Five minutes with a flea market master
If you’ve ever been inside an Anthropologie, you know that the store is about so much more than clothes. Specifically, furniture and home goods, the kind that look like the ultimate finds from a far-flung flea market—and that’s because most of them are. Keith Johnson, Anthro’s buyer-at-large, searches fairs from Paris to Tunisia, Argentina to Turkey, for the unique pieces that set the stores’ displays. His treasure hunts are the subject of a new Sundance Channel series entitled Man Shops Globe, premiering October 7. We caught up with Johnson during a rare New York moment.
Is there a strategy or science to scouring flea markets?
It’s amazing how people who have one good thing often have another. There is also efficiency about the market. If there is one good thing in a bad stall, it usually disappears pretty quickly, so you have a short time frame. People with good taste are consistent.
Can you talk to us about flea market rules of etiquette?
The classic one is you put your finger on some thing if you are interested in it, and you make sure your hand is on it while you are trying to get the dealer’s attention. You want to convey ownership—or potential ownership—until you make the deal. If someone is talking about something you never come along and say, “I will give you your asking price,” and trump it. You give people girth until they make their deal or they don’t make their deal.
What’s a strategy for getting what you want?
The last thing you want to do is stand too close and look too interested because inevitably that gets someone else excited and they think, “Oh my god, this must be good because there are people behind me who want it also.” The thing to do is to feign disinterest. Another strategy, in terms of negotiation, is walking away — also, making up your mind what you really want to spend before you even start negotiating.
What’s one thing you’ve learned from your years of shopping flea markets?
When I first started I just had passion, and I probably paid too much on a lot of occasions. But if you go enough, you realize that certain things will reappear in markets so you don’t necessarily feel the anxiousness, like, “Oh my God if I don’t buy this I am never going to see it again!”
What are some of your greatest finds?
One thing that stands out, I bought a whole notions store from Barcelona.
A notions store?
Like, trim and fabrics and things, from the turn of the century. It was this extraordinary balcony and wall of cabinets, like 50 feet long with winding staircases. It became a wall in a store in Newport Beach, California.