At each end of North Road, small signs point the way to the Chilmark Flea Market, held in a sunny field that slopes away from an old schoolhouse half way between North Tisbury and Menemsha. If it weren’t for the signs and a police officer directing traffic, you could almost drive past without noticing it. Those who do turn in on any Wednesday or Saturday between late June and Labor Day weekend will find a relaxed, friendly market, offering an array of beautiful and interesting wares; jewelry, antiques, carpet remnants, handmade soap, accessories, ceramics, clothing, handbags, and art. There’s even a tent offering chair massage by the minute.
The flea market originated in the late 1960s on the steps of the Chilmark Church. “That was the days when the church ladies used to set up card tables with their mothers’ old china pieces,” Fran Finnegan said in a conversation last week. She sits beside artist Susan May, one of the longest-standing flea market vendors.
From those early days on the church steps, the market grew until it packed the lawn beside the church, bumper to bumper and table to table. For years, it was the only market of its kind, with a waiting list for prospective vendors. Shoppers formed jostling crowds through the height of summer and Menemsha Crossroad was clogged with parked cars along its shoulders.
In 1997, the market was moved to a rented field on Middle Road a mile east of Beetlebung Corner. At around the same time, the Vineyard Artisans’ market was getting established. Later, a specialized antiques market got going in the Grange Hall, and other flea markets opened down-Island.
The Chilmark Flea market spent one slow, hot summer set up in front of the West Tisbury School. “I put a carpet down,” Gwen Nichols, a jeweler, said. “The man next to me had done it, and I copied him. It was so hot.” Dana Nunes, who has been “doing the flea” for 19 years said that was one of her slowest sales years ever.
This is the Flea Market’s third year at the North Road site. Parking is easy, and vendors aren’t fighting each other for space. It’s relaxed, and vendors say that business is good enough. “I’m not just doing it for the money,” Ms. Nunes said. “I enjoy the social aspect, too. If people come by and I have a really good conversation, and don’t make that much money, that’s okay.” Ms. Nunes sells an eclectic mixture of antiques and vintage items and handicrafts made by friends.
Benjamin McCormick, a photographer, echoed that sentiment: “It’s definitely worth it, but you don’t get rich.”
Many long-time flea market vendors have other jobs, as well. Sarah Young, of Vineyard Sky Bead Design, does administrative work for a real estate office part-time. “Whether Islanders do something creative or not, they have to be creative about the way they earn their living,” Ms. Young said. She tried renting a retail store one year in Oak Bluffs, but found that didn’t work for her business, and she’s done as many as five shows in a week between various flea markets and artisans’ shows around the island.
Mr. McCormick also tried that: “I’ve done five in a week at times, but then you have no part of the summer to yourself.”
Set up begins at 7 am, and the market opens at 9. Pam Goff, who helps organize the market, said that one vendor arrives even earlier to unpack her many boxes of delicate ceramics. The market closes at 2 pm.
Vendors have setups ranging from elaborately packed tents to simple card tables set up in the shade. Their backgrounds and interests are as varied as their wares, if not more so. Some vendors, like Sarah Mayhew with her ceramics and photography, and Stephanie Tilton Rossi, with her felted mermaids, sheep, and Santa Claus dolls, can trace their Island ancestry back for centuries. Others are recent immigrants. Carlos Cachimuel grew up speaking Quichua, in Equador. He learned Spanish as a second language, and later moved to New England. He began selling South American accessories and clothing from India at the Chilmark Flea Market three years ago, and he says he’s still working on his English. Christine Bresnahan was the daughter of a seamstress in Jamaica. “Because I’m the eldest, I had no choice but to help,” she said. So Ms. Bresnahan sewed, making clothing for another Vineyard artisan, and this year she has also begun marketing her own line of handbags.
The flea market mixes old, new, and everything in between. The goods on the tables could be a hundred years old, or made that very morning. The setting is bucolic, almost idyllic. In the shade of tents and trees, jewelry sparkles, while pottery warms up in the sunlight and art hangs, carefully protected from the elements and waiting for someone to take it home. Hardly anyone stumbles on the North Road flea market by accident, but it’s worth the trip for those who make it.
Chilmark Flea Market, 9 am – 2 pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays, though September 3. Cris Mayhew, 508-627-7558, is the vendor coordinator. Spots are available.
This article was corrected on August 6 to reflect the actual author, who is Amelia Smith, not Whit Griswold.