With the help of treasure-hunting experts (and interior design superstars) Emily Henderson and Orlando Soria, here’s how I became a master of the market.

By Natalia Provatas
Updated February 27, 2019
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Alanna Hale

When I moved into my first apartment, I scoured design blogs and high-end retail stores, convinced I could conjure up the perfect combination of furniture and design elements that would say, “I am a grown woman who can make smart decisions that will impress other adult-type people but in an effortless, I-barely-thought-about-this-because-I’m-doing-other-super-impressive-adult-things kind of way.” As it turns out, this combination eluded me. In fact, I learned that you can live with “furniture” made of cardboard boxes for close to a year before your friends start worrying about you.

Still, everyone else seemed to have a styling superpower to create a space straight out of a West Elm catalog in a single bound. And whenever I’d ask people where they got their tasteful midcentury credenza or perfectly worn Moroccan rug, they’d answer with childlike glee, “The flea market!”

I had been to this so-called flea market, armed with a naive hope that was dashed after I spent fruitless hours riffling—dehydrated yet determined—through piles of musty antique books and racks of itchy vintage clothing, only to walk away with a tiny consolation succulent purchased out of self-pity. As I strapped the mini cactus into the back of the car, I felt a deep hopelessness. I would never have what it takes to find the treasures buried in the piles of used wares.

I could have lived my life just fine never setting foot in the flea again, except for one undeniable truth: Flea markets can be an excellent option, in so many ways. They’re generally much more affordable than retail or antiques shops. They also offer lots of fun and unique vintage items that add a one-of-a-kind soulfulness to your space. Plus, you get major earth points: Buying used or vintage is good for the environment.

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So, armed with a decent budget of $500 and a humble shopping list that included a rug, a side table, and a pendant lamp, I set off for the famous Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, California (with 2,500 vendors and 20,000 guests each month, it’s one of the best-known fleas on the West Coast), to meet designers Emily Henderson and Orlando Soria—and to see, once and for all, if I could finally conquer my fear of the flea.

If anyone has intimate knowledge of the flea market scene, it’s Henderson and Soria. They met in 2010 when Soria was cast as Henderson’s on-air assistant for her HGTV home-makeover show, Secrets from a Stylist. The two visited the Rose Bowl Flea every second Sunday of the month to find furniture and decor items to use on the show. It became a home away from home for the now longtime friends. “During the show, Orlando and I would show up with flashlights at 6 a.m.,” recalled Henderson. They were often shopping for several episodes at a time, with no production assistants on-site to help move and organize furniture. “We were moving sofas in the heat by ourselves while people around us were eating hot dogs,” added Soria. At first, they had a loose game plan, but eventually it became a Supermarket Sweep–style mad grab of items they knew they would find use for later. “Because everything at the flea is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you will never see again,” said Henderson, “it was a hoarding mentality, but with a purpose.” For the most part, said Henderson, their impulse buys paid off: “Some were riskier than others, but generally clients were psyched to have a house full of personality.”

Since the show wrapped in 2012, both Soria and Henderson have grown into successful brands in and of themselves. Henderson, who published the New York Times best-selling book Styled ($18; amazon.com) in 2015, runs a wildly popular design and renovation blog. Soria, whose 2018 book, Get It Together! ($28; amazon.com), blends practical design advice with funny and honest personal anecdotes, will debut a new HGTV series later this year. On the show, Unspouse My House, he helps people redecorate their homes—and their hearts—after a breakup.

Their independent design endeavors occupied so much of their time that they hadn’t been back to the flea market together in years. But thanks to my need for an interior intervention and to a little coordination from the editors at Real Simple, they scheduled a reunion for a sunny Sunday.

As Henderson and Soria strolled through the gates of the Rose Bowl arm in arm, with their eager disciple (me) following closely behind, a million questions flooded through me. The most important being, What is the best strategy for keeping myself from getting overwhelmed and going full-on ugly-cry in the middle of all this mud cloth? “We usually walk the entire perimeter first, then start working our way inside,” Henderson instructed like an experienced general of a design army. OK, but what was I even looking for? I tend to get purchase paralysis, especially at the sight of unorganized piles of stuff, so I asked the experts where they begin when designing a room with items from the flea. “I usually start with the thing that is the biggest conversation piece,” said Henderson. She is all about getting weird: finding an object or interesting piece of furniture that will get people talking.

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Soria has a more practical, albeit somewhat abstract, approach: “Just make the first decision, no matter what it is, and then make every other decision after that.” Soria’s Zen-like guidance sounded good in theory, but as a newbie, I needed more specifics. “I always look for the big things first,” said Henderson. “But also look for everything at once,” added Soria with a laugh. I realized that I had been taking my furniture choices a little too seriously. Becoming one with the flea was a bit Buddhist: Everything is true, and also nothing is true.

Then I felt the small bulge in my wallet and snapped back to reality: With a budget of $500, how would I know I was getting the best price, short of Googling the item in front of the vendor? When was it appropriate to haggle? Henderson told me, more or less, to slow my roll: “I think haggling is a big misconception. Everybody here is really fairly priced and just trying to support their lives and their families.” It’s not against the rules, to be sure, but Henderson suggested that light haggling is most useful if you’re buying, say, four plates instead of just one—ask for 10 percent off if you buy multiples. “It’s really about what you want to pay for it,” said Soria. It turns out that your relationship with vendors is almost as important as the vendors’ relationship to the things they are selling. “I think that vendors want to sell to someone they know will appreciate it. So knowing that it’s in my care and that I’ll use it in a way that is beautiful definitely helps my cause,” said Henderson. Haggling is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it can help the small of budget. As I got more comfortable and confident at the flea, my general rule became trying to shave off at least $5 from the original asking price. It’s a small enough number to get the seller to agree, more often than not, and it does make a difference. My first score of the day was a Danish glass pendant light that I purchased for 40 bucks, 20 percent off the marked price. That was soon followed by a one-of-a-kind vintage planter, which Henderson said could work as its given occupation or just as a sculpture, for $70 (original price: $85). I rounded out my string of purchase hits with a beautiful midcentury chair in need of reupholstering at the bargain rate of $35.

Our somewhat futile quest for a side table (it seemed that the more we looked for one, the fewer options we found, per flea market law) brought us to Ken Blackburn. Blackburn calls himself the Shade-Tree Trader because of his position under a large tree at the Rose Bowl: prime real estate in the often blistering heat of Pasadena. Blackburn has been selling at flea markets for only seven years, a baby compared with many of the old-timers. As luck would have it, Henderson was one of his first customers. Blackburn is known mostly for the artwork he carries: beautiful original pieces that often have large brushstrokes and lush colors. And Henderson urges that if you go to the flea market for only one thing, make it art. Original artwork is hard to come by and can be expensive. But at the flea, you can find affordable pieces that will add color and personality to any room. “When you pick out a piece of art, it really tells a person a lot about you. Art is personal,” said Blackburn. Before we left his booth, I bought a painting, and he gave Henderson a free piece that made him think of her.

I’d done it: successfully shopped the flea without totally freaking out. The more I thought about it, I realized that my flea anxiety hadn’t really been irrational at all—it had been ingrained in me from childhood. As long as I could remember, my grandmother had owned a living room set—one I can only assume was carefully saved for—that was covered in plastic, flanked by a moat of even thicker plastic carpet runners, and carefully untouched by anyone who either lived in or visited her home. To my grandmother, these hard-won items were sacred. This wasn’t just a living room; it was the embodiment of something greater: wealth, even permanence. This obsession with treating furniture like museum installations was passed down to my mother. When I was in high school and had outgrown my twin bed with a heart-shaped headboard, my mother took me to the Sears showroom to pick out a new, more age-appropriate bedroom set. “This is going to be your furniture well after you graduate from college, so make sure it’s the right one,” she said. My mother treated the purchase more like a marriage proposal than a simple act of redecorating. Flea markets are the opposite of my family’s approach to design. They are chaotic, filled with one-of-a-kind purchases that may not always work just right in every space you ever live in—things that could be gone in an instant.

Once I could free myself from the idea that these purchases were a lifelong commitment, when I allowed myself to stray off my shopping list and trust my gut, I actually started having, well, fun. Designing your home, I came to realize, should be less about impressing others with perfect choices and more about being creative and experimenting—which the flea market is all about too. Even expert designers like Henderson and Soria still find joy in experimentation. They don’t worry too much about making mistakes—in fact, it’s their MO. “We are creative people, so we see our houses as our place to play,” said Soria. “You can’t rule your life with fear, because even if you make the wrong decision, it won’t ruin your life.” With Soria’s wise words in mind, I packed my tiny Honda with my one-of-a-kind flea market treasures and drove off into the Pasadena sunset.

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Flea Market Quick Tips

Score a deal on a rug. The trick to finding a rug that won’t eat up your whole budget is searching for a vendor who isn’t a rug dealer specifically but who has a rug among a bunch of other items. A rug dealer specializes in rare or imported carpets, while someone else may just collect random household decor. Henderson and Soria were skeptical that I could find a rug within my budget, but we eventually met a woman who was selling gorgeous brand-new rugs—for $50 each.

When in doubt, make it a book hat. The flea is filled with cool sculptures, wooden bowls, and miniatures that don’t have a specific use. If you come across a unique item that you know will add a special touch to your space but you aren’t sure what to do with it, consider placing it on a pile of coffee-table books on a shelf or tabletop. “Otherwise, those books are sad and naked,” says Henderson.

Treat plants like flowers. “People are OK with spending a ton of money on flowers but then get weirded out when they have to replace a plant. It’s OK if one dies on you,” says Soria. The flea can be a great place to buy plants because you can often get large foliage and unique succulents for a small fraction of their price at a nursery, which is helpful if your thumb is a shade darker than green.

Don’t chase trends, chase real materials. Stick with natural woods, fabrics, and pottery to maintain a timeless look, Henderson and Soria say.

It’s all about shape. The flea is filled with hidden gems that are easy to miss if you get distracted by strange paint colors or bad upholstery. “Always look for shape over anything else,” says Henderson. “A red credenza can be refinished, but you can never change its shape.” With that in mind, we found a midcentury chair with “good bones,” as Henderson noted. It was just in need of a little reupholstering.