Shoppers from as far as Japan descend on Springfield, OH, for its twice-yearly market of 19th-century antiques. But the event isn’t stuck in the past. In 2012, it introduced live music, beer and wine stands, and trend-driven clothing and housewares.
The effort is paying off in Springfield, where the May 2012 market drew a record-breaking weekend crowd of 21,000 shoppers, and flea markets across America are seeing a similar surge of interest. Some credit goes to the popularity of reality TV series like Oddities, American Pickers, and Market Warriors, which have picked up the Roadshow mantle and are mining the world of secondhand buying, selling, and collecting.
As a result, a whole new group of travelers is discovering that braving the crowds at America’s liveliest flea markets delivers more than just deals; it’s a chance to get immersed in a local community, to be an archaeologist of the present. Who needs potshards when you can pick up a piece of North Carolina Pisgah Forest Pottery circa 1940—just a few hours’ drive from where it was made?
Meandering through a market also provides fantastic people-watching (and eavesdropping) opportunities. Want some reality of your own? You’re guaranteed to get a different take on a place’s traditions and culture from the dealer at the bluegrass record booth than you would from your hotel’s concierge.
Fortunately, secondhand markets have never been more varied—or more vibrant. A new wave of urban fleas has taken off in Seattle, Chicago, Brooklyn, and beyond, bringing together old-fashioned junk-shoppers and a slew of budding entrepreneurs, artists, and chefs, who benefit from the real-time, in-the-flesh market research (small-batch raspberry-and-green-peppercorn soda, anyone?).
Whether they’re brand new or a century old, sprawling outdoor affairs or carefully edited exhibitions, the best flea and antique markets have a few key things in common: variety (in terms of both merchandise and price), accessibility (most are within an hour’s drive of a major city), and some hint of the area’s heritage (handmade quilts and furniture at the Amish-country flea market in Shipshewana, IN).
And of course, that most important element: a little unvarnished reality. Read on for our favorites, along with tips to get the most out of your market day.