Maureen Stanton and Curt Avery met at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in the ’80s. She earned a degree in communication studies; he in biochemistry. Stanton now teaches creative nonfiction writing at the University of Missouri. And Avery? He’s not a biochemist. He makes his living buying and selling antiques. It’s his passion and an all-consuming one at that.
When Stanton and Avery crossed paths again in 2000, he introduced her to the object-laden and character-populated subculture of flea markets and antique shows. She got a fascinating, in-depth education and book out of the experience: Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America.
You admit to being a novice when it comes to antiques, but you invested an incredible amount of time into various shows and flea markets. What drew you to this world?
The book germinated back in 2000 when I was in graduate school at Ohio State University, studying creative nonfiction writing. Curt Avery came to Columbus for a strange specialty glass auction, and he crashed on my couch. I was fascinated by the scene at the auction—these grandmotherly women competing for a tin toy and driving it up to $600. Curt hiding behind a pole because people were tracking him, trying to figure out what he was interested in.
I gradually realized that all this was part of me. My mother used to take me dump picking. We’d rescue old things and go on treasure hunts. I love looking for costume jewelry at flea markets and going to thrift stores for funky vintage clothes.
I got a National Endowment for the Arts grant and began to shadow Curt during breaks. I did that for about five years, intensely for about a year and a half. I realized that there was so much information that maybe I had a book and not just an article.
What draws people to flea markets?
The outdoor flea market is richly diverse. You’ve got some people selling tube socks and tool sets, and others selling $1,000 antique jugs. People are rediscovering flea markets because they’re inexpensive entertainment. It’s a place to see the history of American culture. You can touch it and feel it. You can find nostalgic things from your childhood, crazy items, idiosyncratic objects, cool stuff. It’s a rich experience, but there’s some sadness to it in some ways. Some of the dealers are struggling. They are selling to stay alive, but have no knowledge that they might be selling something valuable.
Avery is an interesting study. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about antiques. He can spot a fake or a reproduction, sometimes with just a glance. He knows the history behind pieces. But he’s also a laborer, loading up his truck with antiques and lugging them to shows.
One of the things that surprised me about all this is the constellation of skills you need to be a successful dealer in antiques and vintage objects. It takes intellectual and physical skills. You need to study and read history books and lots of obscure exhibit catalogs. Curt does his homework. I’ve seen his library. And this is exhausting work. After a big show, I’d crash for two or three days. He would go home, unload his truck, reload it and be on the road again. He’s got incredible stamina and a workaholic nature.
You really dive into the culture of antiques and collecting. One topic you examine is antiques collecting as a way of going green. Is it?
In 2010, the British Antiques Dealers Association and several other groups in Great Britain actually did a carbon footprint study of a chest of drawers from 1830 compared to a brand new one. They considered everything in terms of greenhouse gas emissions—materials used, manufacturing processes, transportation. Both items cost the same but the new chest of drawers had a carbon footprint 16 times higher than the antique.
The antique already didn’t have much of an impact when it was made and will never have that much of an impact because it will continue to be used and not enter the waste stream.
There’s also a lot of psychology behind collecting, isn’t there? Some consider it as a pursuit of immortality, while others see something erotic, a sort of object lust.
It’s all about the way people interact with objects—the happiness and joy at finding something they love. I love old and funky objects, but I’m not a collector. I’m a little envious of collectors, of the fun they’re having.
It’s also the thrill of the hunt and the mastery of building a collection and the stories that objects tell about the lives people led. The objects also reflect the personality of the collector. Curt, for example, loves this Pilgrim century stuff—very primitive. That has to do, I think, with his own sense of being a working-class guy.