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Vintage Matters: Portobello “Road Trip”

It's time for Buffalo to start getting serious about its market places

Like any passion, often we have certain “Holy Grail” objects or “bucket list” goals that we hope we will find, or get to experience. For Elvis fans, it might be Graceland. For Disney followers, a trip to the Magic Kingdom. But for those passionate about vintage and antique things, our “Meccas” may vary. 

As a lover of art, architecture and design, my list is a bit extensive, although many of my early goals have been met. I have been to the Brimfield Market in Massachusetts, The Brooklyn Flea, The Hell’s Kitchen Chelsea Market, Madison Bouckville Antiques Show and lots of others in between. But like any good student, your research sometimes needs to extend out of your geographical limits.

Two years ago, and again just a few weeks ago, my wife Amy and I got to be in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London, walking the Portobello Road Market – England’s oldest and largest, antique and flea market. Comparatively speaking, when things are referred to as “antique” in Great Britain, it usually means something from the 1800’s or far earlier, making the things sold here in the states, relatively juvenile. So as you can imagine, I was excited to see and touch some amazingly old objects, things that would make our markets seem so… new? I was prepared to be humbled, but what I found, reinforced my belief that Buffalo is far more unique than most give credit for. 

An amazing offering of used waxed Barbour Jackets, a staple of English fashion
The famous Notting Hill Travel BookShop, now selling tourist souvenirs

Portobello Road has intriguing vendors, but honestly, it is far more of a tourist attraction, than it was a serious antique market. For every Edwardian polished silver plate, tea cup, book, or piece of vintage clothing, there were twice as many reproduced street signs, freshly painted rugby balls, new fashion clothing and hat vendors. There are a few antique “mall” buildings with storefronts along the way, and most were filled with older merchandise, but at prices even Londoners would find a stretch to afford. Maybe it was the timing, but from the perspective of an antique enthusiast, the fresh baked goods were the best and most authentic part of the market. 

With that criticism out of the way, there is also a lot to be learned from a market that draws crowds the way this one does. You don’t become a legendary market from a few appearances in film, as there are other similar markets in London.  Portobello Road Market does not even advertise itself as a destination for tourists in London, but through word of mouth, drawing thousands on any given Saturday. 

The setting is amazing, with row houses in pastel colors near the entrance, and storefronts dating to Victorian times. It offers a nice combination of farmers market, antiques market, and vintage clothing market, with certain blocks reserved for each. It also has a park-like side street for local artists to sell, along with food vendors offering a plethora of tastes from around the world. 

The Notting Hill Shopping bag, a brilliant idea to eliminate plastic bags in London

So as I walked the market, I could not stop asking myself: “How can we make something like this work in Buffalo?” “Could we have a similar venue somewhere in our city?” So as a thought becomes a reality, I could not help but think that we already have the Bidwell Farmers Market, The Peddler Flea, so many great cafes, pubs, and restaurants, and an organization like the Elmwood Village Association already in place, that maybe we are closer than we think. Although these entities are  currently spread apart, could a closer proximity be a first step to creating a greater destination? 

It was a lot of food for thought, along with a lot of really good pastry, especially while being on vacation. So in walking away, I learned that just because something is the oldest or the biggest, it does not mean it is best. Although our antiques are not as old, the quality, variety and prices cannot be beat. We have true flea markets in western New York, warts and all, but light on reproductions, long on value, and equally as enticing as the shiniest silver teapot. 

Polished silver is everywhere

Organizationally, it is impressive. Portobello Road closes about 2 miles of city blocks to anything but pedestrians shopping in the market, and keeps cross streets open so as to not impede traffic through the neighborhood.  And in an effort to eliminate plastic bags, they created their own branding of canvas bags which sell for £5 throughout the market, with some of the profits going to local charities. The artwork featured on some of the bags was designed by local elementary school students, and have even started to trend in the fashion world. 

To learn more about the flea and antique scene in Buffalo, click here.

Written by Steven Appler

Steven Appler

Antique aficionado, Steven Appler launched his passion for the hunt at the tender age of twelve, combing the wilds of South Park Lake in South Buffalo for cone-top beer cans, but instead finding a dead body. Since then, he has kept busy as an artist, art educator and college professor, and passionate antique picker, seller, and enthusiast of art and design, history, and research. A vintage find that is meaningful to you aesthetically, emotionally or monetarily is what makes antiquing such a worthwhile experience. Steven loves to share his knowledge from over 40 years of antiquing with his customers, and now his readers.

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