One of the perks of apartment living is, of course, the newfound decorating space. One of the downsides of decorating, however, is the costly endeavor of finding art objects with which to fill the blinding white-washed walls, and choosing fabrics that can hide the 70s-style cushions on the Henle couches and lounge chairs (unless that’s the vibe you’re going for; in that case, far out, man).
In an attempt to make our apartment resemble the living space of a group of hip, artistic young twenty-somethings, this past sunday, my roommate and I headed out to the Georgetown Flea Market, which is now in its 37th year. Our collective goal: to find a tapestry for our Henle wall. My individual goal: to treat myself to something that cost $5 or less (AKA spend the cash I had left after my weekly Trader Joe’s run). The market, located across from the Safeway on Wisconsin Avenue, was just a 15 minute walk.
When we got to the flea market around noon, vendors were fanning themselves in the unexpected September heat and talking across the aisles to each other about their weekends or latest finds. These finds ranged from carpets to comic books, vintage clothes to antique swords. Many vendors sold out of their vans or under tents, which were stocked to the brim with collected goods.
I first approached a table filled with Japanese-style vases and ceramics. The vendor behind the table asked me what I thought of one vase in particular: it was painted with a peacock, whose golden-laced tail feathers reached out to cover the space of the black ceramic background. He joked with me, saying he was thinking of offering it to me for a good price. It seemed as if I had unexpectedly entered into a business negotiation with a vendor at my first stand–an initiation into the Georgetown flea market culture!
But I really didn’t want the vase. It was 1. not a hip tapestry and 2. the vendor was selling it for $10–way over my leftover Trader Joe’s budget. I kindly declined the offer and moved onto the next aisle of booths.
As I walked around, my eye was drawn to arrangements of engraved wood, paintings, and rugs spilling out of the back of a van. I introduced myself to the man responsible for the objects, Bart, who launched into a story about one of his attempted art acquisitions at the market.
A few years ago, Bart began to negotiate a price on a painting of a military brigade (a process I can now relate to as a pro Japanese-vase negotiator). He bargained the painting down to $1,800, wrote the check, but at the last minute decided to withdraw his offer. A few weeks later, Bart happened upon a 2-page article in an antiques magazine about that same painting: it was identified as an original by one of the illustrators of The Saturday Evening Post and had been auctioned off for $235,000. With a melancholy look in his eye, Bart told me that these were the sorts of things that happened in the art-collecting sector of the flea market. Now he always checks potential purchases on the internet with his smartphone to make sure he isn’t missing out on the next great art piece.
Unfortunately, Bart sold neither tapestries nor $5 objects, so I moved on, continuing to navigate through the plethora of jewelry, art objects, and miscellaneous collections of stuff. It occurred to me that the Georgetown Flea Market hosts not only an eclectic mix of objects, but patrons as well: I saw art connoisseurs examining paintings with a keen eye; older women looking for earrings to wear to their next social outing; families taking their kids out for a Sunday adventure. I even heard one young boy yell out to his family, “When I’m 18, I’m buying all of the flea market swords!” in reaction to the antique US army sabers lined up on one of the tables.
Sellers came from many unique backgrounds, too. While many were hardcore collectors like Bart, others sold handmade wares. One woman, Crystal, was selling her own line of hand-made wire jewelry, which featured copper and silver wire wrapped around various gemstones. Jewelrymaking was a passion she pursued in her free time, and the flea market was the only place she sold her work. I also talked to Primrose, a student at a nearby high school, who sold handmade soap at the market as part of a school project– she was looking to raise money for water sanitation in developing countries.
Next to Primrose I met a vendor named Dee, a woman who had completed high school in India and was currently selling Indian brands of clothing at the flea market. She returns to India at least once a year to revisit her childhood home and look for new wares. We got to talking about college, and she shared with me the story of her brother. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his English degree after graduation and ended up traveling to Paris to teach English in a high school. She shared stories of her friends who were in the Peace Corps, and had traveled to places they never dreamed of visiting. Dee then gave me some life advice: pursue your interests, be open to new experiences, and the rest will fall into place.
After my hour of flea market exploration, I met up with my roommate, who had bought an art print for her room. I also ended up spending my $5: I found a camera strap for my digital camera with an artfully-sharpied “Shutter Babe” on the inside of the strap. (From this point on, I will only respond to Shutter Babe when my camera is in hand.)
I would definitely visit the market again, but next time, I might stick to just a price range rather than a purchasing goal. For by their very nature, flea markets inspire a chaotic, nonsensical search for random treasures– objects and stories alike. My best advice: visit the Georgetown Flea Market, and just follow its twists and turns. You’ll enjoy the randomness of the items you find and the people you meet along the way.
Photo: Erika Bullock/The Georgetown Voice