A Taste of Old and New Along the East River
At 91-degrees with 70% humidity, it’s absolutely sweltering in Williamsburg. And the Brooklyn Flea is still going strong, despite the heat. For the past seven years, tourists and Brooklynites have flocked to the 150 booths set up along the East River, where the smell of something spicy (fried?) now wafts through the colorful displays of handmade jewelry, vintage decor, and artisan ice cream stands. (It is National Ice Cream day, after all.) This is a taste of New York City wrapped up in one asphalt lot––multi-culti with an American twist, homespun but luxe, and unbelievably sweaty.
Allegra and I meet at the N. 11th Street entrance: She rolls up her sleeves, and explains how she shops the Flea.
How to Shop
“Whenever I go to any flea, I have a mental list of the things I need—or want. Clothing and jewelry are seldom on my list, but I still pay attention to how the clothing vendors merchandise their stuff. There’s a lot of crossover—and a ton of visual information to glean from their presentations.”
We walk through rows of tents, passing a glittering display of gold pendants suspended from wooden beams. She pauses at another table, and gestures toward the multicolored glasses set atop a bright-turquoise floral tablecloth.
Starting the Business
“This is gorgeous—the setup is very nice, this guy has a lot of milk glass. Certain people specialize in certain things. Others are just generalists who sell furniture, lighting, different offerings from different eras. There are a couple of pieces of furniture in this booth, but not many. It’s very difficult to take to the flea, of course.”
“Have you ever considered setting up a stand,” I ask. “That’s how I started out,” she says. “I began setting up here every weekend, when it used to be down the street, and that sort of evolved into…”
“Yes! Having a storefront. I tried a couple of different iterations of Y&YFV and the numbers weren’t adding up. That’s how I decided that a storefront wasn’t really where I wanted to go. A studio/showroom just works better for me now, especially since I’m selling online. That was pretty much my trajectory.”
Lists and Good Deals
We pass by stand selling typewriters. A few of them still function, but most are decorative.
“What’s on your list for today?”
“Well, it’s just mental, unless I need to get a bunch of things. I’m steering clear of smalls right now because I want to focus on larger pieces, like furniture.”
“And smalls are things like accessories and decor, right?”
“Yes. But I’m still always on the lookout for interesting mirrors and barware because they’re both sought after now.”
We round the corner of the lot, where a vendor has draped ornate patterned rugs next to a line of gilded mirrors. Allegra glances at the display, then tells me, “Rugs are interesting but I’m hardly ever buying a rug from a flea market. These are really beautiful but when I’m at a flea market, I’m not looking to spend $1,200 on anything: I’m looking for deals. And these days—especially here—it’s difficult to get a good deal.”
“Well, it’s the total cost of something—and total cost goes way beyond the initial price tag,” says Allegra. “Resellers like me need to factor in the cost of transport, the cost of refurbishing, cleaning, and quite possibly, reupholstering and repair. Those things add up pretty quickly. There’s always this little voice inside my head saying, ‘What can I actually make if I buy this? Is it worth it?’”
Of Old And New
We stroll through a row of vendors offering foods and frosty drinks while sellers flit between stands to chat with one another. We pass by a booth selling rustic furniture made from reclaimed wood and metal. I nod toward the arrangement of coffee tables and bar stools, and ask if she’s ever sold something like that. She shakes her head.
“Reclaimed? No. Those pieces are new—not vintage. The furniture may be good-looking with quality construction, and composed of older materials like grain sacks and barn wood, but the steel legs are new, the designs are pretty simplistic and a lot of people are making versions of this stuff now. But, I’d reupholster something in a heartbeat if everything added up correctly.”
“Unless something is ridiculously affordable, like $5, then I can do whatever I want with it and still make a hefty profit. If something is upwards of $100, and unless it’s really special, I’ll hem and haw. I’ll always remember what the stylist Emily Henderson said on her blog: Even if something costs $30, if you’re not willing to spend $100 on it, then it wasn’t meant to be.”
Looking For Light
We circle around the market before splitting up––for Allegra, to hunt for deals, and for me, to interview vendors. My first stop is Whitewashed Furniture, owned by Christina Welch. She sits under the shade of a bright yellow armoire, fanning herself with a folded paper.
“Today’s hot,” she laughs, “And in the wintertime, it’s too cold to sell. So you need to be in between.” Though most of her pieces are stark eggshell white, a few are painted sunny yellow and country green. Christina pats a lemon colored dresser topped with a large mirror.
“This is my new piece. It’s yellow, because I’m looking for light. Yellow is my new thing, my inspiration. Sometimes I’m in the dark, and I also just got tired of white, so I go with yellow and green now, too.”
“Are you expanding your collection,” I ask. “Expanding, exploring colors. You dye your hair and I paint my furniture. I express myself with color,” Welch says, gesturing toward my peacock-blue tresses.
Next stop? Columbus Vintage, owned by Debra Hunter. She sells vintage clothing and furniture, most of which is found at estate sales. “I started out at street fairs as a side job,” Debra explains. “Then it became my main thing.”
Columbus Vintage is set up like a living room; a vinyl couch sits opposite a rack of clothing made of colorful, heavily printed fabrics. A glossy monogrammed red box catches my eye––a crimson tack trunk that once sat in someone’s stables.
“I look for anything interesting—clothing with interesting prints, or furniture with interesting shapes. With bric-a-brac, I go for rarer stuff you don’t really see,” says Hunter.
I loop back to the stand with the turquoise floral tablecloth. The Global Curator, owned by Steven Reider, sells mostly mid-century smalls from around the world.
As for how he came up with the shop’s name? “I was an art director and model agent,” says Steven, “A lot of these things are from traveling all over the world,” he explains while picking up pieces to show me. “I collect my travel mementos and share them with everyone.”
He guides me to the back of his tent and shows me a punch bowl from the 1950s and explains that it was still in its original box when he bought it––a “new-old” find.
“My look is eclectic,” he says. “Sort of everything from everywhere—but the unifying factors are clean lines and practical application.” He picks up a rounded glass object, its gold markings glinting in the sunlight. “For example, this Pyrex coffee carafe can withstand extreme heat, but also features 22-karat gold paint. It’s practical, but also very decorative.”
He puts it down and picks up a bright-orange milk-glass mug. The hardest part? “Having pieces you love, then selling them. My friends always say, ‘Just get rid of it! Just sell it!’ If you’re in this business, you can’t be emotionally tied to things. Selling is actually very cathartic, because it fulfills my need to seek and find, and then I can just let it go.”
The most rewarding part, Steven says, is “hearing someone appreciate a piece I found somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Then I know I’m on the right track.”