan’s Antique Shows, who suggested bringing in a few vendors to sell virtually. “This is not the Brimfield any of us were expecting,” she said on Facebook Live prior to the first digital show. It proved successful. “It’s turned into a massive, massive thing that none of us saw coming,” she said to Architectural Digest following the event. 

On Tuesday morning, Ververidis was back on location at Brimfield, preparing for the show’s third and final digital event of the season. “There is, of course, no show, and the fields are empty as they have been this year,” she said in the video, illuminated only by the light on her phone and headlights from trucks passing by the grounds. “The sun isn’t quite up yet, but if this were a normal Brimfield show, these fields would still be loaded with people right now — people buzzing around looking for their special treasures.”

Despite taking place primarily outdoors, the innate closeness of flea market culture makes keeping your distance hard. In fact, at Brimfield, vendors and shoppers alike often camp together in close quarters, with events going on at all hours of the day. Add to that the Who knows where this has been? mentality associated with secondhand shopping, and flea markets face another obstacle.

“I see a lot of successful virtual events happening since the pandemic,” says Jenni Williams, the founder of vintage brand Market Vintage LA and a long-time flea market seller. “I have been selling regularly at the Rose Bowl Flea for the past seven years.” Over the last decade, she’s also sold frequently at the Silverlake Farmers Market and the Santa Monica Antique Market, as well as at trade show markets like Pickwick Vintage. But Williams’ annual flea market tour screeched to an abrupt stop when the threat of COVID-19 shut down most of her regular spots in February. “I think the most devastating [loss] was A Current Affair,” says Williams referring to a community of over 200 vintage vendors who gather three times a year in L.A. and San Francisco, and twice a year in New York. “Most of us were anticipating a good time, but with New York being hit so hard by the pandemic, it seemed there was no chance of things going back to normal.” (A Current Affair recently launched an e-commerce platform when shows in all three cities were canceled.) 

Like many, Williams’ brand was shut down, too. “I thrive mostly doing those markets, and without the crowd, there was nothing. Plus, my ability to source product was limited with stores closing. Without that, I have no business.” Building up her e-commerce presence following the pandemic allowed Williams’ Market Vintage LA to stay afloat. The same goes for other vendors. Jeanne, the owner of Owl’s Nest Emporium, an antique store in Bennington, Vermont, shared during Brimfield’s Facebook Live coverage on Tuesday morning that “it’s been a very hard year because of coronavirus,” she said. “[Going digital] has helped so many vendors to still manage to get some sort of an income for the year.”

But all agree that it’s not the same as IRL events. A regular Brimfield vendor and shopper named Ryan Black says he’s missed the interaction between strangers the most. “I also miss camping out, setting everything up just to break it down again, and the overall touch and feel of the vintage items,” he says.

“When the day finally comes, I expect the crowds will spill over and the people will return with vigor.”

Jenni Williams, Founder of Market Vintage LA

It can’t be argued: Even with their many beneficial aspects, digital flea markets will always come second to the real thing. “We all miss seeing each other, and want that [in-person] option in the future, 100%,” Williams says. “When you’re selling next to each other year after year, you develop strong bonds and friendships with your customers and other vendors.” 

In many ways, summer season was lost for the flea market scene. Still, when asked about the future of flea markets, Williams appears hopeful. “When the day finally comes, I expect the crowds will spill over and the people will return with vigor,” she says. “The classic flea market will prevail.”

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