JoAnn Reinard sat next to her husband at a vendor’s table at the Philadelphia Flea Market as he helped a customer put a newly purchased lamp into her car. The flea market was winding down and patrons were quick to visit sellers’ tables before everything closed at 4 p.m. Reinard got up to help another customer look for fabric swatches as others gathered around her table of eccentric rings and necklaces.
“Being a collector is like being a treasure hunter, or a detective,” Reinard said.
Reinard has been selling here for years, and loves showing up every week.
The Philadelphia Flea Market, also known as the Phila Flea or Philly Flea among patrons, takes place every Saturday and Sunday at the Berwyn Vintage Flea Market, located at 260 Swedesford Rd. in Berwyn, and at the Roosevelt Mall, located at 2445 Cottman Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia. The Berwyn market specializes in antique and vintage goods while the Roosevelt Mall location is reserved for more general merchandise.
Vendor John Whitney Jr., has been selling at the Phila Flea for the past 7 years and loves the sense of community here.
“It’s something you just don’t get most of the time if you have a small business,” he said. “Running a small business can be hard sometimes — it can be cutthroat — but this is one place where I have not experienced that at all.”
The Phila Flea is more than just a collection of miscellaneous vendors every weekend. It is a group of self-described “family members” who come together to put their passions on display while simultaneously educating people about history and preserving that history; intentionally or otherwise.
Reinard, a seasoned collector who has been a vendor with the Phila Flea for more than a decade, recounted a story of a significant moment in her career as a collector.
“My husband Kurt went to the Phila Flea market, and he likes unusual or different things,” she said. “He picked up this brick and he learned that it was a brick that was sold to rebuild a newspaper building in Louisiana.”
The brick ended up being a portal into an untold history.
“Apparently, this small town in Louisiana that this brick was from was made up almost completely of African American individuals,” Reinard said. “They owned the newspapers, the banks, everything. And this was before the Civil War, which is amazing. The Ku Klux Klan came in and burned down the newspaper. The people of the town wanted to rebuild so they sold these bricks as a fundraiser.”
Reinard was amazed by the story, and listed the brick on eBay, detailing its connection to history in the post.
“Right away a lot of people said, ‘that should be in a museum,’ or ‘I hope someone that has a museum buys this’,” she said. “To me, that’s what you do when you buy and sell antiques, you learn something new about history every single day. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”
While a young woman in a rainbow crochet top peered over Reinard’s jewelry, a group of young boys in sports jerseys mulled around from table to table. Members of the crowd clustered around Whitney’s stand, which was filled with religious statues and bezel set rings.
“My specialty is handmade jewelry and art, specifically Indigenous and Asian art,” he said. “That’s the niche I basically work in. A lot of the things I sell were made pre-mass production. Depending on what you get I mean, you’re really buying history.”
A young woman approached the stand and held up a bracelet.
“That’s $60, it’s sterling silver,” Whitney said
He proceeded to put the bracelet on hold for the customer.
“There was a lawyer in Philly who traveled in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and that’s when he started building his collection,” Whitney said. “A collection that I ended up buying about 70% of.”
Whitney pointed at the bracelet.
“He bought that in Bali,” Whitney said.
While chatting, Whitney gestured to a large canvas decorated with traditional Balinese etchings.
“I believe he got it in the late ’60s, early ’70s, from a dealer in Bali who bought it from a Dutch couple who bought it in the ’40s,” he said. “This size painting from that time period in Bali is extremely rare because of the climate there. It either gets moldy or it gets water damage so it’s amazing that this painting survived in those conditions.”
Whitney went on to discuss how Asian and Indigenous art is often repatriated, and many buyers demonstrate a renewed interest in preserving culture. Many statues and other pieces of art were taken out of East Asian countries in the ’40s and ’50s in less than ethical ways, Whitney said.
On another nearby table sat a haphazard pile of Dirham, Ruble, and Yen next to a medallion with a blue and red ribbon. The word “honor” was written on the front with “June 74, K.E. Boyle” inscribed on the back. Personal artifacts and eccentric pieces like these riddle the Phila Flea grounds.
David Betts, a vendor who has been selling at the Phila Flea for the past 12 years described being in the business of collecting antiques as a “knowledge” business.
“Every week you’ll learn something new,” he said. “If you aren’t learning something new, then you’re not trying hard enough.”
One of Betts’ favorite historical finds include items that once belonged to a prisoner of war in a World War II-era German concentration camp.
“The box had an old wash cloth, a petrified bar of soap, and a few things of that sort,” he said. “We had this item at one of our shows and a guy came up to us in tears. He said, ‘You can’t find this stuff.’”
The man was a World War II collector who scoured flea markets for historical finds.
“He was able to piece together from the cereal numbers and dog tags and whatever who the soldier was and fill in a little gap in the history there,” Betts said.
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