Issue: CC103
24th August 2021


A story of obsession and collecting

Me trying to look cool but really just looking cold, loitering at the Chelsea Flea Market, 2016.

I was already many years an adult when I first visited Portobello Road. Bedknobs and Broomsticks had given me false expectations, it should have been obvious really that I wasn’t going to stumble into a dingy wartime alleyway with an air of Victorian underworld about it. To be fair, it was winter, very cold and I’d turned up quite late in the day with the primary aim of visiting a vintage clothes shop and I still managed to come across two nice picture frames sat on a blanket in the road for only a few pounds each. But I longed, in vain, for that wistful waltz by the Sherman Brothers to accompany a real place, the “street where the riches of ages are stowed, anything and everything a chap can unload, is sold off the barrow in Portobello Road.”

Angela Lansbury as Eglantine Price, rummaging under the barrows in Bedknobs and Broomsticks © Disney 1971

On a sub-zero morning in January 2016 I was on the other side of the Atlantic on holiday. My husband and I had sought out the NY Chelsea Flea Market without really knowing how much to expect from it. Within seconds of stepping across the threshold, from paving stone to asphalt, I had my Portobello moment. The stall was a higglety pigglety mountain of everything and nothing. Balanced on a cardboard fruit crate, in turn balanced on several other cardboard fruit crates, was a battered pair of 18th century ladies shoes. I imagined they must have some value, their age, the patterned silk, but there they were, unceremoniously dumped in a pile with old magazines and the like. It was thrilling.

© The Chelsea Flea Market.

Here the objects were naked, and effulgently so.

The Golden Flea by Michael Rips

It wasn’t a big market that day. The NY wind was bitter and it may also have been spitting with rain, but what was there was wonderful. I wish I had taken photos but I recall thinking the traders didn’t look like the types to put up with tourist nuisance-making.

Thirty dollars.
Could you give me a better price?
Sure. Fifty.
That’s a better price?
For me.
I meant a lower price.
How about this, get the f**k out of here.

The Golden Flea by Michael Rips

In a roundabout kind of way, this brings me to The Golden Flea, a book by Michael Rips. It describes itself as a memoir, yet by the end I find I still don’t know a great deal about the author. Rips acts as a tour guide of sorts, introducing us to the traders at the Chelsea Flea Market and weaving their lives together to tell a story of objects, collecting and obsession.

I will say from the outset, you should read this book. It isn’t overly long and its available in paperback, Kindle and audio book editions.

The Golden Flea is a curious book, as curious as the objects it describes. It is part memoir, part historical record, both anecdotal and philosophical. It begins at a time when the flea was flourishing across a number of outdoor car parks and a cold and oily multi-story, ending with its near demise as the developers moved in.* The actual time we are visiting isn’t entirely clear, but Googling a few of the anecdotes places it as being late 1990s to 2014, not that it really matters. It has a timeless, almost other-worldly feel, much like the Portobello of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

*It is important to point out that while the Chelsea Flea did close in 2019, it re-opened in the same parking lot (29 West 25th Street) in 2020, under the same management who run the Brooklyn Flea. Go visit!

© Sam Hollenshead, 2020.
© Sam Hollenshead, 2020.

Rips is constantly questioning what it means to be a collector, what is the line between that and hoarding, and which is he. That is part what makes The Golden Flea curious, that the author is obsessively enamoured with the flea but so clearly uncomfortable with what he becomes as a result of his weekly visits there. On one hand he treats it with such reverence, on the other he acts out against it one more than one occasion, showing what I found to be an irritating disrespect for his adopted home.

With its deracinated objects and their unexpected juxtapositions, the flea awakened the mind to new impressions of the world.

The Golden Flea by Michael Rips

There’s a host of ideas and ponderings around the curation of objects, the importance of context (or lack of), the assignment of value and the snobbery of experts. It’s all food for thought and elevates the book from being just a collection of enjoyable anecdotes about mostly eccentric New Yorkers. Enjoyable they are, with their nicknames – the Prophet, the Cowboy, the Dane – and their back stories. These traders are a group of people as rich and varied as the objects they deal in.

I’m aware that I haven’t really shared any specifics about The Golden Flea at all. There’s definitely a few narratives that are threaded through the book, but I will leave it to you to discover them. After all, that’s what a good flea market is all about – discovering the unexpected.

The Golden Flea / Michael Rips
Published by Daunt Books, 2021
Paperback, 224 pages
ISBN: 9781911547761, RRP £9.99

Links (will open in a new tab):
Chelsea Flea Market
Chelsea Flea Market (Instagram)
Sam Hollenshead (Instagram)

Whenever I watch a historical film I am compelled to do some Googling afterwards, to see what was true, what had been embellished etc. I did the same thing after reading The Golden Flea, surely these people couldn’t all be real?! Here’s some links to some articles and interviews you might like to check out after you finish reading it and a YouTube playlist that includes author talks with Michael Rips.

Up Against The Wall Motherfucker! – Interview with Ben Morea
Gallery owner’s $15K gamble on storage locker pays off big time
Locker blindly purchased for $15K yields millions at auction
Sotheby’s: Sam Francis