Story by Carol Sims, photos by David Smith and Carol Sims
BRIMFIELD, MASS. — New Englanders have always been industrious. Rising before dawn is a way of life for the Yankee farmer or dairyman, but they are not the only ones. As dawn crept over the gray wet fields on either side of Route 20 in Brimfield on the mornings of September 10-15, thousands of antiques dealers from all over New England and beyond had already been up for hours. They were preparing for the rush of early-rising customers that would soon pour through the gate of each sunrise opening of the more than 20 antiques shows that make up the conglomerate of “Brimfield.”
Five shows opened at 6 am, ten at sunrise, three at 7 am, three at 9 am, and, timed to catch people at their second wind, three shows opened later, at 11 am, noon and 1 pm.
At dawn, car after car dutifully filed into May’s parking lot, directed by flashlight, but driven with an instinctive urge to be first. First to get there, first to see the good stuff, first to stow away quickly considered purchases, and tag the irresistible pieces of furniture “sold.” There were good buys to be had, and one does not necessarily have to be first to find them, as more and more stuff is unpacked and put out throughout the day. Sometimes it even pays to amble.
Brimfield, that bastion of free enterprise where untold dollars and goods exchange hands each May, July and September, is the Queen Mother of antiques shows. Brimfield is set up so that each show has a different flavor. Some, like Heart-O-Mart, J&J Promotions and New England Motel, sell tickets and generate long lines (or holding areas) of customers waiting at the gate like a mob of marathoners at the starting line. On the other side of the gate dealers are all set up and ready to go.
A different strategy can be found at May’s. The crowd stays outside until the gate opens, but the dealers are not allowed to unpack until the gate opens. This causes a double frenzy. Not only are folks rushing to get to their favorite dealer, the dealers themselves are scrambling to present as much as they can at the same time.
Still another approach, and perhaps the most conducive to compulsive buying, is Hertan’s strategy. Dealers must remain unpacked while antiques hunters surround their empty tables. When the signal is given, the van and truck doors are flung open and furniture and box loads of goods are brought out to a vulturous crowd waving wads of cash. Much of the merchandise is snapped up before it makes it to the table or ground.
This September there was a certain urgency among the sellers, as they sought to divest themselves of piles of inventory in a sluggish economy. Buyers had much to choose from, and sellers were amiable to bargain with. Even with cool temperatures and shorter days, after the typical opening frenzy this September felt more like July to some sellers.
Judging from the Brimfield Pocket Guide, many dealers set up for one of the 24 shows. (J&J Promotions passed out booth signs to many dealers who showed exclusively at J&J). About 70 listed dealers set up shop at two shows, so that when one closed they moved on down the pike and set up at another. A few dealers had enough inventory and staff to cover more than one show at a time. Olde Good Things, for example, showed at May’s Antiques Market, Dealer’s Choice, J&J Promotions, Heart-O-The-Mart and Sturtevant’s North. (Some of those shows were successive, but some overlapped.)
A poignant 17 minutes opened the show at Heart-O-The-Mart. Since the show opened on September 11 at 9 am, show managers Don and Pam Moriarty planned a tribute to commemorate the one year anniversary of the 9/11 events. “We had two members of Brimfield Fire, Police and Ambulance, plus members of the Holyoke Firefighters Emerald Bagpipe Brigade — two snare drummers and two pipers,” said Don. Staff handed out a notice to ticket holders and people waiting in line for tickets to alert them to the tribute.
“At our back gate at 8:46 there was a moment of silence with the honor guard. Then they marched from the back up through our main field up to our entrance. We had a platform up there. We timed it so it would end at 9:03. They played ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘America the Beautiful’ and ended with the very upbeat ‘Marine Hymn.’ A large number of our dealers had personal experiences with 9/11. The most remarkable part of the whole show was clearly the tribute. I was crying, Pam was crying. One of the drummers was longtime staff member Bob O’Donnell and Richard Morris, with us for 20 years, was one of the firefighters,” Don explained.
The Heart-O-The Mart field holds a little over 600 dealer spaces and 580 spaces were full this September. “We added 50 spaces over last year and sold out for the May Show,” said Don. That meant a net gain over last September of 30 dealer spaces sold. “The gate was down about six percent. The predominant message we got from our dealers was that the crowd was a little light but buying was robust — they all had their wallets out. The vast majority said ‘we had a good show.'”
For Don Moriarty, the big surprise was Saturday. “Saturday was dynamite. It was one of the biggest Saturdays we have seen in a long time. Sunday was a real small show crowd; it was rainy. The retail crowd comes in on Saturday from places like Boston and all around. Not everyone can get off from work in the middle of the week. People knew it was going to rain so they all came on Saturday.”
Heart-O-The-Mart had 75 people on their staff on Wednesday, opening day, handling the gate and concessions, working as porters, etc. “We have a crew that has been with us over the years. They don’t see each other much during the year. It is a fun day for them. We have schoolteachers, bank executives, all sorts of great people.”
“All of us owe a great deal to Gordon Reed and his family for their commitment to quality and professionalism,” said Moriarty. Family plays a big part at Brimfield. Gordon Reed, the father of all Brimfield antiques shows, has two daughters, Jill Lukesh and Judy Mathieu, who currently manage J&J Promotions. Judy’s daughters Jill Balderelli and Laurie Prescott are now an active part of the team.
May’s, another stalwart show at Brimfield, has three generations on the field: Dick and Laura May, their son Tim, and grandson Josh. Moriarty’s son Eric has worked for eBay for the last four years and will soon be starting his own business on eBay as well as will be helping his father with Brimfield. His other son, Dave, has been working with them right along. Moriarty’s niece Tracey Healy has been working in the Heart-O-The-Mart office for four years.
David Lamberto of Jeanne Hertan Antique Shows, has managed Hertan’s for a little over ten years, and before that worked with Jeanne for 15 years. Lamberto was pleased with how smoothly the show went. “It was great – we had great weather. Our show opens at noon and the rain held off until about 4, when we had a small shower.”
Hertan’s, like May’s, does not charge admission but the crowd looked a little lighter than usual to Lamberto. “Dealers were reporting good sales, not gangbusters, but the sales met their expectations. The crowd was in between May and July. In May it grows larger every year. However, the buyers liked the lack of competition,” he said.
Lamberto, who has an interest in pedal cars and artwork has also participated in shows (other than Brimfield) as a dealer. Although he lives in Connecticut, he has been invited to serve on the board of the Quabog Valley Chamber of Commerce Board, one of two chambers that serve Brimfield.
According to Lamberto, the Brimfield Show Promoters Association, which has been around for several years, was reinvigorated about a year ago. They work together to promote Brimfield as a single event. “The town tells us what our dates are: the second Tuesday in May, the Tuesday after Independence Day, and the Tuesday after labor Day except when religious holidays dictate otherwise.”
Future improvements at Brimfield include getting sidewalks on both sides of Route 20. “Engineering has been approved — we’re just awaiting funding from the state,” said Lamberto.
Laura May said, “The crowd was down a tad. We were happy we had our usual rush [at opening]. Nothing can ever be like May. Some of the dealers were really surprised in a good way.” This was their 26th year of promoting the show. According to May, they had a good run of jewelry and “paintings did extremely well. Furniture is a little bit slow, but even with furniture some dealers were surprised with their success.” The Mays kept things moving smoothly and dealt with the usual “lost glasses, lost keys and lost husbands.”
Marie Doldoorian, show promoter for the New England Motel show, which runs Wednesday through Sunday, was delighted with the show. “It was great. The gate was wonderful. The day might have been a little slow because of 9/11 but it turned out that the people were in very good spirits. There were lots of smiling faces and that is what this is all about. All in all, it was a really good show and the dealers were very happy.” New England Motel showcases about 400 dealers. Doldoorian noted that a team of buyers employed by an internationally known designer was on the field several times and they were buying off the field.
“Merchandise just keeps getting better and better,” Doldoorian continued. “Unfortunately I just don’t get enough time to shop much myself. September was a very nice way to close Brimfield this year. It’s like that very last golf shot that gets you to keep golfing.”