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Flea Market, Tag Sale & Antique Shopping Tips

I love combing through antique markets, antique fairs, tag sales, vintage shops & flea markets whenever I have a spare moment.  Sometimes I plan a trip just to make sure I attend a particular market in a particular city and believe me, I'm not alone.  Don't ask my why I love these types of markets, I just do.    Over the years I've come to learn a thing or two about how to prepare for this type of shopping, and I think it's important for the potential buyer to be aware of these tips when visiting shops, fairs and markets that deal in the old & vintage.

If I'm determined to peruse a market or store with plenty of time on my hands, I like to be prepared for the unexpected finds which may be found when digging through displays.  Mistakes in the past have cost me lost opportunities to buy items which I will never forget, and near accidents have almost cost me a purchase or two while transporting them home.  Let my lessons serve you in the future and help you get what catches your eye at a vintage shop or flea market.  Remember, getting your purchase safely home is just as important as knowing how to buy.

Recently I showed you an afternoon spent antiquing in my former hometown of Haddonfield, New Jersey, where I bought some wonderful sauerkraut crocks from the 1800s.  If you missed that, click [here] and read about my 'finds', because you may encounter such pottery in your quest for antiques.

I didn't want to title this post "Antiquing Kit 101' or anything of that nature, because there is more to this post than just what I take with me when I go shopping.  However, I do carry a 'kit' that makes perfect sense for someone like me.

Here goes!


  • Negotiating Prices:  always always ask if the price on the item is fixed/set.  There are stores that have a fixed price and some that don't.  What I always ask is simply that: is your price set or is there some room for negotiation?  Ask if there is a discount for paying with cash.  A 10% discount is pretty normal and standard when paying with cash.  Don't think you're going to talk down a price by a lot, because you may end up offending some vendors.  Some may even give you the cold shoulder; trust me on this.  Don't overstep your boundaries.  
  • Setting Items Aside As You Shop: always ask to see an item that you're interested in, especially if it's behind a glass case or display which you can't reach.  Vendors are always more than willing to show things to you.  I ALWAYS ask vendors to set things aside for me as I shop through an antique store,  even if I don't end up buying it, because you never know.  Other buyers at the store may want the same thing and snatch it up if you don't have them set it aside for you.  It's happened to me.  This also frees you up to shop for other items without having to carry anything in your hands.
  • Examining an Item Closely: Look for maker's marks, stamps and anything which may indicate what the item is.  When in doubt, ask the vendor.  If I'm examining a piece of china or glass, I always look for hairline fractures, cracks or nicks.  Certain items can still retain their charm with these faults, but keep in mind that they cannot command the same price as something that's in pristine condition.  A piece of pottery that you simply adore that has a small chip or crack can still be displayed in your home with panache.
  • Enthusiasm: don't make the mistake of showing TOO much enthusiasm for something when examining or looking at it.  Vendors will quickly pick up on it and may think that you will pay whatever they're asking for.  However, if you really want to buy something, don't hesitate too long and think you'll get it by coming back in half an hour or an hour or in a few days.  There is always going to be someone who is willing to buy on the spot.  I can still picture letting a whole set of Limoges china with a green border go, because I hesitated & thought I could get it in a few weeks.  It was gone by the time I went back. 
  • Cash & Payment: vendors love it when you pay for items with cash because they don't incur any credit card fees.  Some vendors in booths will not take checks, so it's a good idea to carry some cash with you when shopping at flea markets or tag sales (especially).  Carry smaller bills so that you don't run into problems, especially if you're shopping in the morning.  Don't have large bills that are hard to break. However, paying by check and credit card is probably best when you're shopping for high-priced items at a high-end antique shop. 
  • Shipping & Transporting: most upscale antique shops will offer a shipping service for a fee if you don't feel like walking out of the store with your purchase.  Inquire.  At flea markets or large antique fairs, you can exit the venue to drop off items in your car and then return to the booths.  Just make sure you get stamped so that you can reenter.  

Shopping "Kit"

This is my "kit" that I take with me in the car when I'm headed to a flea market, vintage shop or an antique store.  If the flea market is outdoors and covers a lot of ground, I take all of this as I make my rounds and make sure I have my sunscreen on.  If I'm going to a store that is rather small and I'm driving to it rather than walking to it, I leave these items in the car.  If and when I make a purchase, I return to my car to get what I need.  These particular things should serve you well if you're buying delicate items.

  • Canvas Tote Bags: these bags are indispensable when shopping for vintage/antique items.  Not only do you save the booth or store from having them supply you with a bag, it also protects your purchase(s).  Canvas bags are sturdy and capable of hauling very heavy items without the fear of having them tear.  I would NOT trust to have an old bowl, a vintage crock, some delicate china or stemware be put in a paper bag or plastic shopping bag.  
  • Cotton Towels: I use cotton towels to line & cushion the bottom of my tote bags, especially if the item I'm buying is delicate.  I almost broke a very large 16" yellowware bowl once while carrying it home, because the bag slipped from my hand and landed on the pavement; there was no towel to cushion the bowl upon impact!  Luckily the bowl did not crack or break, but it could have.  Don't let this happen to you!
  • Measuring Tape:  I like carrying one to determine the size of something that is in question.  For instance, if you come across some plates that seem like something you want, simply measure them and figure out how you can include them with what you already own.  Another example from my experience: those white custard cups which sit on my collectible spice rack were measured before I bought them.  I knew at the store that they would fit just so on the rack.  It's a good idea knowing the dimensions of a potential purchase, because that way you can determine whether you already have such a piece at home or whether it's going to fit in a certain location once you get it to your residence.  
  • Rubber bands:  I like taking a small handful of these to secure any type of packaging material, such as bubble wrap or paper.  A stack of plates won't shift around so much if they're secured tightly with a few of these.
This is how I bundle up my delicate vintage items after I've purchased them at an antique store or flea market.  Line the bottom of your canvas bag with thick cotton towels to cushion your purchase.  Believe me, you're going to thank me for this.  I can still remember the thud of that yellowware bowl when it hit the floor; I almost had a heart attack.  

The pickling crock is bundled in bubble wrap which has several rubber bands securing it.  This eliminates the need to use tape.  Rubber bands can be reused for another purpose, tape can't.

When you get home, don't throw that bubble wrap away because it can always be reused to send someone a care package in the mail (think cookies!).

Here it is.  Bundled up & secure in the heavy duty canvas tote that can be carried around the store, market or over to your car. 

If you already know the pleasures of shopping for the antique and vintage, then these tips are things you probably carry with you.  If you're new to antiquing or are intrigued by it, keep my lessons and tips in mind.

People always tell me that they feel insecure about shopping for vintage items because they don't have all of the knowledge when doing so.  I say to them to ask a lot of questions and do some research on those things which appeal to their sensibilities.  Remember the names of things that catch your eye and look them up when you get home.

Shopping for antiques is about discovering, gaining knowledge and buying what we love.  It is a passion for many such as myself.  Several readers have shared with me some of their treasures in the past and I always love the enthusiasm when they describe what they collect.  Keep sending me your finds.  I love it!

Enjoy Antiquing!


  1. What a fantastic post, David! I love shopping antique shops and malls and all too often find that vendors, nor shop-keepers have the appropriate packaging materials to wrap and protect my treasures for the trip home.

    Like you, I take a tape measure everywhere and I cannot tell you how many times it has saved me from taking something home that would never fit the space I intend for it! A tape measure has saved me both the money and hassle of ending up with the wrong piece. And, since most sales at antique shops are final, it's important to know what you're doing AND get the purchase home in one piece!

    I love the idea of totes - I have a million of them but usually forget them at home! Thanks for the reminder to put a few in the Jeep!


  2. If only I had read your advice a few weeks ago when I bought a large cake dome from an antiques shop. It got home alright, but I was fraught with worry all the way. Luckily I had a picnic blanket in the car that I wrapped it in. I will follow your advice in future when I go shopping!

  3. Janet,

    Never leave home without a tote when going to an antique store or vintage shop! By the way, THANK YOU!!!!!!!, for that MBM tote. I use it all the time. :)

    I know, having a measuring tape is a life saver. Eyeballing something isn't always good because 1/2" or 1" on something can make a big difference when identifying something.

    Awesome, I'm glad you liked the post!!


  4. Amy, an antique cake dome????

    Send me a picture of it please. I'd love to see it!

    I'm so glad that your purchase arrived safely at home, but it is a good thing to be prepared when going. Just keep a few totes in your car to be sure!

    Have fun shopping.


  5. I love these tips and I love you David! (And I mean that in the purely platonic "I'm happily married but desperately want to shop with you because no one else understands the elaborate lengths I go to" kind of way) ha ha! I have a little polished wood measuring tape that looks like an oval and a list with all of my important measurements in my diaper bag at all times. I had a very long engagement because I needed hunt for lots of milkglass and antique silverware in my great grandmother's pattern for our tables. By some miracle of fate an antique shop in Ellicott City near our place was selling a 12 piece place setting of our china for next to nothing and they STILL happily came down on the price for me. Being nice to people is it's own reward, but sometimes it gets you a great price too! By the way, they are closing Taylor's Antique Mall out here and moving the vendors out... Couldn't hurt to plan a trip and see if they are willing to negotiate a little more than usual. Not sure of the date they need to be out.

  6. You're hilarious Jessica. I know what you mean! By the way, I'm taken too! LOL.

    It sometimes takes an eternity to find just the right thing to go with what we already own. Believe me, I know! Although I don't carry a list of the things I want, I do have a pretty good memory of my inventory and what I "need".

    I know someone from Ellicot City, what a small world! What a shame that the store you mentioned is closing. I always feel saddened when an antique store shuts down, because I get so attached to them. I don't feel that way about other stores whatsoever.

    Make it a point to visit it before it closes because I'm sure you're bound to find some great buys. And, yes, being kind & courteous toward shopkeepers goes a LONG way!


    1. We're headed to Taylor's later today! We love Ellicott City. Shopping small businesses is wonderful and so many great new additions have popped up in our little town over the last several years. Cheers!

  7. Great! Let me know how it goes and what you find!


  8. Great tips, David. It never fails, we're out and about, decide to make a stop at an antique store and I'm NEVER prepared! I've ended that! I just put together your "kit" for both of our cars, so now we're always ready! xoxo

  9. That is GREAT, Kenn!!

    I think it's a good idea to have at least a tote or two in the car for these occasions so that you're prepared. Gotta love "the kit". :)

    Best to you & yours antiquing in the Midwest!!



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