Once upon a time men and women gathered together everyday. The marketplace served as a hub where people bartered, gossiped and traded expertise. One imagines the odor of meat as it was seared from the bone, hearing the forging of metal as the blacksmith repaired a cooking pot; apothecaries grinding seeds and herbs to fill a prescription. Vendors were artisans, and folks knew them by name: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker; the grocer, fishmonger, and glass-blower. All civilizations have relied on the market for social interaction and to exchange goods and information. The ancient Greeks had their Agoras; the Arabs their Souks.
Flash-forward to the 20th Century: the Western version of these vast, local marketplaces has all but disappeared. Someone decided to add four walls, a door, put a roof on top and call it Wal-Mart. Gone are the merchants, as merchandise is shipped in cheaper from abroad. Glossy linoleum floors stretch as far as the eye can see. In aisle five: bed sheets; aisle 12: laptops; aisle 20: frozen broccoli. The perceived demand for consumer convenience has led to a vacuous shopping experience void of any personal connection or particular place. As people know their vendors less and less, a real sense of community has been lost.
Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby are two nouveau, flea market nostalgics seeking to restore the social interaction of the old market to modern, one-stop shopping. Brooklyn Flea—set to open Apr. 6 on a 40,000 square-foot schoolyard in Fort Greene—is their answer to resuscitating the small business community, while still remaining competitive in price. It will be located at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School on Lafayette and Vanderbilt Avenues.
Butler, a long-time Brooklyn resident, started Brownstoner.com—a real estate and renovation blog—in October 2004, shortly before renovating his Clinton Hill brownstone. A fan of flea markets and architectural salvage, Butler has always hoped to bring the neighborhood feel of flea markets to his home borough. Last September, he hosted Salvage Fest, an architectural salvage mart, and invited ten local merchants to participate. “It was only publicized on the blog,” Butler said. “But 1,000 people turned up, a large number saying it would be great to turn this into a broader flea market.”
Butler recruited Demby, a former speechwriter and communications director for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and the pair sought to combine Butler’s vintage expertise with Demby’s community experience to create a distinct flea market destination. “In these times we don’t have an equivalent of what the marketplace used to be…that bonding experience,” said Butler. “We want Brooklyn Flea to feel like a neighborhood gathering.”
Demby likens it to a “Brooklyn Stroll” around the neighborhood where it’s more than likely you’ll bump into someone you know. Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, emphasizes “recognition” as a key factor in building customer loyalty. “As they sang in the Cheers theme,” Underhill said, “you want to go somewhere where everyone knows your name.”
Responsible for curating the Flea, Demby describes it as a “new wave” flea market: flea market 2.0. The term is derived from Web 2.0, a catchphrase that indicates a departure from static search engines and the adoption of a more interactive online experience. Blogs, wikis and social-networking sites promote constant exchange of information, and Brooklyn Flea is a product of this new generation of Internet use.
With little money spent on advertising, most of the Flea’s buzz has stemmed from blogs. Brownstoner.com alone has 100,000 hits a month, and Grace Bonney of designspongeonline.com another Brooklyn-based blog celebrity (who is curating a Design*Sponge section of the Flea) claims 300,000 daily viewers. Confirmed vendors are posting information on their sites, so in true Digital-Age fashion, news has spread through “word-of-blog.”
Flea markets have always been popular in New York, although, in Manhattan especially, soaring rent prices and demand for land has limited their size. A typically large, open-air venue, the most popular etymology is an 1890s, Parisian shopping venue: Marché aux Puces, literally meaning “market with fleas.” Then, “fleas” implied the raggedy, second-hand nature of the merchandise, but today markets are a mix of both collected and newly created products.
The 26th Street Chelsea market served as a fleaster Mecca for 29 years, before closing in 2005. Once bustling, stall-packed parking lots have now been replaced with high-rise condominium towers. Butler and Demby hope to reintroduce a market that is not only comparable in scale, but that also installs the same sense of community that the Chelsea market brought to its patrons.
“The flea market is trying to attract people from all walks of life,” said Demby, who hopes that the Flea will one day be a tourist destination, and is proud of the fact that it has a distinct Brooklyn feel. “Brooklyn is defined by its diversity. This will be a Brooklyn flea market that is at the center of a community that’s constantly changing and exciting. We’re reflecting that excitement and enthusiasm.”
Community is not only about social-networking but also about maintaining and nurturing the people and environment in local neighborhoods. The Fort Greene Community Support Agriculture program will have a booth on opening day. The organization uses cooking demonstrations and workshops to educate residents, especially those from lower-income areas, on the benefits of locally grown meats and produce. Another local agency, the Fort Greene Association will also be on hand to promote their “Green Fort Greene,” an initiative aimed at making fleasters aware of cost-effective, environment-friendly practices they can adopt at home.
“With the surge of farmers’ markets,” said Sarah Stoudt, owner of Birch Handmade, “I think that people are starting to really feel a stronger desire to know their merchant and to have that personal connection with the person they are giving their money too.”
A former Brooklynite, Stoudt is bringing her handmade jewelry from her Catskills home to sell at the Flea. She said of the market, “it really is a return to a community feel and having a lighter footprint on the planet.”
Approximately 200 vendors will take part in the market each week, offering a diverse selection of vintage and contemporary furniture, clothing, art, crafts, jewelry and even bicycles. There will be a food court selling soups, waffles, barbecue sandwiches and more. On opening weekend, Brooklyn-based musician Sharon Jones will be performing live next-door at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. And both A Public Space, the Boerum Hill-based literary magazine, and volunteers from Housing Works Bookstore Cafe will provide reading material to fleasters in need of some down time. Plans are in the works for a Brooklyn Flea scavenger hunt as well as a local stoop sale. Neighborhood street vendors will have the opportunity to sell at the market for a reduced fee.
The Flea is also featuring vendors dedicated to changing what people think of food and where it comes from. Donna Zimmerman and Shauna Winslow will debut their gourmet soup company, Artisanal Soups, at the market. Both are waitresses at an upscale restaurant in the Meatpacking District. They use organic, mostly vegan ingredients purchased at nearby farmers’ markets and ladle the soup into biodegradable containers. “We want customers to walk away with a little bag of goodness,” said Winslow. “It’s good for your body, it’s good for the environment, and you’ve just helped out local farmers.”
Brooklyn Flea distinguishes itself from other markets by carefully curating its products, placing an emphasis on local culture, and allowing room for natural progression. Having the blogosphere be an integral part of its business model ensures that the dialogue between customers and vendors stretches far beyond the market hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. “We like the idea of creating something that’s public,” said Demby. “It’s not about a brand, but about finding people who are similar to you and who are doing things similar to you.”
While this new generation of web use can be seen as a return to the social interaction brought about by physical market places, the Internet still remains (so far) a tactile deprived environment. Underhill sees the sensory shopping experience: touch trial, immediate gratification and social interaction, as three main reasons people will always forgo online retail for the “real thing.”
Brooklyn Flea is a return to community shopping, endorsing conversations with vendors, a green social conscience, and, the crux of any good market, the art of bargaining. Demby assures fleasters that the market’s curation hasn’t diminished the “flea” element. “Our motto is high-low,” he said. “We’re going to have some really nice stuff and we’re going to have a lot of junk and that’s the way I want it.”
Nicole Robson is a freelance writer based in the Lower East Side.