Tips for Finding Hidden Bargains at Ferndale’s Famous Citywide Flea Market

By Cheri March

From antiques aficionados and vintage collectors to flea market foragers and yard sale junkies, nearly everyone can find something to love at Bargain Lovers’ Weekend this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, when Ferndale’s annual citywide sale once again transforms the Victorian Village into a shopper’s paradise for eager bargain seekers from all over Humboldt County, California, and Oregon.

In anticipation of this weekend, we sought bargain hunting advice from two local collectors who have made a life out of tracking down hidden treasures: Sharon and Rich Spencer, owners of Spencer’s Ferndale Vintage.

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Since opening their doors on Ferndale’s historic Main Street last year, the couple’s one-of-a-kind collection has made Spencer’s a must-stop for local and visiting vintage collectors. But while their shop has antiques aplenty, it’s not your typical antique store. As Rich puts it: “We’re more of an ongoing, living estate sale.”

Most of what the Spencers sell is from their own private collection, which includes a menagerie of unique antiques, dollhouse miniatures, vintage Christmas ornaments and Rich’s own whimsically upcycled, steampunk-esque electrified creations. Spencer’s also shares space with Under the Polka Dot Umbrella, an assemblage of antiques from local artist and collector Marilyn Cowan.

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Doll Head Steampunk Art at Spencer's Ferndale Vintage in the Victorian Village.jpeg

So how do experienced treasure hunters like the Spencers (who are quick to point out that they’re more hobbyists than experts) make the most of a flea market like Bargain Lovers’ Weekend? In short, it’s about mindset. For them, finding great deals and hidden gems is less of an art form and more of an attitude. It’s a philosophy that’s allowed the Spencers to build a collection they truly love—and have a lot of fun along the way. Here’s what works for them.

Always come prepared

Credit cards might be king everywhere else, but not at yard sales and flea markets. Experienced bargain hunters bring cash in small bills—or at least know the location of the nearest ATM.

Your goal as a buyer is to make transactions easy as possible for the seller, explains Sharon. And, of course, to ensure you can actually snag your bargain when you find it.

Rich remembers showing up to a flea market long ago with just $10—“a big mistake!” he remembers with a laugh.

He’d already spent half his wallet when he stumbled upon an unassuming looking pile of stuff cleaned out from an elderly woman’s chicken coop. But in the pile were antique rifles, just the kind of rustic collectibles perfect for displaying on a wall. At $10 each, they were clearly bargains—but just out of Rich’s price range that day.

Fortunately, he was able to afford one of the antique swords, which just so happened to be a super-cool Model 1913 Cavalry Saber, commonly referred to as the Patton Saber and the last model of saber issued to U.S. cavalry in World War I before horses in battle became obsolete.  It was a surprise score, which perfectly illustrates our next tip:

Keep an open mind

If the Spencers had a mantra, it might be: You can’t find bargains. Bargains find you.

“The first thing people say when you walk into an antique store is usually, ‘What are you looking for?’” says Sharon. “And we always say, ‘I don’t know!’ If you want to find a bargain, something that’s special and that you can afford, you have to keep an open mind and look at everything.”

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Antique Pig Open Sign at Spencer's Ferndale Vintage Antique Shop in Ferndale, CA.jpeg

Sharon once found an antique 14-karat gold thimble in a box of jumbled-up sewing supplies. Another memorable score was an early Victorian tea set, mismarked in an antique shop, which turned out to be so rare the Spencers had to consult a collector in the far reaches of Australia to gather information about it. (They ended up giving the set to the collector, who sent family members to the U.S. by private boat to pick it up.)

Sharon says she often doesn’t know what she’s looking for until it practically jumps out at her. “You find something that fascinates you, and once you’ve got three of them, you’ve got a collection,” she says. “It’s kind of like an addiction, when you have the excitement of finding something really great and really rare but that you didn’t spend a lot of money on.”

Don’t give up

Bargain hunting is kind of like the lottery in the sense that you have to play to win. Some days are luckier than others, but most bargains happen when shoppers put in time and effort. 

At a favorite secondhand goods stop, Sharon’s friend once discovered a double-ended perfume bottle from 1873. Though it was in a picked-over rummage bin, the bottle was in perfect condition. Yet Sharon has had friends visit the same location and declare it worthless after one try.

“We’re constantly out looking,” Sharon explains. “Even though you were out yesterday, you have to go today.”

Maybe you miss the first day of a yard sale, but it’s still worth going because someone may have put out something new that evening. “The first person out there is the winner,” Sharon says.

At the same time, hunting for treasures also requires the ability to let go. It’s inevitable that you’ll be late to a sale or have a bad day. “You have to enjoy the things you get – you can’t worry about what you miss,” she says.

Follow your heart

Spend any amount of time with Sharon and Rich, and it’s clear that they enjoy what they do.

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Wine Barrel Ring Hearts - Spencer's Ferndale Vintage in Ferndale, CA.jpeg

For the Spencers, treasure hunting is less about the material things they find and more about the stories behind them. “It’s the interesting people you meet,” Rich says. “It’s the history behind the stuff. That’s the fun part.”

Even the word “bargain” is a bit of a misnomer.

“It’s only a bargain if you really love it,” he advises. “Buy from your heart.”

Bargain Lover’s Weekend takes place in Ferndale, California this weekend, Sept. 15-17, 2017. Follow the yellow signs to sales on Main Street and side streets throughout Ferndale, with some previews beginning Thursday evening.

Spencer’s Ferndale Vintage is located at 468 Main Street in Ferndale, and open from 11-4 Wednesday through Monday.

All photos by Paul Beatie