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Fostering Flea
What’s old is new yet again at area markets. By Maureen Post

Photo by Maureen Post

Once a year in May, Milwaukee native and New York resident josh krajnak travels home for two reasons – family time and the Elkhorn antique Flea Market.

“I don’t know which is higher on his priority list,” jokes Richard Krajnak, Josh’s father and a flea market vendor.

A buyer and seller of vintage items from the 1930s to the 1980s, Josh Krajnak scoops up knickknacks, accessories and furniture to ship back and sell at Ugly Luggage, a vintage shop he co-owns in Brooklyn. His purchases are tailored to an affluent and burgeoning market in New York, but for Josh, the origin of his obsessive pursuit is very much Wisconsin-based.

“The markets in Brooklyn have just blown up in size, quality and attendance,” Josh says. “Elkhorn is still my favorite – it feels unpolluted. Unpretentious vendors, a great cross-section of items for sale and, biased as it may be, I get to work with my father.”

Sprawling across the Walworth County Fairgrounds, Elkhorn’s market runs four times a summer to a swarm of 10,000 attendees and more than 500 vendors. Eager scouts crowd the gate, pulling trucks, trailers and vans in as the sun rises before 7 a.m. Finds include everything from original Griswold cast-iron pans and midcentury modern furniture to porcelain faucet handles and 1950s cocktail dresses. There’s taxidermy and photography. And classroom clocks pulled from old libraries, apothecary jars snagged from former pharmacies and industrial workbenches rescued from defunct factories.

New Berlin’s Skip and Nona Knapp orchestrate Elkhorn Flea, handpicking vendors each season and running a New Berlin antique shop on the side. It may be the most well-regarded flea market in the Midwest.

Within the past five years, similar markets have popped up in coastal cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., playgrounds for the inventive and artistic. Jonathan Butler is co-founder of Brooklyn Flea, just one example of the new image of flea markets. “What we’re really seeing is a reaction against the commodification of goods,” he says, “a desire from the younger generation to have meaningful careers in creative fields and a desire for offline community as the interest continues to take up more and more of our social space.”

Brooklyn Flea started in 2008 as one market and now boasts multiple year-round locations with a combined daily attendance of 15,000. Shoppers encounter vintage sellers in their 20s and 30s as well as food vendors employing farm-to-table methods. And the Brooklyn market has plenty of company. “There have been several flea markets started that have cited ours as their inspiration,” Butler says. “The Clover Market in Philly, Kensal Market in London, Funky Flea in Syracuse and the Cincinnati flea.”

In Wisconsin, the trend has also caught on – minus the hefty urban price tag and big-city pretense. Statewide, there are about 80 operating flea markets, many dating back two or three decades. But most have undergone recent youth-infused transformations.

“It’s younger. The demographics have changed,” says Douglas Quigley, owner of Clinton Street Antiques. “People are buying what they see in movies – midcentury and industrial.”

Perhaps precipitated by the last 30 years of overseas mass production, globalized branding and product homogenization, 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds are finding comfort in the quality craftsmanship of their ancestors. They’ve sought a battleground on which to fortify their consumer backlash, and largely, they’ve found it in the vintage flea. “I see people everywhere really changing their ideas,” says Ashley Chapman, owner of Milwaukee’s Nothing to Wear Vintage. “Young people are thinking more and more about buying things that will last.”

Whether they’re shopping at Elkhorn, Cedarburg’s Maxwell Street Days or the East Side Green Market, they find goods that have literally stood the test of time. Vendor booths offer decades-old furniture, clothing and mechanical equipment, slightly tarnished from wear or scratched from usage, but often made by hand and consistently comprised of solid materials. “In the last couple of years, we’ve seen more of what I call repurpose people,” explains Paul Jones, coordinator of the Cedarburg flea market. “People who are buying furniture, taking it home and actually using it. It’s a younger generation. It’s a real change.”

Complete with food vendors and rows upon rows of goods ranging from 20 to 200 years old, the flea market offers the finds of rank newbies, established vendors and antique-dealing professionals. And despite the mass quantities sold at Elkhorn or East Side Green Market, you won’t find cheap wrench sets or tube-sock value packs. These are curated events, and organizers selectively choose vendors to ensure a specific quality and aesthetic.

“There are very few markets out there that have kept themselves just old,” Nona Knapp says. “People have said we’re the hottest market in the Midwest, and I really think that’s because we screen who comes in.”

For Knapp’s vendors, an eye for the unusual and unsung is praised. The market value for quality craftsmanship extends into the intricate, uncommon and bizarre, fostering an imaginative livelihood formerly relegated to antique dealers and high-end collectors. For shoppers, worth is assessed by the obscurity of the hunt, the steal of the deal and the unlikelihood that the experience will ever be repeated or reproduced. “At the flea, it doesn’t matter what part of the country you are in,” Chapman says. “It’s the same rush.”

Elkhorn Antique Flea Market
Walworth County Fairgrounds, Elkhorn
Dating to 1982, it’s considered by many to be the Midwest's biggest and best. It's a haven for farm and factory salvage, vintage jewelry, glassware, antique military tools, taxidermy, repurposed furniture and heavenly baked goods.

May 20, June 24, Aug. 12, Sept. 30 // $5 admission
// Opens at 7 a.m. // nlpromotionsllc.com

Maxwell Street Days
Fireman’s Park, Cedarburg
Now in its 46th season, this flea offers a little bit of everything, which is both its appeal and its challenge. Peruse the wares of more than 500 vendors – everything from antiques, collectibles, vintage treasures, handmade items, sports equipment and toys.

May 27, July 15, Sept. 2,
Oct. 7 // Free // Opens at 6 a.m. // cedarburgfiredept.com/services/maxwell_street_days.htm

East Side Green Market
Beans & Barley Parking Lot
Started more than a decade ago as a produce and craft fair, this market added vintage sellers to its vendor list last year. Alongside prepared foods, fresh produce, locally made home goods and live musical groups that rotate weekly, you’ll find a small but well-chosen selection of vintage women’s clothing, shoes and accessories.

Saturdays, June 16-Oct. 13 //  Free // 10 a.m.-2 p.m. // theeastside.org

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