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At the flea market. From tailgates in cow pastures, business booms

Flea markets are as old as time, say the French, who gave the outdoor secondhand bazaars the name ``march'es aux puces,'' which literally translates to flea markets. But over the past 30 years, the proliferation of flea markets has become a strictly American phenomenon.

It's estimated that more than 1 million dealers in the United States stand ready on weekends to pile their antiques and collectibles into old trucks, station wagons, campers, Volkswagen Beetles, semitrucks and, trailer outfits and hit the road for one of the nation's hundreds of flea markets, or ``swap meets,'' as they are called on the West Coast.

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It was probably Russell Carrell who, in 1957, borrowed the term ``flea market'' from France and applied it to his very first one-day rural flea market, held in a cow pasture on Route 44, north of the village of Salisbury, Conn.

The idea for such an event came to him when he was helping out at an auction for the local Antiquarian Society and was transporting antiques from one indoor place to another in a station wagon.

Suddenly he thought of a plan for doing business from station wagons set up in a circle in an open field. He sent invitations to dealers and 80 responded; 1,200 curious people flocked.

Some came expecting to see a ``flea circus,'' Mr. Carrell recalls, and they had to be educated to the attractions of such an unusual outdoor event.

On Sept. 6, Carrell will manage his 29th annual Salisbury Flea Market, greeting the caravan of dozens of vehicles that arrives in the early morning hours, and watching dealers disgorge their goods out onto the pasture grass beside their station wagons. All his markets, including his own Salisbury market, are fund raisers for charitable causes.

Most flea markets, however, are run for profit, and they've become big business in some areas. In the last three decades, hundreds of them have sprung up, some good, some bad, and some indifferent.

Chatting recently at the Litchfield Flea Market, another of the summer markets in New England that he manages, Carrell lamented the deterioration in quality that has crept into many flea markets.

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``Some that I visit are a disgrace,'' he contends, ``and a lot of the stuff I see at them should be in the town dump. In some ways, I think the flea market idea has gone berserk.''

Still, that doesn't stop droves of shoppers from coming to sift through the good, the bad, and the expensive. Many of these shoppers at ``people markets,'' as some call them, are serious collectors looking for super bargains. They entertain hopes that some dealers may not recognize the true value of what they are selling. Many are hobbyist browsers who come for the genial camaraderie. They pick up decorative odds and ends and useful household items. Some are interior designers and others dealers who cruise through looking only for ``the good stuff'' that may come cheaper in a pasture than in an urban antiques shop.

At the recent Litchfield Flea Market, held June 21, the setting was a verdant field filled with the pungent smell of new-mown grass. The weather was sunny but not too hot. The 176 dealers and their vans and wagons were arranged in rows to make the browsing easier.

The vendors had put up shelters, of sorts, such as awnings and rugs and fabrics draped on lines. They had put out their rugs and set up all their folding gear, chairs, shelves, and tables. Many were comfortably seated under umbrellas, waving and smiling at customers, all utterly casual. No hard sell here. But lots of greetings, friendly chatter, explanations of specific pieces if you asked for them.

(Appearances may be deceptive, however. There's often big business going on under the friendly chatter. One dealer, Wayne Pratt of Marlboro, Mass., said he sold $50,000 worth of goods that one day, including an 18th-century chest-on-chest made right there in Litchfield, for $25,000.)

Curtis Tuttle, a retired geologist of Ipswich, Mass., said he and his wife, Patricia, have been dealing in early tools and country primitives for 30 years, working several flea markets each summer.

``We meet all our buddies and swap stories, and that's important to us. We've had lots of fun and made lots of friends along the way. I've always lived around antiques. My family had them. I never knew them to throw anything out. And we live in an old house in Ipswich where I like to putter and build things, so the interest in old tools has come naturally.''

Edward E. Forrer, a dealer from Kent, Conn., was urging people to buy what he had just ``dug up.'' Dug up from where?

From the attic, he replied, spreading out the pages of art reproductions from a French illustrated magazine, and explaining that they had been buried among his collections for 20 years and he had only recently rediscovered them.

``My wife and I got interested in antiques when we were on our honeymoon in 1941 and bought an antique coffee grinder for $2, when we really didn't have the money to spare. We've had a great time buying and selling antiques for years. At first it was a part-time hobby, then I finally retired from my job so I could give more time to it. My motto is, ``Don't look back. I say that because I could have been a millionaire if I had known what was going to happen to prices over the years. I think of all the things I sold so cheap, but I have no regrets.''

Do people quibble over prices at a flea market, or make offers? Of course. Some dealers dicker. Some don't.

I watched one woman hastily put back an early (1830) English mocha pitcher and comment, ``I was ready to buy it until I saw that $550 price tag.'' Another passed up a three-piece ensemble of 1910 wicker porch furniture marked $1,200. A ``flow blue'' platter was admired by another shopper who resisted its $275 price tag, and one young woman said ``no'' to a great carousel horse priced at $1,900 even though the dealer said he'd send it to Colorado for her.

``Times have changed,'' says Harry W. Straus, an established Litchfield dealer, who sells at several flea markets each summer.

``Now there are more collectibles sold at these markets than antiques, and the difference is like between a zircon and a diamond. We just hope people will recognize the difference.

``Young people I see today are far more influenced by trends. They want what's in fashion, in the mode. If the Newtown Bee says carved duck decoys are `in' and fetching big prices at auction, they rush out to buy one.''

And when they do, there will be plenty of flea markets to shop in.

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