We asked Karen Seiger, author of ‘Markets of New York City’ and keeper of the flea market flame, about her top picks, her favorite food vendors and the delicate art of haggling.
What are your top flea finds?
I have found some wonderful things, most of which I have either eaten or given away to my sisters who fall in love with them. But the most amazing thing I've found is a pair of handmade, bespoke, black suede loafers by John Lobb, the bootmaker for Hermes. They are practically new, and they fit perfectly. They have a handwritten number and the name of the original owner on the inside. I got them at the Hell's Kitchen Flea for $20.
When is haggling acceptable?
Bargaining is fine if it is done respectfully. Keep in mind that the sellers make a living in these markets. They make or collect the things they sell, and they pay for their booths. Sellers will be more responsive if you buy more than one item. Usually the prices are well below retail, so decide how much you want the item, make a reasonable offer and be prepared to either pay the agreed price or walk away. Whatever you do, make sure your offer isn't insultingly low. This is New York City -- your offer will be met with a cold shoulder at best or an earful at worst.
What are the more unusual things you've found at the markets this season?
The Bad Boys of 39th Street at the Hell's Kitchen Flea always have interesting things on their tables. They recently had Prohibition-era bottles of medicinal liquor with the doctors' prescription labels from 1929 still on them. I've seen some interesting taxidermy items at the Antiques Garage, mostly deer heads. At the Brooklyn Flea, I saw a very sweet terrarium with a teensy graveyard planted on the moss. I loved that.
What's your tactic for perusing the markets? Go early, do a lap and then strike?'
As I wrote in "Markets of New York City," there only two rules for market shopping:
If you see something you like at a market, buy it. Now!
Set a budget for the day and stick to it. Whether it's $20 or $250, it's good to have an idea of what you want to spend. That said, many market sellers accept plastic these days, so the sky is your credit limit.
I don't necessarily go to markets to shop. I go to enjoy myself, meet nice people and pick up some treasures, if I see them. I also like to spot new trends (like, right now, food in the shape of balls). The most important thing I do is listen to what other people are talking about in the crowd. It's real live buzz. And usually it revolves around bacon -- bacon marmalade and bacon peanut brittle. Sometimes I even hear a voice I recognize, like the deep tones of Ted Allen of "Chopped" at the Brooklyn Flea a few weeks ago.
What are your favorite undersung food vendors?
Kumquat Cupcakery, Sunday Gravy, SCRATCHbread Kitchen, Macaron Parlour, Solber Pupusas, Raaka Chocolate, Danny Macaroons... Really, they're all so amazing!