To market, to market
After 41 years in Chilmark, first at Chilmark Church and then at a Middle Road farm field, the Chilmark Flea Market is moving this summer to the West Tisbury School. The shift has necessitated numerous meetings and permits, and event coordinator Phyllis Conway adds up the number of town officials she has worked with to make sure everything is in place for Wednesday's opening day.
Ms. Conway, in spring green slacks and tee, looks like she'd be more at home on a tennis court or in her perennial garden than bustling around the Chilmark Flea Market in the heat of summer. But it is what she has been doing every Saturday and Wednesday for the past 14 years. Her name has become indelibly attached to the Chilmark Flea Market, and many vendors and patrons can't recall a time when she was not in charge.
Despite the hard work and countless behind-the-scene details needed to keep the colorful twice-weekly sales functioning smoothly for vendors and customers alike, Ms. Conway loves the job for many reasons. "My favorite part is seeing the vendors every year, chatting with them," she says.
But because there is less space in West Tisbury than in the big field where the flea has operated for the past eight years, vendor numbers have dropped some and booth space is a bit smaller. But Ms. Conway is looking on the bright side.
"I'm very optimistic about the new space," Ms. Conway says. "My vendors are pleased to think we're on the main road and people won't have to drive so far to find us."
For many years Ms. Conway and her husband Bob were just customers, enjoying the festive market like other summer visitors here on vacation. Beginning in 1964, the family rented a small beach camp in Chilmark every year, and Ms. Conway recalls that the Chilmark Methodist Church flea market was always a highlight. They purchased a refurbished barn house in 1978, and after moving here full time in 1986 from Basking Ridge, N.J., they joined the church.
Market, which has been coordinated by Phyllis Conway since 1994.
Photo by Tara Kenny
Soon they were lending a hand with the sale, and when a new coordinator was needed in 1994, Ms. Conway took the volunteer post. Her husband, Bob, still pitches in to place signs along the road. As was the custom, other church members volunteered. Eight years ago as the market enlarged, Pat Lynch joined Ms. Conway as Vendor and Space Manager.
Fascinated with antiques since childhood, when her mother brought her along to sales and shops, Ms. Conway admits she has bought several pieces for her home. She loves finding something special -"Sometimes I can't live without it!"
Her 25 years as a middle-school Language Arts teacher prepared her well for organizing the robust sale and working with a motley array of vendors, customers, and volunteers.
The flea is a happy tradition for many, Ms. Conway says, and not just because of the great products.
"People come to browse but also to make tennis and beach dates. They talk, hang out, meet and greet their friends. It's like the town green. All the summer people get to catch up with their friends."
Although there are wonderful finds available at the flea, Ms. Conway says it is unlikely that an intrepid customer will unearth an expensive piece at a bargain because the seller does not know, its true value.
"Our antique dealers are extremely knowledgeable," she says. Shoppers should not expect to find low price tags here, she added. "We're pretty upscale, we've never been yard-sale-ish.
"We screen to make sure the goods are in keeping with a country flea," she says. She lists some dozen antique dealers, some of whom find their items right here on the Island at estate sales. Painters, jewelry makers, ceramicists, and other talented artisans show their wares here. Both local and off-Island vendors are welcome and pay a modest weekly fee.
Ms. Conway and Ms. Lynch jury new offerings and make sure the overall inventory is balanced. They have rejected applicants or sent them packing when their merchandise did not measure up. Ms. Conway recalls one vendor who claimed to be selling vintage jeans, but turned up with new factory seconds. Merchandise cannot be "something from the back of your closet" and must be well made. "Nothing that someone sits on at the beach and strings it on string," insists Ms. Conway. "It has to be something!"
Several booths cater to children, and a food table, this year by Danielle Dominick, sustains the hungry with baked goods and beverages.
"We started this whole thing, which began as a little church sale on five card tables," muses Ms. Conway, citing the many festivals, fairs, and sales that now take place. "We pioneered this sort of thing on the Vineyard 41 years ago."
Just as in the beginning, net proceeds from the flea market benefit the church, helping it maintain its two historic buildings.
"That's the reason to even have the flea," says Ms. Conway. "It is keeping us afloat."
Although she is a bundle of energy, Ms. Conway admits, "I got involved by being interested, and now I can't get out of it. She laughs. "No one is standing in line for my job. Nobody would do what I do, starting in February and March. But it's been fun."