At This Giant Flea Market, the Big Haul Goes to the Porters

Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2015
BRIMFIELD, Mass.—Three times a year, traffic on U.S. Route 20, the main street of this sleepy New England hamlet, resembles rush hour in Los Angeles or New York. Motels switch on “no vacancy” signs as people from around the world come to shop at the Brimfield Outdoor Antiques & Collectibles show, one of America’s largest flea markets. But how do you get a carousel horse across a crowded field to your car a half-mile away?

Order a porter.

The porter industry has grown up haphazardly beside the Brimfield show, which happens every May, July, and September. Typically, guys with “porter” scrawled in permanent marker across their white T-shirts wander the show offering to carry finds for a fee. But a new generation of schleppers is getting organized.

“We’re selling a branded service, like Uber,” said 26-year-old Kyle Quinn, CFO and COO of Speedy Porters, that operates at Brimfield. The brand has a lot to do with its shirts: neon orange, with “Speedy Porters” and a phone number screen-printed on the back. CEO Evan Genereux, 25, has been ferrying things around the loosely organized chaos of the show since he was 10 years old.

Porters charge by the hour, distance, or job. Speedy might charge $70 for a job a Sharpie-shirted porter would do for $10, but Speedy has had no luck getting porters to stop undercutting one another. “I saw a dealer try to pay a man with a wooden duck,” Mr. Quinn said.

He says his 10 porters can each make $200 a day during the show.

To prepare, Mr. Genereux has prospective porters complete a timed obstacle course, carrying furniture around the second floor of his parents’ antique store, up and down stairs, then outside to a waiting truck.

Speedy’s business spiked last year when it was the only porter on the Brimfield Flea Finder app. But Ryan Servant, the app’s creator, said he has no intention of giving Speedy a monopoly. There is plenty of competition from porters like the New England Movers, the Porter Johns (four guys named John), and Bob the Porter King.

A decade-and-a-half of scrambling around the show has earned Mr. Genereux the trust of dealers and buyers. Rosa Szule and Michael Walter routinely hire Speedy to collect what they purchase for Lexington Gardens, their Manhattan store.

Armed with a tattered envelope of receipts, Mr. Genereux and his vice president, James Elias, 24, hustled off into the beating sun to make pickups. They each pulled a four-wheeled cart full of bungee cords and packing blankets.

Mr. Quinn, clipboard in hand, took calls and dispatched remaining porters via walkie-talkie from the cab of a small box truck. When not portering, he works as a finish carpenter and professional videogame player. Mr. Genereux is a roofer.

The Brimfield show stretches across roughly 80 acres and to make a delivery, porters must navigate their fragile loads among indecisive shoppers, frantic dealers, and scattershot booths until they reach U.S. Route 20. Then they often maneuver a mile or more down the shoulder to a parking lot, trying to avoid bicycles, wagons, and rubbernecking tourists. One Speedy porter said the only place he had seen anything like it was in El Salvador, where his family was from.

Suddenly, Mr. Quinn’s walkie-talkie crackled with trouble. Was it a stone dog or frog for Lexington Gardens at Booth B24? Where was B24, anyway?

Finding a stone dog or frog in one of almost 6,000 booths, in 21 fields, through tens of thousands of people, is as difficult as it sounds. The Brimfield show has no central organization. Each field has its own rules and most don’t have named or numbered roads. After much backtracking, the two porters were sweating and a little frazzled.

Having temporarily given up on the stone animal, Mr. Genereux and Mr. Elias found Booth B52 and retrieved a 7-foot iron trellis, toy wooden boat, painted child’s chair, small fan, and watering can for Lexington Gardens. At B55 they grabbed a whale weather vane and an armillary, and strapped those down, too.

They would have to come back for the stone animal and a piece described as a “strawberry chandelier.”

In another field, sitting under a tree, Glenn “Red” Lowell was having a more relaxed day. At 29, he is one of Brimfield’s veteran porters. When not moving things, he works as a handyman and welder.

Working six or seven days straight, 14 hours a day, Mr. Lowell says he can make up to $5,000 per show. “I like learning about the antiques, and being able to at least touch and see something I could never afford.”

He says he has been around long enough that clients call him. “Speedy is trying to go more professional, more businesslike than me,” he said. “You could call the way I do it primitive. I’ve got more years under my belt, so I know I don’t need to run.”

Elsewhere, Speedy porters were hopping-to, doing 60 other jobs—moving a ship’s wheel, unloading an 1880s rowing machine. “The porters are a really valuable part of the whole thing,” said Ms. Szule, of Lexington Gardens. Without them, the buying trip would be nearly impossible, “just physically and time-wise.”

Andrew McNally, 36, has staked out a white-gloves niche, moving things like Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright glass. “I came up here when I was 12,” he said. “A guy asked me if I would move four bureaus and he gave me $200. I haven’t missed a show for 25 years.”

He is a favorite porter of Fred T. Parks, who deals in late-19th century decorative arts. “When I pick up something with Andy on the other end, it’s music, it just flows,” he said.

During a lull, Mr. McNally admired a sleek 1960s airplane model in Mr. Parks’ booth. Mr. Parks presented it as a gift, and the porter portered his find home.