“Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America,” by Maureen Stanton. Published June 2011 by Penguin Group, hardcover , 336 pages.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with author Maureen Stanton and discussing her new book, “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America” and her views on the current world of antiques, collectibles and collecting in the U.S.
Rebekah Kaufman: On behalf of WorthPoint, thank you for speaking with me today about your new book, which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in antiques or vintage collectibles, or is collectors themselves.
Maureen Stanton: Many thanks, it is my pleasure. I am actually member of WorthPoint, and think it’s a great site and an excellent source of information, as it presents the real value of items in the aggregate and over time.
Rebekah Kaufman: Would you please tell us how you came upon the germ of the idea to write your book, “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America?”
Maureen Stanton: In 2000, I was living in Ohio and in graduate school, getting my MFA. Kurt Avery—the protagonist of the book, whom I had known at college—called me and said that there was an auction taking place close to where I lived. He asked if I would like to go along with him to the auction, and if so, could he crash at my house the night before the sale. I said yes on both accounts, and went to the auction with him. As a matter of fact, I bid for him as a proxy, as he did not want his competitors at this auction to know he was there. I was intrigued by this experience and wrote an article about it, but didn’t do anything with the piece. Fast-forward three years, and I reconnected with Kurt over another antique event, and I remembered why this culture intrigued me from the start. Then I accompanied him to Brimfield—the largest outdoor antiques show in New England—and realized that there was a whole world to explore … much more than an article’s worth! It was at this point that I had the idea for the book, and began thinking about the project within the framework of a book.
Rebekah Kaufman: So the timeline from start to finish for the book was about a decade?
Maureen Stanton: Yes, I started in 2000 and attended my last show in 2010 just before I handed the finished manuscript to my publisher. The last year and half of the project I spent intensely preparing the book—finding the story in 900 pages of material and organizing all the interviews and materials into a form that best represented the tale I was trying to tell.
Rebekah Kaufman: When you started writing the book, did you have a range of ideas to research as part of the plan, or did the story take on a life of its own?
Maureen Stanton: The process was very organic. At first, I thought I would make this a global study of the flea market world and include the flea markets of London and Paris—a huge undertaking, for sure. I then realized I needed to scale things back a bit and focus on the United States. That was part of the arc of learning I went through as part of writing the book—something you really can’t plan ahead. I was never really sure how the book would shape up but my goal was always to bring the authentic experience of what I was seeing or doing to the reader … to give them a window into a whole world of information, emotions and logistics that they would not have access to otherwise.
Rebekah Kaufman: How did you capture information for your book?
Maureen Stanton: I always carried around a book and took notes on my conversations and experiences. I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible so my notes were brief. At breaks, or at the end of the day, I would write in reminders of the conversation or quotes. When I got back to my office, I would type these things up in a form that could be used for the book. I also sometimes used a tape recorder for some interviews.
Rebekah Kaufman: How did you know when you had enough information to write the book?
Maureen Stanton: I knew it was time to get down to work when I stopped taking notes on my experiences with Kurt and at shows. I also lost my eye for what may be interesting to a layperson over time, as a result of my learning curve in the industry. It became harder to find new angles, and I started to question myself— “Am I a worker or a writer?” When I reminded myself that I was a writer—and the novelty of the antique world was far less than when I started—I knew it was time to hit the keyboard.
Rebekah Kaufman: Are you personally a collector or antiques or vintage enthusiast?
Maureen Stanton: I am not a collector of anything specific per sea, but I love most antique and vintage items. I do especially love vintage jewelry—but not really in a collector’s sort of way. I purchase things haphazardly, not in a planned or curated manner. I go to antique shows and flea markets pretty regularly, but I am very disciplined with the amount of cash I bring along. I love the history behind older things; that they have a legacy and richness to them.
Rebekah Kaufman: How has the research you have done for this book changed (or not changed) your life and the way you look at things?
Maureen Stanton’s work has been featured in “Creative Nonfiction,” “Fourth Genre,” “Iowa Review,” “American Literary Review,” “The Sun” and “Riverteeth,” among other journals, and anthologies, including “Best of The Sun,” “Best of Brevity” and “Best Texas Writing.” She has received numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize, the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and a Maine Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri.
Maureen Stanton: I am very concerned about the environment and the “carbon footprint” today’s manufacturing requires. I sincerely believe antiques are the ultimate “green” functional and decorative home items. Given the choice between old and new items, I always choose the old if at all practical. I am much more conscious of what I buy now and the narrative behind its production and manufacture. I always prefer to buy things that have a story or history to them.
Rebekah Kaufman: Would you comment on how you see the role of technology in the industry and the positives and negatives associated with it?
Maureen Stanton: Technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to antiques and collectibles. On the positive side, it is easier for buyers and sellers to connect, especially around rare or more esoteric items. On the negative side, it has changed the definition of what is “rare.” Something that seldom, if ever, came up for sale in the secondary market could appear twice or three times in a very short period of time, given the exposure and visibility the Internet now provides the world on a 24/7 basis. This can drive down prices and the perception of what is desirable based on rarity.
Technology has also shifted the responsibly of knowledge. In the past, it was important that the dealer or seller knew what he had, and priced it accordingly. Now, people can list things on marketplaces like eBay with very little knowledge and let the market identify and value the pieces.
It is also possible now to build a collection or a successful business without ever leaving your home—not attending shows, sales and events. Given the hands-on nature of the industry, this would be all but unthinkable only a few years ago.
Rebekah Kaufman: There has been a large influx of new television shows that focus on people making money buying and reselling vintage and antique goods recently. Do you think this visibly can help raise the average American’s interest in antiques?
Maureen Stanton: I think I have counted maybe 10 new shows of this type in the past two years alone, I believe there have been four new ones this summer! In my opinion, it is no coincidence that this is in lockstep timing with the ongoing recession. Everyone has a dream of finding a fortune in the trash or a dumpster. But this is a dream, and not a reality, which makes for good storytelling on TV. These shows in general have shown antiques as a commodity with possible value, and not the stories behind them and how hard it is to find them—which I think is the most interesting part.
I am also a little concerned that these TV shows have a slightly sinister tilt to them, that the buyers have knowledge that they are not sharing with the sellers, and are taking advantage of them. In reality, antique dealers are very concerned about this perception; most are very fair and trustworthy. Dealers are very concerned about their reputation; in this world trust and credibility are the most important things. Dealers in general really enjoy sharing their knowledge about an item; this is in part why many got into the business.
Rebekah Kaufman: Finally, do you think the antique business has a future here in the U.S.?
Maureen Stanton: Yes—I am not gloomy about this. Everything has peaks and valleys. I think what people are collecting has changed. People in their 30s and 40s now have a little money and are interested in spending it on items that remind them of their childhood. So the pure definition of what is vintage has changed—and gotten younger! The hope is that these sorts of items—dolls, comic books, toys, etc.—are gateway items to more expensive and exclusive things. Producers are also changing the rules for shows, allowing “newer” older things on the show floor in an effort to attract more people to their shows. As long as people have a need to own things that are meaningful, the antique industry will remain vibrant.
Rebekah Kaufman: Maureen, many thanks for your time and insights. It has been a pleasure to speak with you!
Rebekah Kaufman is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage Steiff and other European plush collectibles.
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