As one of the intensely busy individuals who make this dervish of a city whirl, you demand instant gratification. One-stop shopping has its charms, but you also insist on wide-ranging selection -- and not just any old club chair will pass muster in your den. Just as there is a theater district, a flower district, and a fur district, there is a vintage-furniture district -- actually, four of them. These key strips were meant to be mined, and it won't be long before you're an old hand at secondhand.
Finding a bargain at the 26th Street flea market is like flagging a cab down on New Year's Eve -- it's not impossible, but the odds are stacked against you. Dealers wielding flashlights arrive at 4:30 a.m. and pick the lots clean. In an average weekend, 10,000 people compete for every stray piece of Venini glass the price-gouging vendors still have on hand. By the time the après-brunch crowd strolls in, all that's left are the crumbs.
Fortunately, there's more to the Chelsea antiques district than the 26th Street fleamarket. There are far fewer people milling about these underexposed venues, and price tags don't preclude haggling. "If something is on the floor too long, I'll sell it for what I paid for it," confesses one Chelsea dealer. "This isn't a museum."
Many who wander into the Chelsea Antiques Building (110 West 25th Street; 929-0909) never get past the ground floor. Completely understandable: The prices in the first-floor consignment gallery are pretty inflexible, the inventory uninspired. It's only fair to assume the other twelve floors follow suit. Or is it? A vintage Hermès scarf is just $145 on the fourth floor at JLB Ltd. In the market for a sixties James Bond-ish Ericophone, rewired with a modern plug? Waves, on the tenth floor, charges $125. A leather-bound volume of Punch from Julian's Books, on the ninth floor ($40), will look impressive on any Anglophile's shelf. Aside from the vast selection (more than 300 dealers), this is civilized shopping: coat and bag check, air-conditioning, ATM, and a doorman. Take the elevator to the top and amble down the stairwell as if you were taking in an exhibit at the Guggenheim.
Lucille Buckalter at Lucille's Emporium (127 West 26th Street; 691-1041) has been selling vintage merch in Manhattan for 32 years to pack rats like Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, and Paul Simon. Buckalter's latest store, which specializes in vintage clothing, pulls fashion designers and Upper East Side couture vultures alike. Adolfo suits start at $175; a Gaultier jacket can be had for $50. For shoe fetishists, there are Gucci pumps ($25) and croc spikes ($50) alongside furniture, lighting fixtures, books, linens, luggage, jewelry, and paintings.
After months of struggling, the band of misfits who set up shop in the parking lot at Seventh Avenue and 26th Street (Saturdays and Sundays on the northwest corner; most stalls up and running by 9 a.m.) are finally gaining some recognition. Lafayette Street boutique owners have been spotted shuffling through the booths. So have the assistants of 26th Street dealers, who will buy things here for peanuts and flip them on their own turf at caviar prices. This is still an appalling morass of junk, but amid the flotsam are some decent pieces for prices at least 50 percent cheaper than those of the market's more established neighbor. Booth rentals cost only $20, so the savings are passed on to the consumer. Spotted on a recent Sunday were a classic Henry Dreyfuss-designed Bell telephone (with metal dial; $8), a pristine Heywood-Wakefield chest of drawers ($200), Frank Sinatra's Songs for Swingin' Lovers! LP ($1), and a signed limited-edition hardcover "Robert Rauschenberg at the moma" catalogue ($30). According to dealer Nicholas Okonkwo, his beloved flea market is destined for obscurity no longer. Celebrities have already arrived on the scene: "Joe Franklin is one of our best customers," Okonkwo brags.
Dealers from all over the country blow into town for one- or two-week runs at The Showplace (40 West 25th Street; 633-6063), a three-floor mall of kiosks. And heavy turnover ensures an ever-changing inventory. Prices can range from $4 for a piece of costume jewelry to $20,000 for an eighteenth-century oil painting. Prefer buying from someone who isn't a transient, just in case that vintage Rolex blows a mainspring? The Showplace is host to 75 regular dealers, like Erika and Ann Klein, whose Deco to Disco (727-8460) on the second floor focuses, the owners say, on "furniture that works in Manhattan" -- smaller pieces that fit through narrow stairwells and freight elevators. A really fab wall unit, with built-in hi-fi, radio-and-shortwave receiver, bar, and glowing electric fireplace -- it even makes crackling-log noises -- is $2,250. (You provide the Esquivel records.) A perfectly proportioned forties glass-door cabinet is $850. Celebrity visitors include Jennifer Jason Leigh, who picked up a sharp Danish Modern desk.
You'd have to be batty to trawl for secondhand furniture in the South Bronx. Especially on Bruckner Boulevard, the mean street known mainly for its drug dealers and zombie squeegee men. Near where Sherman McCoy ended up after taking a wrong exit on the Triborough Bridge, right? Truth be told, over the past six years, this boulevard of broken crack vials has been gentrified beyond recognition. The pockmarked asphalt has been paved over with cobblestones. Flower boxes, new streetlamps, banners flapping in the breeze à la SoHo (the merchants' association here likes to call it SoBro) -- if Sherman McCoy found himself on Bruckner Boulevard today, chances are he'd park the Benz and buy himself a latte.
A bona fide furniture district has taken root here, with no fewer than a dozen stores, most of them specializing in the kind of sturdy, no-nonsense mahogany and oak traditional stuff hidden away in elegant Harlem brownstones for decades. The clientele ranges from Puerto Rican locals to Madison Avenue dealers to Bryant Gumbel. Known among insiders simply as "Bruckner," this enclave is actually composed of two tiny intersecting strips: Bruckner Boulevard and Alexander Avenue, both of which can be canvassed in less than an hour. Prices are at least 40 percent lower than at the 26th Street flea market, and if you're lucky, you may even get Gumbel's autograph.
Dalkey native Ron Clarke sold used furniture at the Grand Street flea market before relocating to the boulevard four years ago. Clarke's bread and butter at All-Boro Estate Liquidation (two locations: 45 and 59 Bruckner Boulevard; 800-861-6193) are the $1,700 mahogany dining-room sets that he often ships back home to Dublin and the U.K. because of high European demand. Don't be put off by all the faux Chippendale; some of Manhattan's top modern-furniture dealers make it a point to cruise Clarke's two stores every week. Lafayette Street dealers still talk about the rare Eames bookshelf prototypes Rick Gallagher from Lafayette Street's 280 Modern picked up from Clarke for a song. Insider tip: Clarke has an uncanny talent for locating Stickley. "Richard Gere thought he had a one-of-a-kind Stickley desk until another one surfaced in my shop," says Clarke, with no small amount of pride. "Of course, Gere paid a fortune at auction for his."
Though Denise and Enrique Cruz do dabble in antique furniture, they're really known for their expert upholstery service. In fact, Custom Design Studio (47 Bruckner Boulevard; 718-993-8370) may be the best-kept secret in the trade, with prices one third of those charged by exclusive Manhattan shops. Clients such as Lin-Weinberg Gallery and the Pace Collection all send their battered furniture up here. Reupholstered secondhand pieces are a bargain, too, like the velvet Deco chaise for $3,000 that typically goes for $15,000 downtown.
Located on the ground floor of a warehouse now being converted into artist lofts, Tigris & Euphrates (79 Alexander Avenue; 718-292-3800) specializes, improbably, in Art Deco and wrought iron. An impeccable eleven-piece Deco dining-room set is a steal at $1,800. Likewise, the price of a wrought-iron table with six matching chairs ($400) would just about cover the tax for the same item at Zona. Attention, Sylvia Miles: On Sundays beginning in September, there is a jazz trio and complimentary brunch.
Best known now for all the Middle Eastern restaurants and Islamic bookstores that have erupted there, Atlantic Avenue was once the largest wholesale-furniture district in the city. In the sixties, there were at least 65 secondhand-furniture shops extending from Flatbush all the way to the river. Today, the number of stores has been halved. But the one-mile stretch still offers more than enough stuff to keep the most flea-bitten hounds occupied for the better part of a day. Eames dames shouldn't come here looking for groovy modern furniture: Atlantic Avenue is all about Victorian, mid-Victorian Chippendale repro, Empire, and country -- in the words of one SoHo dealer, "old grandma furniture." "You never know what you'll find on Atlantic," says Max Drazon, co-owner of Tepper Gallery, a Manhattan auction house. "There's everything from junk to museum-quality pieces." Monday through Friday is popular with the trade, but many shops have erratic hours; they're best to explore on the crowded weekends, when all are open.
Doc's Antiques (483 Atlantic Avenue; 718-858-6903) gives a clinic on stripping and refinishing furniture right on the sidewalk outside the store. "My philosophy is buy cheap, sell cheap," says Doc Eccleston matter-of-factly. "Hell, everybody's looking for a bargain. Martha Stewart's interior decorator was in yesterday looking to buy a pine armoire." Other items in Doc's inventory include a massive gargoyle plucked from its perch on an extinct Manhattan skyscraper ($225) and a courtroom bench salvaged from Centre Street ($350; another was on sale just down the street for $950).
Time Trader Antiques (368 Atlantic Avenue; 718-852-3301) is in a converted 1917 synagogue, now a shrine for furniture: Info-stickers taped to each piece give the casual browser a crash course in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century workmanship. The third floor -- stocked floor-to-ceiling with every conceivable chair -- is the kind of majestic setting Avedon or Penn might have used for a Harper's Bazaar shoot.
After you've seen enough antiques to last you a lifetime, head to The Salvation Army Thrift Store's second floor (436 Atlantic Avenue; 718-834-1562) and try out a La-Z-Boy recliner ($89.99). Best buys: a Cassina repro Le Corbusier chaise longue in pony skin ($300) and four biomorphic stacking ashtrays ($1.99).
isn't it every fin-de-siècle playboy's fantasy to slither into a platform bed with a drop-dead-gorgeous model (Gucci thongs optional), surrounded by a tasteful collection of mid-twentieth-century modern furniture? Nowhere is there a greater concentration of vintage modern furniture to be found than on Lafayette Street.
Don't come to Guéridon (359 Lafayette Street; 677-7740) looking for the usual platoon of icons. "I refuse to carry the same old things dealers have been hawking on this street for the last ten years," Guéridon co-owner Alfonso Muñoz says adamantly. Muñoz's roster of unsung designers includes Mathieu Matégot (set of four perforated-metal chairs, $5,000); Ico Parisi (bucket-seat chairs, $5,600 the pair); Pierre Guariche (desk, $6,800); and Roger Capron (coffee table, $2,100).
What separates City Barn Antiques (269 Lafayette Street; 941-5757) from the thousands of other little outlets hawking Heywood-Wakefield? Buy a Wakefield piece here, and you are getting something that looks as close to a factory-correct finish as is possible; many who wander in mistake the wares for NOS (new old stock). Whether you choose the yellow-cast "wheat" stain or the darker pink-amber "champagne," rest assured that this is the way designers Russel Wright and Gilbert Rhode intended the furniture to look more than half a century ago.
Purveyor of wacky artifacts like the topiary props from Edward Scissorhands (purchased by Warner Leroy for Tavern on the Green), Lost City Arts (275 Lafayette Street; 941-8025) has in recent years forsaken kitsch for conventional home furnishings. The shop has acquired a whole new customer base, ranging from Jean Paul Gaultier to a roll of Wallpaper* magazine editors. When Scandinavian became the rage this fall, James Elkind set out a clutch of Jacobsen "Egg" chairs ($2,500). Best recent find: giant seven-foot "Sputnik" brass ceiling fixtures, salvaged from the Catskills' Hotel Nevele ballroom ($2,400 each).