Rachel Ashwell's flea market strategies

After more than 20 years, the queen of Shabby Chic still heads out in the dark of early morning in search of the perfect flea-market finds. "We don't do wheel barrels-into-coffee tables," Rachel Ashwell said, referring to some buyers' penchant to take old stuff and make it into something else. Rather, Ashwell, like many shoppers, chooses for items that are largely ready to roll. But how? Some insights into what makes her say "yes" to a piece — and, more important, what makes her say "no."

Function. "A piece of furniture has to be functional — drawers that glide nicely and handles that fit properly. If the function is not there — maybe the drawers are too small or it's simply just too much work to fix — I'll leave it."

Patina. "The finish is magical to me. Nothing gives me more joy than finding an old dresser or chair with many layers of paint. I go into a fantasy world and wonder who the people were that painted it — white, pink, gray — and what inspired them." Along those lines, Ashwel avoids any piece that looks fake. "If the patina looks new, I have no interest in it," she said.

Soul. "I love to hear vendors' stories — even if they are made up: 'This old rocker came from a Louisiana porch,' or 'that armoire is from a small farm in France.' Every old piece has a story to tell, that's part of it's charm."

Personal connection. Buy what you love, not what you think you're supposed to love. "Look for a piece that appeals to your senses," Ashwell said. "Whether you're buying a vintage chest of drawers or a old chandelier, you need to love and connect with it."

— Barbara Thornburg

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