Live Flea or Die

The Golden Flea: A Story of Obsession and Collecting BY Michael Rips. New York: Norton. 224 pages. $27.

The cover of The Golden Flea: A Story of Obsession and Collecting

The last particule of the once-sprawling Chelsea Flea Market closed down on December 29, 2019. That remnant occupied a parking lot on 25th Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, but earlier the market, which opened in 1976, had in addition comprised three lots along Sixth Avenue, as well as a garage on 25th Street, the principal setting and primary subject of this beguiling memoir. Flea markets have been in serious decline for years; in many parts of the country a “flea market” is where you go to buy batteries, aftershave, and car parts. The recent, possibly terminal phase has everything to do with real estate: fewer available venues for the vendors, primarily; also perhaps less display room at home for the customers. For reasons that are not unrelated, your average youthful consumer has shown little interest in the past, preferring clean-swept surfaces, ideally with a view. It is as if popular culture and real estate developers were conspiring to bring about a generic airport-lounge of a city, with no connection to time or place.

Michael Rips, a lawyer and writer, traces his interest in the flea market back to an archetypally serendipitous series of events. His in-laws loved estate sales; he didn’t, but went in one day to get out of the heat and something caught his eye. It was an inscribed poster from a Dan Flavin show. Improbably, days later, he received a call from a museum looking for someone to represent Flavin’s estate. He mentioned he had a signed poster hanging in his office; he got the job. Small wonder then that, living in the Chelsea Hotel, he should be drawn by degrees to the nearby flea market, then become obsessed. He became such a regular that stallholders would ask him to watch their stuff while they went to get a sandwich. He developed deep relationships with vendors that extended past the bounds and hours of the market. He became so obsessed with collecting certain species of objects, of whose existence he first learned at the flea, that he would periodically have to put the collection in storage and issue himself an edict against approaching Sixth Avenue. He enjoyed the funding and leisure time to become a full-time flea-market rat without also becoming a picker or a vendor.

In The Golden Flea, Rips presents the story of his gradual immersion in the life of the market, along the way supplying us with a taxonomy of its habitués. Vendors, who pay rent for their stalls or tables, acquire their inventory from estate sales, unclaimed-property auctions, and the like. Pickers are ambulatory, get their stuff from the flea itself, and fill want lists for private clients or make clandestine sales on the market grounds. In the flea’s hierarchy they stand a full step below vendors. Most clients are a full step lower still, although not a customer like Rips, so deeply immersed in the culture and folkways and shibboleths of the market that he occupies a privileged position, as confidant and patron. Rips is no mere browser haunting the garage, but a holistic consumer for whom the objects, the personalities, the rituals, and the backstories are inseparable.

At the beginning of the book, in the garage, he meets an imposing black man with a missing eye, whom he calls Jokkho, after the South Asian spirit who guards the treasures of the earth, in part because Jokkho doesn’t seem very interested in the commercial aspect of his work. He piles random objects into a mound on his table—“slices of carpet, abandoned suits from the laundry down the street, appendages of dolls from the 1950s, a pair of tan shoes with broguing, a woman’s golf bag, a stack of drawings from a high school art class”—and then glares at customers or doesn’t look at them at all, brushing off questions. But he likes Rips’s small daughter, and he and the author become friends. Rips then meets Paul, who specializes in upscale haberdashery and wraps his goods in a narrative weave of colorful high-society or foxhunting anecdotes—he is the most engaging of a subgroup of vendors who regard themselves as aristocrats fallen on hard times. Then Rips meets Frank, an Italian immigrant, who sells “objects ranging from trinkets to Old Master paintings” and mixes them up into an abstract “collage” in his booth, a collage that he rearranges every week. Because of Frank’s ability to take care of his fellow vendors—giving second opinions, resolving disputes, taking up collections for vendors who are sick—he is known as the Mayor of the Flea.

By this point, Rips is a goner. “I began to purchase objects at the flea that had no real value in their own right and were not part of any collection but were simply linked to vendors I knew at the flea and to the seemingly unrelated items surrounding, defining, and sheltering them.” He buys an agglomeration of objects that formerly belonged to Al Goldstein, the outspoken pornographer and publisher of Screw magazine. He gets to know the Diops, a family of traders from Mali who instruct him in the finer points of West African fetish objects known as boli—small sculptures of mud and wood, often in abstracted animal shapes, into or onto which other objects and substances are added over time, and which are said to possess significant magic powers—and he soon has filled his apartment with boli. He becomes enthralled by a midcentury painting of a young woman, finally buys it, and after a long and difficult search, fittingly assisted by serendipity, identifies it; it turns out to be an early work by a prominent West Coast Abstract Expressionist. Before that, though, he has recounted the parable of the Degas drawing. Harold, a customer who has become a vendor, tells him about finding at the flea what he assumed to be a cheap reproduction of a Degas drawing, and then noticing a smudge; it might be an original. After taking it around to gallery curators and auction-house experts for authentication—everyone agrees it is an original drawing, on the right kind of paper, but no one will commit—he brings it to the city’s major dealer in Degas, and there he learns a crucial lesson: To people who have the means to buy a Degas, one found at a flea market is worthless; they are paying for provenance.

Chelsea Flea Market, New York, 2015. Peter Burka/Flickr
Chelsea Flea Market, New York, 2015. Peter Burka/Flickr

Later Rips tells another parable, that of the golden book. A picker he calls the Dane remembers attending an impromptu early-morning sale among vendors and pickers, when a shaft of sunlight caused the gilt lettering on the spine of a book to blaze forth. He buys the book without even looking at its title or condition, then takes it to a dealer on Madison Avenue and allegedly unloads it for a grand. Soon after he is approached by an old Russian man, a browser respected as a judge of authenticity. The Russian wants the book—not just any early edition of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, but that specific one. He too had seen the golden blaze. His wife had died, he had been despondent, and the sight of the book had renewed his courage. Which is to say, among other things, that value is highly contingent. Earlier and in contrast, Rips had met a picker he calls the Prophet, because he “resembled in look and manner the prophet Amos,” in particular the painting by James Tissot. The Prophet’s particular brand of madness takes the form of an elaborate system for buying unsigned works of art, involving auction records and statistical averages, that sounds like the math-intensive scheme of a margin player at the racetrack. And indeed, he is always buying paintings and selling them to restaurant decorators for slightly more than he paid—when he is not acting as the flea’s messenger of doom.

In Rips’s hands the flea emerges as a microcosm, a model of a trading society descended in a direct line from antiquity. The term “flea market” may have come down to us from Paris in the late nineteenth century, but the tinkers’ or ragpickers’ market must date back to the dawn of cities. It has always attracted people seeking treasure among the discards, and ensured a high degree of randomness among both the objects and the people. Those drawn to make their lives at the flea, from every sort of background, all seem to carry around complex interior narratives, usually involving some kind of sorrow. More than a few trail an air of mystery. Rips gets to know an elusive picker he calls the Cowboy, who collects elaborately carved beads, and who turns out to have been the head of Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, an agitprop group on the Lower East Side in the late 1960s, as well as Valerie Solanas’s roommate. He fled west after she shot Andy Warhol, and didn’t return to New York for decades.

Since Rips is documenting the rituals and kinship patterns of an insular tribe, he frames his very personal story as an anthropological narrative: the initiation, the gradual acceptance, the sometimes contradictory informants, the successive rings of esoteric knowledge—all of which culminates in his admission to the sacred mystery. In this case the mystery takes the form of a secret auction, held semiregularly and known only to the flea’s inner circle, where priceless artifacts have a way of turning up. He has finally arrived at the occult heart of the flea, just in time for the flea’s demise. Not long after, in 2014, the garage closes and is razed to make way for luxury housing—the Sixth Avenue locations had been displaced in 2006—leaving the vendors to the cold mercies of the 25th Street parking lot, which will survive just a few more years.

Having penetrated the core of his chosen but doomed society, Rips is charged with the task of preserving and transmitting its wisdom: The vendors “were capable of intricate connections to the most maligned objects, including themselves. From this arose a rare light and sympathy that made me feel there was nothing lowly in the world.” The flea is a democracy of castoffs, in which the fact that some are intrinsically more valuable than others is ultimately irrelevant. The Golden Flea is a tender, passionate, melancholy elegy to an ancient project of reclamation, a form of commerce that has historically stood outside the capitalist spiderweb, and a way of life as necessary and as fragile as any venerable ecological practice.

Lucy Sante’s new collection, Maybe the People Would Be the Times (Verse Chorus Press), will be published in September.