Revisiting The Hillsville, VA, Labor Day Flea Market

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Hillsville, VA Labor Day Flea Market
Hillsville, VA Labor Day Flea Market covers acres on both sides of Rte. 58
Image: Author

During a recent visit to the Hillsville, VA, Labor Day Flea Market, Behind the Gavel columnist Wayne Jordan found himself wondering where all the antiques dealers were, which led him to explore the changing landscape of the once antique-laden flea market scene and how today’s shoppers define “antiques.”

Originally published in Antique Trader Magazine

Where Have All The Antiques Gone?

“Where are all the antique dealers?” I wondered as I wandered through the roughly one square mile of dealer booths at the annual Hillsville (Virginia) Labor Day Flea Market and Gun Show. In its 47th year, the show has morphed over the decades from a local VFW-sponsored gun show and flea market to a national event attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

My first visit to the show was nine years ago, and I’ve attended every year since. In 2006, I thought the show would attract bigger spenders if they re-named it the Hillsville Labor Day Antique Market. I was wrong. Nine years ago, almost every row of vendors had an antique dealer or two (or more). This year, antique dealers were spread thin, and it wouldn’t have been much of a show if it was billed as an “Antique Market.” Most of the antique machinery, phonographs, Victoriana, and furniture were gone. Instead, shoppers would find mostly mid-century knick-knacks, pallet lots of various consumer goods, and junkyard paraphernalia.

As my wife made a purchase, she commented to the vendor about the dearth of antiques at this year’s show. “What do you consider to be an antique?” asked the vendor in his distinctly Australian accent. I got “the look” from my wife, so I jumped in with my opinion, which is always at the ready. I gave my usual spiel about the U.S. Customs 100-year standard and some antique writers’ regular re-defining of the word. The vendor disagreed with me, as did several neighboring vendors (none of whom sold antiques). It wasn’t long before a consensus was reached: No one really knew what defined an antique, and no one cared about a “correct” definition.

Clearly, the inventory mix at the Hillsville show is changing. And it’s not just Hillsville. Traditional antique shows nationwide are finding it harder and harder to sell “antiques” (whatever your definition). A recent Boston Globe article titled “Brimfield Antiques Market on the Decline” quoted pop culture guru Gary Sohmers as he flipped through a box of vintage magazines at Brimfield: “Nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares.” The article went on about reduced attendance and sales at Brimfield in doom-and-gloom fashion.

Vendor table at the Hillsville Market
Vendors were plentiful, the crowd was good, and folks were buying
Image: Author

The Hillsville Show Was Crowded, And Folks Were Buying

But Hillsville was as crowded as I’ve ever seen it; no discernible drop-off in attendance here. And people were buying: The sidewalks and aisles were crowded with pull-carts filled with purchases. Art and decor items seemed to be doing well, as were “AS SEEN ON TV!” gadgets. Food vendors were smiling because the lines were long to buy $3 lemonades and $6 sandwiches. Elsewhere, collectibles auctions report increasingly impressive sales, and the Antique Trader event calendar is well-read. So, I don’t think attendance – or lack of spending – is a problem in our business.

I arrived at Hillsville intending to interview a dozen or so dealers to discover how this year’s sales stood up to previous years at Hillsville and other venues. I found that dealers (at Hillsville, anyway) were selling antiques primarily to other antiques dealers. Rankin and Janet Thompson of Salem, Virginia’s, The Strawberry Elephant told me that their biggest single sale of the show (at that point) was five nice furniture pieces to an out-of-state antiques dealer. That theme often repeated throughout the day: Dealers were selling antiques to other dealers.

In the antiques trade, we like to draw a line between what is an “antique” and what is merely a “collectible.” I find the antique business fascinating, but traditional “antiques” no longer drive the trade: collectibles do. Sure, some collectibles also qualify as “antiques,” depending on your definition. In my opinion (since antiques are also collectible), the whole business should be called the “Collectibles Trade.”

If the stories I heard at Hillsville are true elsewhere, it appears that many antiques are bought by dealers who keep their doors open by selling newer collectibles to consumers; the antiques they flip to other dealers until an item eventually finds a home. I’m reminded of the old saw (which you’ve no doubt heard, but I’m going to re-tell anyway) about six antique dealers stranded on a desert island: they find an old Chippendale chair, and all six dealers make a comfortable living selling and re-selling the chair to each other until they are rescued. Like all such anecdotes, this story rings true because it is based on shared experience.

The pool of enthusiastic antique buyers is shrinking every year, and it won’t be long before few are left to appreciate our antique wares. No one will buy that Howdy Doody lunch box when no one knows who Howdy Doody was. No one will sit in that too-low-to-be-comfortable Victorian rocker for an entire evening to play video games when the perfect chair for that purpose can be purchased at Ikea.

Vendor table at the Hillsville Market
The Hillsville Labor Day Market begins on Thursday and ends on Monday
Image: Author

Have Antiques Reached a Tipping Point?

I believe that the antiques business has reached a tipping point. A “Tipping Point,” as explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” is defined as “the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change.”

The “more important change” is that in America, the middle class is entirely bought in, and our abundance has impacted our thinking. Sixty years of factory production, over-built retail centers, the passing forward of several generations’ worth of estate property, and the 24/7/365 flea market that is the Internet have left us overwhelmed with consumer goods. For the most part, we can buy anything at any time. If we miss a bargain today, we can be sure that a similar deal will appear again next week. The supply side of the Law of Supply and Demand has us in its grip: Most items are in such plentiful supply that demand doesn’t make a dent in the market. There’s little motivation to “buy now.”

This attitude isn’t a one-time blip; it’s a major cultural shift. Boomers grew up on stories of the Great Depression, where “lack” was the prevalent mindset. “Lack” has gone by the wayside. Repeated studies on the buying habits of the Millennial Generation (Gen Y, 30-year-olds) show that their attitudes toward ownership are entirely different than those of their Boomer parents and Gen X siblings. As a group, they’re not buying cars, they’re not buying homes, and (as we know) they’re not buying “antiques” (they have the means; as a group, they have more discretionary cash than Boomers). “Owning something” isn’t as important to Gen Y as “doing something.” “Doing something” means connecting with friends.

Herein lies the future of the antiques/collectibles business. Our wares need to help Millennials connect to their friends and to themselves. Household goods should be unique, functional, portable, and decorative (think “repurposed”).

Collectibles should be fun to share with one’s friends. The Millennial Generation places little value on “owning a piece of the past,” which has been the antique dealer’s mantra for decades. From a Millennial standpoint, the only reason to own a piece of the past is to reflect the present.

Until show dealers grasp the mindset of the Millennial Generation, “antique” sales at show venues will continue to drop.

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