Shelves full of knickknacks, chairs piled precariously atop tables, dusty toys dangling from the ceiling and barely enough floorspace to set a foot down: It's a scene that's caused more than one shopper to flee a flea market.
"Like where your garage is just thrown up in your face? I get that." said Kristie Rackliffe, an antique dealer at the Queen of Hearts antique mall in Buford, Ga.
But there's no need to fear the antique mall, say some thrifting pros, if you know what you're looking for and how to navigate through a seeker's paradise to get to it. Just be prepared to pay more at those fancy booths that don't require mountain climbing equipment.
"If I can't walk into the space, I'm not gonna. If I see something that I like in the back, I might say, 'Oh, that's neat,' but if I can't actually get to it, I won't bother," Rackliffe said.
An artist who has worked in Los Angeles as a set designer and interior decorator, Rackliffe is well-versed in the art of shopping an antique mall. Naturally, Rackliffe's 8x8-foot booth stands out at Queen of Hearts.
"I want to look at (an antique). I want to squat down, look at the bottom, look at the top, I want to move it, I want to see behind, I'm going to really inspect it," she said. "So I try to make that possible for other people coming into my space."
Rackliffe's booth recently featured a coffee table with an octopus painted on it, a chest of drawers emblazoned with a square-sailed ship, strategically placed decorative items and plenty of walking-around space.
It's the kind of booth, said "Mr. Goodwill Hunting" Rashon Carraway, that attracts a new kind of antique shopper: one who's not willing to dig.
Carraway, who assembled thrift-centric rooms on designer Nate Berkus' talk show, has been building his own collection of antique furniture and decor for many years. He's a seasoned pro at finding the proverbial "needle in a haystack."
The booths that are packed to the rafters are that way on purpose, he said. Antique dealers and thrift shop owners can make enough money to rent their retail space by stocking a large volume of small, cheaply priced items.
"You can definitely find more treasures, more items in those stuffed booths," he said. In a dealer's booth that looks more like an artfully merchandised store window, "you're going to pay for that presentation," Carraway said. That's because the dealer is providing not only ease of browsing but an idea of how to display the antique in your home, he said.
Boutique-like curation is a tangible new wave in the industry, said David Duncan, owner of David Duncan Antiques in New York City, close to the design district in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan.
Interior designers and decorators, who visit antique stores for inspiration as well as to accent their clients' homes with unique finds, are shopping for antiques differently than they once did.
Young designers in particular are accustomed to viewing antiques on a website or against a white tearsheet background, Duncan said. Those expectations carry over into the store environment; Duncan's store features stylized vignettes or antique lighting installations to spark a designer's imagination.
Antique dealers have also come to recognize that shoppers, once eager to roll up their sleeves for a little DIY, are getting tired of spending their sweat equity.
"I have started so many projects with the attitude of, 'Oh I could do that, I could totally do that'," Rackliffe said. "And I get about halfway through it and I'm like, 'holy crap, this is so hard, why did I think I could do this?' " she said. "Now I'm wise enough to say pay someone else to do it."
People decorate with thrift finds or antiques because they're trying to save money, Carraway said. But sometimes there's more value in saving your time and your muscles.
Jan Agnello, the owner of Storyology, an antiques refurbishing business, would like to save you the trouble.
"I'm willing to get my hands dirty for the customer," she said.
Part of her business model is to go above and beyond a cursory restoration. Gold and silver leafing, painted details, book origami and whimsical repurposing helps set her furniture and decor apart from other antique booths, she said.
"Some people don't trust their judgment, or they know what they like when they see it, but they can't reimagine it. So they look for that piece that's been painted already or restored," Agnello said. She takes care not to cover up what she thinks is the most important aspect of any antique: its age.
"In no way does it devalue an item if it's old. In fact I think it gives it added value, an ambiance and patina to it," she said. One of her favorite examples is a vintage photo of a Harvard Cricket club, from the early 1900s, hanging in her booth at Queen of Hearts.
"You can see that you have a lot in common with people and yet it was so long ago," she said. "I want to show the relevance these things have today."