Born to Dutch parents, Alex Wijnen always had a special connection to Europe. She went to Kindergarten in Denmark, entered grade school in Germany, and attended middle school in the Netherlands. In fact, she picked up a love for antiques early in life as she strolled across flea markets in Germany and brocantes in Holland. After moving to the US to finish high school, Alex’s love for European antiques deepened as all these wonderful old items reminded her of her childhood spent in Europe.
But how does an American college graduate with a thriving graphic design business, decide to turn her passion for antiques into a full-time activity? Well, Attic Antics basically started in Alex’s little attic room, where she would lose track of time as she transformed lost little vintage items into assemblage art that captured the viewer’s imagination. As her studio started to overflow with small treasures, Alex decided it was time for drastic measures, and started selling some of her collections.
What simply started as a destash project has nowadays blossomed into a full-fledged antique business that includes an international customer base and trips overseas to procure the unique European antiques you can find on Attic Antics.
We reached out to ask Alex to tell us more about her business, how to treasure hunt to find unique antiques, and, of course, her favourite flea markets.
Hello Alex. Could you first tell us a little bit more about you? When and how did you fall in love with antiques & vintage for the first time?
I’m a graphic designer and live in a 1939 English Tudor style house in Portland, Oregon, with my husband, Todd, and our two dogs, Tucker and Anabelle. I grew up in northern Europe, where I traipsed alongside my Dutch parents as they scoured flea markets and antique shops to furnish our home with old chandeliers, clocks, and rugs.
I didn’t really fall in love with vintage & antiques until I visited Todd’s aunt while in college. Her nest was feathered entirely with old, chippy furniture, found fabrics, vintage bowls, and plates – nothing matched yet everything worked together beautifully and instantly felt like home. I didn’t know it at the time but looking back, I’d say that’s where it all started.
How did the Attic Antics adventure begin?
Attic Antics first started back in 2009, when I was selling mixed media assemblage pieces made almost entirely of vintage found objects. I had a little studio up in our attic (hence the name) but after a year or two, life got too hectic so I decided to destash some of my vintage supplies on Etsy.
During a trip to visit family in Europe, I picked up some smalls at a Dutch flea market and listed them in my shop. They sold almost instantly and I discovered there was quite a demand for European treasures.
Why did you choose to specialize in kitchenware/dinnerware/enamelware rather than stay more “general” like many antique shops?
In the years that followed, I became more and more narrowly focused on European antiques and vintage finds to the point where now, I sell almost exclusively items from northern Europe. I simply buy what I love and that happens to include lots of functional items like kitchenware.
When you have limited space in your home, it’s easier to fit in an item that is beautiful as well as functional – for example, a tureen can serve its original function on the dining table but when not in use there, it can hold a potted plant in the office, hand towels in the guest room or serve as a catch-all in the kitchen.
Where do you usually source your finds (Private people, flea markets, jumble sale, auctions, online, etc)?
My favorite place to shop is, of course, a flea market in Europe. They’re usually overflowing with ‘junk’ that makes my heart go pitter-patter! I also love shopping at ‘retail’ antique shows while in Europe – these markets are highly curated and naturally more expensive than what I’d pay at a flea market but that’s where I’m often able to locate the hard-to-find items that command a higher price in the US, too.
When I’m not able to travel, I check out a variety of online sources overseas and over the years have developed relationships with certain vendors who’ll let me save up my purchases until I have enough to fill a big box. Locally here in Portland, Oregon, I stop at estate and garage sales whenever they cross my path, shop at the big antique shows and, when time permits, pop into antique malls and boutiques, where I sometimes can find European pieces at a good price.
Locally here in Portland, Oregon, I stop at estate and garage sales whenever they cross my path, shop at the big antique shows and, when time permits, pop into antique malls and boutiques, where I sometimes can find European pieces at a good price.
Which home decor/kitchen items are particularly trendy nowadays?
In terms of trends, I do stay on top of what’s popular but I don’t necessarily follow the trends. For example, French copper cookware is super hot right now but I personally don’t love it, so I tend not to buy it. Enamelware was super trendy about 10 years ago but I still love it so I still buy it – and it sells!
Which are your world favorite 3-5 flea markets for finding vintage provincial home decor?
My number one favorite market is definitely the vide–grenier in Amiens, France. It happens twice a year and the whole town shuts down while hundreds of dealers and thousands of citizens spread out their wares to ‘clean out their attics.’ It starts in the wee hours and goes till about 5 or 6 pm.
Another favorite is Zandfeesten in Bruges, Belgium. Taking up the main market square and a long stretch of park blocks along the river as well as some side streets, this market seems a bit more relaxed than Amiens and the setting is gorgeous!
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A good stand-by is the weekly Sunday market in Tongeren, Belgium. Prices are a bit higher than at a typical flea market, yet I still find plenty of good buys there. It’s also where I picked up one of my favorite finds ever: a sweet landscape painting on wood. Tiny in size but the colors and the mood are exquisite and it sits on our mantle so I can look at it every day.
During my last visit to Europe, I also discovered a market in Haarlem, Netherlands, that I quite enjoyed. Haarlem is one of my favorite Dutch cities so getting to shop for antiques there was a huge treat!
Any favorite flea market in Oregon or nearby states?
I also have a bucket list of markets I’d love to visit – this includes Lille (France), Brimfield (MA) and Round Top (TX). Who knows, once I make it to one of them, I may have to come back here and revise my answers ;)
What was your most epic flea market find?
One of my most epic flea markets finds was a tall slanted table that my husband and I came across at the Coburg Antique Show when we lived in Eugene, Oregon. We had recently purchased our first home and I thought this table would be perfect in my office as a drafting/drawing table. But it was $275, an ungodly sum of money for us at the time and so we walked away.
As we circled the market, I kept thinking about the table so finally, we went back and negotiated the price down to $225. I was ecstatic! An hour later, I was nearly in tears – the table could not fit through our narrow, awkwardly angled hallway to fit into my office.
After many valiant attempts of angling the table this way and that, it was clear: it simply wouldn’t fit. Our friends who’d been helping us offered to buy the table from us and I almost gave in. But then a brainstorm saved the day: lets cut off the legs and put them back on once in the room! I still have this table in my office and love that I didn’t give up on it.
Is there ‘the piece that got away’ or ‘the one you reluctantly left behind’?
During our trip to Europe last fall, I was searching for a wooden toy rocking horse that was going to be a belated birthday present to me from Todd. At a market in the Netherlands, I found ‘the one’ – I was smitten and had to have it! The price was incredibly affordable, too, so it seemed destined to happen. Alas, the size was simply too large: too big for a suitcase, too large for carry-on, too big for abide by the Dutch postal regulations. Sigh… I took their business card and bid farewell to the horse.
During the next two weeks, while we traveled through Europe, I kept thinking about that horse. I kept thinking of how I could get it home. I finally decided it was worth it to drive across the border to ship from Germany, where the postal regulations allowed for a larger box. I was so excited to call the vendors but was quickly disappointed: the horse had sold at a show the previous day! I was quite sad but decided there’s another horse out there that is meant for me so I’m still on the hunt.
What’s your favorite “Ninja” haggling technique, the one that works almost every time? What is the best deal you’ve ever scored negotiating at a flea market?
Wow, a ‘ninja’ haggling technique… I don’t believe I have any of those but maybe I need some! When I see something I’m interested in, I decide in my mind what the highest price I can afford is before asking the vendor if they can do any better. If our numbers don’t match, I’ll make my offer but I’m not really that tough of a negotiator.
As a dealer, I know all the work it takes before an item makes it onto a vendor’s sale table – the sourcing, cleaning, researching, pricing, shlepping and marketing all take a lot of time and the vendor should be compensated for that so I don’t want to offend anyone by making a low-ball offer. Sometimes when walking away, a vendor will lower their price so maybe that’s my ‘ninja’ move: be willing to walk away.
How often do you shop in Europe? Is there a particular itinerary you follow? A favorite “flea market season”?
I try to go on a buying trip once a year but that doesn’t always work out for a number of different reasons. When we do go, we try to time it so that I can hit one or two of my favorite markets while my husband can visit a Belgian beer festival. We make a great team that way – he’s my cart puller and I’m his designated driver :)
Because we typically use miles to buy our tickets, we often have to be flexible with our desired travel days. So I don’t start working on our itinerary until we have scored the airplane tickets.
How do you usually plan your itinerary and decide where to go? How long do you stay there?
Once I have confirmed dates, I go to work on figuring out what markets are happening when and where. Sundays are the biggest days for markets so I usually start with picking where I want to shop on those days (which market in which countries). Then the rest gets filled in from there.
For big markets, I’ve learned to arrive the night before and stay the day after. That way, we can get a good night’s sleep, rise early to start shopping and have a home base to drop off the goods throughout the day. At night, after walking for 10 or 12 hours, we can just collapse into bed and not have to worry about driving to our next location.
Most of the items sold on attic-antics.com have been purchased in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany. How do you ship them back to your shop in Portland, OR?
While buying vintage and antiques in Europe is the most fun part of my job, making sure I get all those treasures home safely is probably one of my least favorite parts. I usually do a combination of suitcases, carry-on and shipping boxes.
My number one priority is packing everything up safely. To that purpose, I will usually bring a suitcase full of packing materials that include scissors, twine, tissue paper (hard to find in some cities in Europe), bubble wrap, and packing tape – European packing tape for some reason is not nearly as sticky and sturdy as the American Scotch brand packing tape so I bring at least one, if not two, rolls per trip.
You can ask for boxes at grocery stores or buy them at hardware stores or storage facilities. The latter two also sell bubble wrap although at much higher prices than I pay in the US so that’s why I bring as much of that with me as possible.
Is there a piece of advice you would have liked to get before you started Attic Antics? What advice would you give someone who’d wish to “take the leap” and start buying & selling antiques for a living today?
When I first started out, I was surprised at how warm and welcoming the vintage and antique community here in Portland was. I got advice from many different dealers and I don’t know whether there is anything I wish I’d known before I got started. I learned from all my mistakes and luckily made none from which I couldn’t recover.
One of the best pieces of advice someone gave me when I first started was that ‘you make your money when you buy, not when you sell.’ It took me a little while to truly understand the meaning of that but I’ve since taken that to heart and try to follow that sentiment every time I buy something for resale.
For me, the rule of buying only what I love has served me well – it has helped me focus my brand and develop a style that my customers seem to love and appreciate. As a bonus, I rarely feel that I’m ‘stuck’ with inventory and often pieces come to ‘rest’ for a while in my house before leaving again to find a new home.
Any other general advice or tips you would like to share when it comes to finding and purchasing antiques?
Buy it if you love it, and buy it when you see it. I think it has happened to all of us: we see a piece that captures our heart but for whatever reason (price, size, color) we don’t buy it but walk away to mull things over. By the time we decide we can’t live without it, we go back and it’s gone! I’ve learned that if I truly love a piece, I’m willing to give up something else to pay for it, move something else to find a spot for it, or decorate differently to make the colorwork. Happy hunting, everyone!
Attic Antics does not have a storefront but can be found at Monticello Antique Marketplace (8600 SE Stark St., Portland OR) as well as various local shows throughout the year, like Junk Bonanza, Portland Antique Expo, and Plucky Maidens. And if you don’t live near Portland, Oregon, do not worry – Attic Antics ships nationwide, even worldwide!