I can’t tell you how many fleas I’ve acquired at the West 25th street flea market in Manhattan. Neither can I tell you what riches, near riches and semiprecious junk I’ve found there either. For almost 40 years, when the “flea” (I never knew what it was actually called) was open in three locales around Sixth avenue and 24th-26th streets, adjacent to the “Flat Iron District” — what friends and I called the “Flea Island District” (the term flea market originated with the Paris marché aux puces (still among the best in the world, although Milan, Berlin and London come close) It translates “market of the fleas” and referred to the likely flea-infested used merchandise) — I have filled two city apartments and one country house with wares of all descriptions. I produced at least five of my over 190 books with artifacts I bought there, including design magazines, posters, signs, records, books and things I’ve long forgotten. I once bought a fairly large vintage outdoor, hand painted deco-era, metal neon sign that sat imposingly on the floor in my archive apartment” known as “The Cave” — having originally hung outside Velulich’s Bakery somewhere in Jersey. It was so heavy that carrying it attached to a 2 x 4 on my shoulders the ten blocks and two long flights of stairs up to the apartment (by myself) resulted in a painful pinched disc lasting six months until I could have surgery. Two years ago, I sold it to a very good home (and the buyer brought a van).
But I also bought a trove of lighter, smaller rarities, including helmets, flags, banners, counter top display cases, advert displays and so much more. After a Saturday or Sunday (or both) morning (you must get there before 8 am) of foraging I’d return triumphantly with my booty. Sometimes I wouldn’t realize until I laid them out on the remaining floor space what great deals I got, other times, it did not even matter – I was just so elated to have them.
These three markets, the Antiques Garage (two floors of the best stuff) on West 25th, the block wide Sixth ave parking lot (within the last decade turned into a overpriced Yuppie apartment building, like everything else in the hood) and the smaller 25th street lot (the poor sister of the other two) were all great. Well, almost. When the first two gave way to real estate development, a few, but not many, of the surviving dealers moved to the smaller parking lot. With a few exceptions, the dealers and their offerings weren’t nearly as good. In fact, usually I only bought from one dealer, a veteran of the garage — most of the other habitués had given up selling at flea markets — yet even she did not have the same wondrous surprises.
It was announced that this past Sunday was the last day of the 25th street flea. Although rumor had it that a large hotel (another of many that have sprung up in this “business improvement district”) was earmarked to fill the space, I was told by some of the dealers that the owner of the lot no longer wanted to rent to the current flea market operator. So without fanfare, few tears and scant media attention, one of the last flea markets in Manhattan simply disappeared.
Although I have not bought much there in months and my favorite dealer had limited her appearances anyway, on the last day, I bought this wonderful gem, the type of unique object that you cannot find online (or if you do, why bother?). She’s somewhat of match for a guy figure that I bought decades ago and gave as a present to a friend. Tonight, as a 2020 New Years eve present, I will give this one to another friend who I’m sure will appreciate the surreal, sui generis brilliance of this extraordinarily artful craft, perhaps the last or, maybe, the only one of its kind. He’d better!
It is, if I say so, a glorious last purchase at Manhattan’s once-ersatz Casbah. Not cheap, yet I didn’t break my back bringing it home.