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Can the Brooklyn Flea Take Its Show on the Road?

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Photo by Brian Harkin
Photo by Brian Harkin

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After five years in New York City, the Brooklyn Flea expanded beyond its namesake borough this year to include markets in Philadelphia and Washington D.C., in addition to carrying on business as usual at the Fort Greene, Williamsburg, and new Park Slope outposts. The weekend attraction, which draws neighborhood locals and tourists in flocks every weekend, Saturday and Sunday, didn't do so well 100 miles south. After just four months in business, the Flea tweeted that they were "sorry it didn't work out" in Philly and were gone by the end of the month. On the other hand, D.C.'s flea has just been extended through November 30th.

The decision brought to a head the debate on whether or not the flea could expand nationally, and if so, where? Flea co-founder Eric Demby said he and his business partner Jonathan Butler explored opening in Los Angeles in the spring of 2012, but ultimately decided not to go through with it. Chicago was previously a possibility. Austin is a thought. "Predictable places" like San Francisco and Portland aren't out of the question.

The Philadelphia closing announcement drew a mixed bag of responses. Racked Philly noticed that several Facebook comments blamed the location, the Piazza at Schmidts on North 2nd Street, for failing to promote the event, while others said it was the "absurd" prices the vendors were charging. Philadelphia magazine wrote a story with the headline: "Why Brooklyn Flea Couldn't Cut it in Philly," which argued that the reason the flea may have failed, either solely or in conjunction with the above mentioned reasons, was the name: Brooklyn Flea Philly. A commenter on the forum site Philadelphia Speaks explained: "I refuse to support anything in Philadelphia that has some New York thing in their name." The D.C. market, on the other hand, is called the District Flea.

The Brooklyn Philly Flea via Brooklyn Flea

When asked how much that may have contributed to the closure, Demby said, "If you didn't go because of the name, we weren't probably going to convince you to come anyways. I think that was part of our experiment; we were like, let's see if the Brooklyn name travels here, and then let's try it without the Brooklyn name here. It's hard to say if that's the reason why one succeeded and one didn't—maybe it's just coincidence." (In its place, a new flea from the Brooklyn Flea Philly's market manager, Mark Vevle, will open with a new name: Franklin Flea. Vevle told Racked Philly, "The fun thing is that it will be helmed by a Philly resident (me!), given a new Philly-like name, and possibly be in a fun new Center City location.")

Setting aside prices and promotion, the New York City and D.C. fleas both have one thing in common that the Philadelphia flea didn't: more food. Demby explains, "The food regulations for outdoor events in Philadelphia were extremely onerous, and it made it really hard for us to find new food vendors. In New York, believe it or not, it's really well regulated and it's actually fairly easy and quick to start up. And in D.C. it's also really easy. We were able to get a bar in there really quick."

Hugh McIntosh, the District Flea's manager, told the Washington Post that people seem to be coming to the market "just for the food," so much so that more vendors and more seating needed to be added. (The chairs, from Miss Pixie's shop, are also for sale.)

Washington D.C.'s flea. Photo via District Flea

On November 30th, the flea will open at a new winter location in Williamsburg, departing its longtime home of Skylight One Hanson in Fort Greene. The new spot will be able to accommodate three to four times more food vendors than the previous location, another indicator that the Asia Dogs and the Milk Trucks of the Smorgasburg are a crucial part of making the market a weekend hangout as opposed to just a shopping event.

As for where the flea might travel beyond Brooklyn and D.C., Demby says, "We do always think about places like Chicago and Los Angeles and Austin, and I think New Orleans, San Francisco and Portland—the sort of predictable places. Part of us would love someone who owns a bunch of land to be like, 'Why don't you do it here?' That's kind of what we need, right? We can't go to these places and search around for a week—it's just not something we can do. I actually called some people in Chicago earlier in the year and just didn't quite find the right thing. Had the right place come up, we probably would have started going on it. It's not like we could just say, 'We need a 1,500-square-foot storefront with a lot of foot traffic.' We need someone who's going to want us to be there and bring thousands of people; not everybody wants that."

That was the reaction when the flea moved to the East River State Park this summer in Williamsburg. One of the residents the Brooklyn Paper spoke to explained: "Basically, we no longer have a park on the weekends. I'm not going to bring my son somewhere where there are 300 25-year-olds hanging out."

On the other hand, 300 25-year-olds indicates that there's an insatiable appetite for indie food vendors and handmade jewelry. Markets that outwardly admit being inspired by the flea, which Demby says includes the City Flea in Cincinnati and the Providence Flea in Rhode Island, prove that expansions to cities could work out quite well, even if that wasn't the case in Philadelphia. But is it the right course of action? Should the flea keep churning out new markets? "Everyone that I talk to is like, 'So now that you're expanding, where else are you expanding?'" Demby says. "We don't want it to become a franchise where we don't have anything to do with it, because then it loses this personal touch."
· Brooklyn Flea [Official Site]
· All Brooklyn Flea Coverage [Racked NY]