In The Golden Flea, Rips presents the story of his gradual immersion in the life of the market, along the way supplying us with a taxonomy of its habitués ... Rips is no mere browser haunting the garage, but a holistic consumer for whom the objects, the personalities, the rituals, and the backstories are inseparable ... In Rips’s hands the flea emerges as a microcosm, a model of a trading society descended in a direct line from antiquity ... The Golden Flea is a tender, passionate, melancholy elegy to an ancient project of reclamation, a form of commerce that has historically stood outside the capitalist spiderweb, and a way of life as necessary and as fragile as any venerable ecological practice.
Of the countless New York structures demolished over the years, a parking garage may seem a strange one to mourn, but Michael Rips mourns one with infectious poignancy in his quirky, disarming, sometimes strained yet altogether beautiful memoir ... a remembrance of a lost institution (the market has now vanished entirely), a hymn to the complex power of objects, and a glimpse into the mind and heart of a curious character—himself ... A man of parts, [Rips] clearly has a very high IQ. Yet he also has humanity, humor and the gift of a limpid, agile, unpretentious prose style, which save him from becoming insufferable ... a captivating portrait ... Realist to a point, Mr. Rips’s portrayal of the vendors is also romantic and charged with mysticism. In a series of arresting (if slightly precious) visual passages, he describes the effects on them of the garage’s dim but complicated light ... Their persuasiveness aside, these passages suffer from a stridency and stiff conventionality at odds with Mr. Rips’s style elsewhere, By turns academic and woo-woo, they lack the idiosyncrasy and minnow-like darting charm of the rest. As a flea-market philosopher Mr. Rips may see deeply, but his ideas need a different venue than this light-handed, delicate book ... a book at once full of life and freighted with death ... strikes home as an elegy for a grimy little pocket of commerce that sometimes seems, in Mr. Rips’s handling, a failing civilization in miniature.
In breezy, readable prose, Rips delivers this collection of people and things to the reader so that they, like the market’s gems, arrive without provenance. For example, he never dates his decades at the flea, and never names The Cowboy as radical anarchist artist Ben Morea. Protecting his collection, Rips insists upon being the key to unlock their secrets.
Throughout the book, Rips muses, often entertainingly, on the people he met during his forays in this unique environment, but few of his portraits feel more substantial than sketches. While he is to be commended for diligently listening to them spin their background stories...preferring to hear without judgment. Because the author identifies the characters only by first names and nicknames, readers may need to take the findings with a grain of salt. There’s a sometimes-pleasing surreal quality to this journey that fits the idiosyncratic landscape ... but one wonders if Rips could have dug even deeper to produce a fuller picture of this world of lost and forgotten treasures ... An intriguing but slight sociological snapshot.
Though some of this work is about the birth of a borderline hoarding lifestyle, Rips doesn’t suggest much about causes of his compulsion, nor does he offer more than a few obligatory quips about how his wife and young daughter live with it all. Still, his narrative is a wry and engaging ode to a bygone aspect of N.Y.C. culture.