My wife and daughters worry that I might be a hoarder. For evidence, they cite the fact that every horizontal surface in my house is crowded with ceramics of all descriptions. And there are all those shelves and boxes-full which seem to have aggregated in the attic. And the groaning shelves lining much of the summer house. They think I’ve got it bad, and they are anxious about having to get rid of it all when I’m dead and gone.
But it’s not a worry for me. Firstly because I have proved scientifically to my own entire satisfaction (if to no-one else’s) that I’m not clinically diagnosable as a hoarder. You can read my arguments in detail in Chapter 10 of my book Random Treasure, but I won’t rehearse them here because then you might not want to buy the book. Secondly, because recently I got rid of perhaps a quarter of the entire accumulation without a single qualm or misgiving.
I and my friend Mary (whose problems are not dissimilar to mine) each took a table at our local flea market. This event is held monthly in a large hall just off Leith Walk, a little to the north of Central Edinburgh. To reconnoitre, Frances and I had been along to the previous month’s event. We found it busy and crowded and I spoke to a couple of stall-holders who said they were selling a lot and doing very nicely. The stuff on sale was a mixture of low-grade antiques, vintage and mid-century homewares and ornaments, clothing and general bric-a-brac, generally ranged along a scale from fairly kitschy to outrageously kitschy. This was not, emphatically not, a place to try to sell any high quality big-ticket items.
However, I was optimistic of being able to shift a considerable volume of lower-grade product. Most of the bits and pieces which I sorted out of the attic and summer house had come from charity shops, bought in order to identify the maker and for learning, but not sufficiently interesting to keep or valuable to sell individually. It wasn’t by any means rubbish. Some decent pieces from well-known and collectable studio potters were included, such as Briglin, Carn and Celtic Potteries; a lovely coffee set by William Fishley-Holland; Scottish pieces from the Abbey Pottery, Glenshee Pottery and Margaret Hall. Ceramics from production potteries included Denby and Buchan wares. There was a splendid Rosenthal Studiolinie vase from Germany, a Tonala vase from Mexico, and a big colourful maiolica vase from Italy. And a few antiques including an unusual Royal Crown Derby imari pin dish, a pair of beautifully painted (but chipped) Paris porcelain cologne bottles, and a set of six Victorian Copeland cabbageware plates.
It wasn’t all ceramics. There were three surplus eastern rugs, two table lamps, and a few embroidered textiles, and Frances added in some costume jewellery and a couple of handbags. And I took some copies of Random Treasure along, thinking that copies signed by the author would sell like hotcakes in late November to the hordes of antiques buffs who would crowd into the market hall to put the finishing touches to their Christmas shopping.
For weeks beforehand, I did my preparations. Collecting banana boxes from supermarkets. Buying price tags on eBay. Researching every item and trying to give it a succinct description and a realistic flea-market type price, somewhere around what you might expect to pay for the same item in a charity shop or local auction. Packing everything up neatly for transportation. My lowest priced objects were odd stoneware pottery mugs at £3. The most expensive was an antique (but heavily worn) Baluch rug at £40. I knew I was on to a winner. My stuff was fashionably retro and mid-century-modern, it was cheap, it was colourful, it was quality. I filled myself with confidence that my stall would be a sell-out. So confident was I of success that I vowed to myself and to Frances that at least fifty objects would come out of the attic and none would go back in.
On the day, the doors were to open at 10.00 a.m., but you could get access to set up your stall from 8.30. Pitches of 8 feet by 6 feet are marked out with chalk, but you can’t book a particular pitch, and we knew that in order to get good positions in the main hall we would have to be near the front of the queue, and would need to deploy sharp elbows to secure them against tough competition. So we arrived at 7.45 and found perhaps 15 stallholders already ensconced ahead of us.
If you are burdened with six banana boxes tightly packed with crockery, three rolled-up rugs, a small table, a box of books, a box of lamps, and a box of accessories (packing materials, sticky tape, plate stands, etc), you’ll find it tricky to keep your place in a restless and jostling queue. So I took with me just one box which I could use to stake my claim on my chosen pitch, while Frances double-parked in the street outside the hall with the remainder of my stock in the back of the car. Most other stallholders did likewise, although some rather heroically brought all their offerings into the queue with them. It was what we call in Scotland a bit of a rammy.
When the doors opened, Mary and I, both well-used to elbowing our way through crowds at jumble sales and auctions, rapidly found and claimed two adjacent pitches in a good central position on the right-hand side of the main hall. Then I started rushing in and out from hall to street carrying boxes in order to stock up my stall as quickly as possible and to let Frances get away – for today’s effort was a solo one on my part and my very sensible wife had much better things to do with her day than to spend it helping me to sell a load of old junk.
I set up my stall. I thought it looked quite good, but as I surveyed what the other stallholders were putting out on display, I began to feel my first misgivings. The problem was this: brownness. Other traders had goods with bright colours, shiny things, sparkly things, reflective things. To my left, Mary had a wide variety of stuff of all kinds, a colourful hotch-potch. To my right, a very pleasant young woman had a stall full of colour and sparkle – big, chunky costume jewellery, Christmas baubles, sparkling glassware. And what did I have? Brown pottery displayed on brown rugs. Had I made a mistake! Had I misjudged my market?
But no, I reasoned. This is an upcoming area of Edinburgh. Property is affordable around here and it’s on the cusp of gentrification and full of just the sort of bright well-educated trendy hipster steampunk-ish young people who would come to events like this to find iconic and/or ironic examples of retro, mid-century and sixties design with which to adorn their first-time-buyer flats. They’ll bypass all the bling and make a beeline for my stall.
They didn’t. The doors opened at 10.00, and by 11.00 I still hadn’t made my first sale. The woman next-door had a crowd of eager buyers clustering around her stall which was quickly stripped of all its shiny objects. She and her husband calmly got out more from boxes stowed under her table and re-stocked. On my other side, Mary, who’s a friendly outgoing person who knows almost everyone and has instant rapport with those few people whom she doesn’t know, was besieged by friends and wellwishers and her stall quickly developed into Banter Central.
And me? Stallholder: awkward and diffident. Wares on offer: dull and brown. Level of public interest and engagement: negligible. Punter after punter walked past my stall without so much as a glance, taking enormous care to avoid eye contact. A few people stopped by to look at a pot, agonise interminably about spending £3 or £4, and then move on to buy something shinier from someone else. Many told me that they would buy something but the house was already full, and they had nowhere to put anything (so why come to a flea market, then? I thought but didn’t say). A stallholder from across the hall came for a chat, or rather for a monologue, which went on and on and on, deterring potential paying customers from stopping to look. Then he went away but came back a short time later and re-monologued. Where were the Times-supplement-readers? Not there. Where were the style set? Absent. Is it the case that on-trend young homemakers love retro? Apparently not.
To be fair, I did sell some stuff. Some brown vases and mugs, mainly to old-timers who had been there for the first time they came into fashion; a pretty German porcelain cabinet cup and saucer to a German tourist; the Baluch rug at a reduced price to another stallholder; the Bokhara rug to Mary’s partner Ron; the Buchan and Rosenthal vases; the Briglin owl money box; the Denby teapot; about half of Frances’s pieces of jewellery. But no copies of my book.
I stood behind my stall in the freezing hall for five solid hours, save a couple of periods of a few minutes each when Mary kindly covered for me while I bought a horrible lunch from the café and had a brief look at some other stalls. At 3.00 p.m. the doors closed to the public and it was time to pack up. Frances returned and again double-parked outside, and I duly dismantled my stall and carried my unsold stock back out to the car. Having arrived with:
- six banana boxes tightly packed with crockery, three rolled-up rugs, a small table, a box of books, a box of lamps, and a box of accessories,
I returned home, aching all over, depressed, chilled and utterly exhausted, with:
- five banana boxes tightly packed with crockery, one rolled-up rug, a small table, a box of books, a box of lamps, and a box of accessories, plus around £205 in cash takings.
You might think: £205? That doesn’t sound too bad for a day’s work. What’s he moaning about?
OK, take off the £30 cost of the pitch and table hire, and £3.95 for the price tickets. Then divide the residue by the number of hours spent at the flea market (9) plus the number of hours spent selecting the stock for sale (say, 2 hours), researching item details and appropriate prices (3), writing and attaching price tickets (3), sourcing banana boxes from supermarkets (1), packing stock for transportation (1), and loading the car (1). Which makes 20 hours of backbreaking and mind-numbing effort for net proceeds of £171.05, or £8.55 per hour. Which is less than the Scottish Living Wage of £9.00 per hour.
If, however, you factor in the original cost of the stock – at a guess (because I don’t keep records) 50 items at an average of £3 per item, then the rate reduces to £1.05 per hour, or one guinea in very old money. Hmmm . . .
As I’m sure you can tell, I didn’t enjoy my one and only flea market experience. I’m not sure why I found it so negative, especially since I come from a long line of small traders and have always thought of myself as having something of a barrow-boy mentality. Perhaps it’s that I am just getting too old for this kind of hard physical graft. Perhaps I’m not temperamentally suited (i.e. too curmudgeonly). Perhaps I think there are easier ways to make some money. Perhaps I have been spoiled by having had the very fortunate experience several times of seeing my cheaply-bought antiques selling in auction rooms for hundreds or thousands of pounds. In one case, for hundreds of thousands of pounds.
I come away from the day an older, wiser and stiffer man, full of admiration for the regular flea-market and car boot fair and antique fair stallholders who do it routinely and who seem to enjoy it and even, in some cases, to make a living from it. I realise my success and enjoyment of the event were impaired by making some serious mistakes with my choice of stock and my general approach to the task. If I were going to do it again, I’d do it differently. But I’m not going to do it again. No way.
Having brought five banana boxes full of unsold pots home, I was then faced with the necessity to demonstrate my non-hoarder-ness and to fulfil my promise not to put anything back in the attic. So on the Monday morning, I took all five boxes along to our local hospice shop and donated them. No more flea markets for me. End of story.
But not quite the end. There’s a sequel. When Mary’s sister-in-law heard that Mary was going to take a stall at the flea market, she got an old suitcase out of an outhouse and asked her to sell it for a few pounds. And guess what? Both the suitcase itself and its contents turned out to be Random Treasure! In my next blog piece I’ll tell you the extraordinary story of what was in the cigar box.