Blogs by Hilary Hopkins

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The World As Flea Market

September 09, 2014 / The World As Flea Market

When down here on Cape Cod for our September vacation, we usually go to the local flea market.  When I was a kid my parents always visited whatever the local junk store was, wherever we were on our driving trips.  That’s what they called them, junk stores.  They would wander around looking and I would wander around looking.  I learned the look of many things that way. 

“Junk” kinds of things found their way into our home.  My parents frequented a nearby salvage emporium—I can still picture it, there on the corner of the residential street (the neighbors must have hated it), a large house with a big garage and yard, which were filled with bits and pieces salvaged from construction or destruction sites.  Lots of stuff came home from there: our mantelpiece, the serpentine-front sideboard in the dining room, a fine chest of drawers, our dining room table, and I don’t know what else.

These things went onto the back porch, where my Mother used paint stripper and other noxious-smelling things to remove layers of paint and varnish, revealing something fine underneath.  Then it was a nice coat of linseed oil, and we had a new piece of furniture.  The serpentine-front sideboard had had a thick coat of orange paint, but under Mother’s ministrations was found to be made of glowing walnut.

Now that I think of it, I don’t think we had anything actually NEW in our house, I mean bought new.  My books, for instance.  My Father was a rare/used book dealer, and much of his stock came from his visits to estate sales in the area.  He’d get a call: “Well, my mom died and we are trying to close up her house.  There’s a bunch of boxes of old books up in the attic—would you come and take a look at them and take them away?  You can have the whole lot for twenty bucks.”  Daddy would go, bring back the boxes, often containing interesting objects besides books by the way, and if there were any children’s books, I got to have them.  The great thing was that all of these books were inscribed with the names of their previous owner, or owners, and I would always add my mine.

In this way I owned, and read, the books of an earlier generation of children, sometimes several generations earlier.  I loved reading the names in my books.  In elegant delicate penmanship I would read: “Christmas, 1896.  To Sophie from Mama.” 

Where was I?  Yes, flea markets.  If you want to sell something at a flea market, you have to rent a space for your table.  The one we go to here on Cape Cod is held in the parking lot of a drive-in movie theater (where movies are still shown—the latest double bill being Jaws along with The Perfect Storm, local-interest films you know).   In the parking lot are about sixty or seventy tables or white awnings. 


I can buy new t-shirts, new sunglasses, a new bra, a new screwdriver or a lumbar-supporting chair.  I can buy a chair massage or get a new Bible, for free, along with an uplifting message from an earnest Witness to Jehovah. 


I can buy a used movie (none I have ever heard of, but you never know) or a used mystery, or a family photograph of someone I do not know.   I can top up my supply of prettily-embellished cotton hankies, used but carefully laundered and ironed to stiffness.

The man from Tibet sells me a small wall hanging with words of the Dalai Lama (made by Tibetan refugees in India, it says), and last year I bought some small metal animals from the Africans, who have many masks for sale but I have not bought one, yet.





At the back of the lot are the tables with the best things, the glorious miscellany of objects that might yield something special.  Maybe special only to me or a few others.  Here I am thrilled to find a pink Depression glass cream pitcher, pattern Cubist, that goes  with my sugar bowl I bought at another flea market years ago.  See, that was the glassware my Grandmother used, back in the 1940’s, when I used to stay at their house while my parents vacationed.  She served peaches and pears that she put up, and cer-al, as she named it.  Now I have a little collection of that glassware, so evocative for me of a very happy time. 

Some of the things laid out for inspection do not make me so happy.  At Cindy’s table there are small batches of family photographs, some from the 1940’s (the sailor boy in uniform on leave posed between his proud and no-doubt terrified parents: will he come home?) and some from I think the 1920’s (marcelled hair on the young women).  But nobody knows who these people are.  Nobody knows their names, or their stories, and here they are, now a part of the imperceptibly-flowing river of objects.


Cindy and I share our thoughts about the sadness of these now-anonymous people laid out for everybody to see.  “Well,” she says, “they were pasted in an album and I got them out; at least I rescued them from the trash.”  I agree with her, and explain that I am writing a little piece about how it seems the whole world’s a kind of flea market.  She gets it right away, and recounts a nice story.

She was there at her table last week, and along came a young girl, maybe nine or ten years old.  The little girl said to Cindy, “How can you stand to sell all your things?”  

Cindy replied, “I just keep them for a while and then move them along to new homes.” 

“Oh,” said this lovely child, “so you’re sort of like a foster home for antiques.”

That’s good—but a few tables over I find, next to a much-bruised guitar and a boy scout camp cook-set, a little stack of World War II soldiers’ hats, those flat-folded khaki toppers that they wore at jaunty angles.  I remember seeing the soldiers wearing those hats on the streets when I was a child.  And where are those soldier-boys now?  I don’t like to see their things out here for sale.   But, as Cindy said, at least they have not been thrown into the trash, and somebody will want them and pay for them and give them a new home. 

It turns out that nobody really knows where the term “Flea Market” comes from.  The only story that seems to be mentioned with any authority is that there used to be a bazaar in Paris in the old days, the 1860’s, where people would bring their discards to sell, some of which were infested by fleas.  Yeah, whatever.  But how “puces” which is French for “fleas” got translated into English is a mystery that seems not to have been addressed.

But I love the image of this slow-moving river of goods, creeping through time around the world.   The other day after shopping at the market I looked at the bottom of one of the paper bags and found it had been “made with pride by Maria Figueroa.”  I googled the address of the bag company, and sent Maria a postcard of Cape Cod, Massachusetts; she’s in Kentucky.  Hope she gets it.

The World As Flea Market


  • Gail Curry 08:31am, 09/14/2014

    I love this !!  And, I learned something about the activities of your Mom and the furnishings in the home I visited so often.


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