Most flea and antique markets charge a few bucks for admission; pony up the big bucks and some will let you in early, before the masses arrive. Many markets shut down in the winter, so if you get the bug to browse in December, call or check the market's Web site first to make sure it's open.
Ron Slattery's advice: Once you're in, what you'll often see first at a flea market is a vast swath of new goods—knockoff shampoo, cheap flip-flops, and the like. Unless that's what you came for, head for the vendors farther from the entrance. "What you want are the pickers, the alley guys," Slattery says, along with the haulers—the people who get hired to empty out a house when someone dies.
Also: Be nice. "The buyers that kill me are the ones who throw things down on the table. 'How much is this?'" says Slattery. "To get a good deal, you got to treat the dealer like they're human." Still, "it's a flea market. You gotta work it." One potential price lowerer: bring a friend who's been instructed to say "You don't need another one of those!" while you're bargaining. —Anne Ford
"Alsip is mostly newer stuff, and it's mostly an indoor market. Buyingwise, it's a crapshoot. I've gone home with nothing from there; I've gone home with good things from there." aWed 7 AM-2 PM, Sat-Sun 7 AM-4 PM, 4350 W. 129th, Alsip, 708-344-7300, $1.
"This is a monster, the biggest. There's an entrance on the west side of the parking lot. That's where all the guys who run the alleys are. They don't let those guys in till 7:30. That's the time you want to be there and follow them around. It's like a land rush." aThu, Sat, and Sun 7 AM-4 PM, 4100 S. Ashland, Chicago, 708-344-7300, $1.
Bloomington Third Sunday Market
"Good antique market. Middle America stuff. A lot of lanterns, crocks." aThird Sun of the month, 8 AM-4 PM, Interstate Center, 2301 W. Market, Bloomington,
217-202-2847 or thirdsundaymarket.com, $5 for 13 and over (early admission $25, 6:30 AM).
Buyer's Flea Market
"Lots of new stuff. If that's what you're into, go for it. I've never bought a single thing there." aSat-Sun 8 AM-5 PM, 4545 W. Division, Chicago, 773-227-1889, chicagofleamarket.com, fifty cents.
Chicago Antique Market
"Really strong dealers—they don't play around. This is all antiques. You won't see a single sock seller here. It's retro, modern, midcentury type of stuff." aLast Sat and Sun of every month, 10 AM (indoors 11 AM)-5 PM, 1300 W. Randolph, Chicago, 312-666-1200, chicagoantiquemarket.com, $10 (good for both days), $5 students, kids under 12 free.
Elkhorn Antique Flea Market
"Hell yeah! They get the guys from the north woods of Wisconsin who bring stuff down. If you really like country-style antiques, there's some good stuff. Everyone who's got a house by Lake Geneva, they make like a day out of it. You'll be shopping next to a guy who's got a hundred bucks in his pocket, you'll be shopping next to a guy who's got a hundred grand." aSun 8/10 and 9/28, 7 AM-4 PM, Walworth County Fairgrounds, Elkhorn, Wisconsin, 414-525-0820, nlpromotionsllc.com, $4, (early admission $25, 1-8 PM Sat 8/9).
"Pure antiques—no crapola. You're not going to see tons of reproductions there." aSecond Sun of the month, 8 AM-3 PM, Lake County Fairgrounds, 50 S. Route 45, Grayslake, 715-526-9769, zurkopromotions.com, $5 (early admission $25, 6 AM).
I-80 Flea Market
"Every now and then some really good stuff pops out of there. It's a small enough market to cover pretty quickly. But you need to get there early because the buyers are really, really aggressive." aApril-November, Sun 7 AM-1 PM, 19100 Oak Park, Tinley Park, 708-532-8238, i80fleamarket.com, $1.
Kane County Flea Market
"Years ago, when you called to get a spot at Kane County they'd ask you what you were selling, and it had to be antiques only. Now there's guys selling socks. It's still the biggest antique show in the area. Some of the best dealers in the city are there. It's worth a day trip." aFirst Sat-Sun of the month, Sat noon-5 PM, Sun 7 AM-4 PM, 525 S. Randall, Saint Charles, 630-377-2252, kanecountyfleamarket.com, $5, kids under 12 free (early admission $50, 9 AM Sat, good for both days).
Melrose Park Swap-O-Rama
"More of a place you stop in after you stop somewhere else, you know what I mean? You're really not going to find much treasure." aFri 8 AM-3 PM, Sat-Sun 7 AM-4 PM, 4600 W. Lake, Melrose Park, 708-344-7300, $1.
New Maxwell Street Market
"It's worth a stop, but it's not what it used to be. In the old days, we'd stay out all night in the bars and then go to Maxwell Street and buy Schlitz tall boys and walk around and see all kinds of crap. Now there's a lot of food vendors, a lot of guys selling detergent, a lot of guys demonstrating products." aSun 7 AM-3 PM, Canal and Roosevelt, Chicago, 312-922-3100. F
Robbins Flea Market
"Nobody really knows this one exists. It's tiny—the size of a Walgreens parking lot—but it's a busy little market." aTue, Thu, and Sat 6 AM-2 PM, 139th and Claire, Robbins, 708-385-8940. F
Sandwich Antiques Market
"A beautiful market. Lots of trees, barbecuing, the whole nine yards. You'll find higher-end stuff, some expensive, good, big-ticket items. There's some lower-rent dealers there, but not many." aSun 7/27, 8/17, 9/28, 10/26, 8 AM-4 PM, Sandwich Fairgrounds, 1401 Suydam, Sandwich, 815-786-3337, antiquemarkets.com, $5 (early admission $30, 10 AM Sat).
Wheaton Antique Market
"The all-night market is almost like a county fair type thing. You wouldn't believe the people that show up, even at 1 in the morning." aThird Sun of the month (except July and September), 8 AM-3 PM, special all-night market Sat 8/23, 5 PM-4 AM, Du Page County Fairgrounds, 2015 W. Manchester, Wheaton, 715-526-9769, zurkopromotions.com, $5 (early admission $15, 6 AM Sun).
Wolff's Flea Market
"The best place. There's nothing even approaching how good it is. The stuff that comes out of there is legendary." aSat-Sun 6 AM-3 PM, Allstate Arena, 6920 Mannheim, Rosemont, 847-524-9590, wolffs.com, $1, fifty cents over 62 and 6-12, kids under 6 free.
A master's annotated guide to area flea markets and antiques fairs