Exploring New England's Largest Outdoor Antique Show

Boston editor Leigh Harrington takes us on a visit to the famous Brimfield Antique Show, where over 5,000 dealers converge in a small New England town of just 3,600 residents.

Yahoo! It's a great day to play Frank and Mike from "American Pickers." Every September, I make the pilgrimmage to the Brimfield Antique Show, because I love, love, love all things old, antique and vintage.

For one week, three times per year, the largest outdoor antique show in New England alights in the tiny, central Massachusetts host town of Brimfield, Mass., population 3,600.

At upwards of 5,000, the antiques dealers generally outnumber residents.

Parking for the show becomes an exercise in priorities, which may change visit-to-visit. Consider this: What do you plan to buy and how big is it? What fields along the mile-long route do you want to explore? Do you mind sitting in traffic or would you rather walk a bit in order to have an easier time pulling onto Route 20 at the end of the day? 

Many of the townsfolk who live off the town green on Brookfield Street, which parallels Main Street, camp out at the end of their driveways in lawn chairs and charge five bucks per car for anyone who wants to park in their backyards.

Look for the big red house on the right—my personal pick for best spot. It's a great deal and only a two-minute walk to show's first vendor area.

Walking across the green, my fingertips tingle in anticipation of all the glorious old things I'm about to hit upon at this extravaganza. Rooting through old stuff is the stuff of dreams, and I'm spending a whole day in dreamland. 

For the uninitiated, walking into a labyrinth of vendor tents can be overwhelming. The reality is that you'll never make it to every one in just one day. My suggestion to you: just wander and don't overthink it. Also, if you see something you like and you plan to go back for it, make sure you pinpoint the dealer's name and location. It's pretty easy to get lost.

Brimfield Antique Show

This year, I went with plans to buy any or all of the following: a bird bath, fireplace accessories, a sofa table, and a china cabinet. What I went home with was, well, different.

My shopping partner, the husband, and I have different philosophies when it comes to the perfect find. I want to buy it immediately, while my husband likes to browse and reconsider (and browse and reconsider). There are certainly pros and cons to both methods, though it's probably best to strike a balance. However, I totally support the gut-spending approach. 

The china cabinet—and I use that term loosely—was our main goal. We just moved into a new home and needed a large item to hold wine glasses and dishes. From art-deco to arts and crafts styles, you'll likely stumble upon something. We certainly did. The first item we saw and both liked was a traditional New England country hutch for $25, but the price seemed a little too good to be true. We ended up with a complete antithesis: a converted antique industrial railroad factory cart for $550.

The industrial railroad factory cart for my kitchen.

Don't be afraid to haggle.

Sometimes dealers jack up prices expecting you to barter them down. If you shake your head and walk away, they'll often say, "Hey, break the ice. What do you want to pay?"

I got a bedazzled rock to add to my daughter's "treasure" collection for just one dollar. It was originally priced at $5. My method is to throw out absurdly low prices and see what happens, but if the item is one you're serious about, just ask the dealer, "What's the best you can do on this?"

Whether or not you're out to buy something, browsing is brilliant fun for the curious and history-minded. Finds can inspire laughs or mock horror, launch trips down memory lane, and spark discussions that go something like, "Do you really need that baby head with the bullet collar and oil-can hat?"

I mean, who doesn't need this?!

"Or, the child-seat equipped bicycle-built-for-two?"

That bicycle built for two at the antique show outside of Boston

What about the model trains, metal-worked garden flamingos, porcelain door knobs, or a stained leaded-glass English window? That's the beauty of Brimfield, maybe you do need one of those items, you just don't know it until you stumble across it.

Since any roam through Brimfield should last at least a day, you'll need fuel. Local food trucks park around the grounds and along Route 20, serving up treats from cider doughnuts to hand-cut onion rings.

Stop for a creamy Vietnamese iced coffee as we did, then dig into a fried haddock po boy and hand-cut onion rings, a loaded grilled cheese sandwich or any other of the variety of really tasty options. Many vendors, like the favorite Pilgrim Sandwich, are annual standbys while others change per season.

After lunch, we picked up a cast-iron bird bath (on the list) and a brightly painted metal jack-o'-lantern (not on the list), before heading home and giving our weary feet some relief. A few miles from Brimfield, Route 20 connects to Interstate 90, the Mass Pike, which takes you straight back to Boston in about an hour.

Tips for Shopping the Brimfield Antique Show

  • Bring cash (only some vendors take credit cards)
  • Bring a cart or large bag for easy transport of purchased small items
  • Bring a rain coat or umbrella; the show goes on rain or shine
  • Be prepared to negotiate for best price
  • Treat your feet to sneakers

Brimfield 2016 dates: May 10-15, July 12-17 and Sept. 6-11