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It's our favorite time of year, and not just for the abundance of sample sales. Along with New York City's festive lighting and Salvation Army Santas dancing to the Cha Cha Slide, in front of Grand Central, we have the holiday markets, which are filled with old favorites from years past and newcomers eager to make an impression.
Each of these major Manhattan destinations—at Columbus Circle, Bryant Park, Grand Central, and Union Square—are worth stopping by for their unique offerings. Don't let the tourist surge scare you, and go when they open, around 10am, for the most enjoyable shopping experience. We chatted with the markets' organizers and then picked out two (affordable!) must-see booths at each. Check out our favorites, in north-to-south order, after the jump.
More than a thousand vendors applied for booths this season at Columbus Circle and Union Square, said Rachel Van Dolsen, a press representative for Urban Space, the event organizer in charge of both of these markets. This year, they worked with Line Point Paths to create new user-friendly maps of the more than 100 booths set up, and added a seating area by the food stalls. "There's a wooden deck with a rustic feel, where people can sit down, take a break, and drink by Central Park."
Best Bet: Dr. Sofskin's Body Lotion Candles
You read that right: These candles, made from all-natural ingredients like shea butter, avocado oil, and aloe, melt into a super-silky cream. "I like to light a candle before I shower," said Leah Fernandes, who mans the booth for the North-Carolina based company. "It's safe for all bodies, your body or any other body you want to rub it on—as long as you have permission." Dr. Sofskin also sells lip scrubs, shaving kits, and handmade soaps. They've been doing so well this year, Fernandes said, that they're constantly making new product in their temporary Harlem outpost to keep up with demand.
*also at Bryant Park and Union Square
Best Bet: Vernakular
What's immediately noticeable at this booth are the detailed images of manhole covers, photographed by Raoul Calle and printed onto doormats, and how beautiful they actually are. "Seeing beauty in something that someone walks over everyday," is what Calle was going for, said vendor Margaret Day. "All of a sudden, it's in your home and it's art." The booth also sells coasters with these images, along with wallets and journals.
Of the 126 stalls at Bryant Park's "Winter Village," a partnership with Bank of America that includes a skating rink and the restaurant Celcius, 98 are returning favorites and 28 are newcomers. "We have high standards for the booth décor," said Tricia Lewis, Bryant Park's director of digital marketing. "This year, I was impressed because all the new vendors came in and understood that without a lot of hand-holding, and I think they look fantastic."
Best Bet: The Salt and Sea
All the poster images in this booth were conceived by Gene Rogovitz, who's a teacher on Long Island by day. Popular styles include prints of the top 40 dog breeds with detailed information, and stylistic quotes from popular songs, ranging from the Beatles to Taylor Swift. "He tweaks different designs all the time" based on customer requests, said his brother-in-law Rob Byrne, who helps run the booth while he teaches.
Best Bet: Cliff Belts
For the vegan on your gift list, this booth features cruelty-free wallets, bags, belts, and more made entirely out of cork. "It doesn't disintegrate. It's not the same process as used for wine cork stoppers," explained Ginger Pennington, who works in the Bryant Park booth. "It's actually hot-pressed on fabric, so it's incredibly durable." That means if you stain one of the unisex products, you can just throw it in the washing machine.
*also at Columbus Circle and Union Square
Grand Central Terminal
What sets the market inside Vanderbilt Hall apart—besides being the only indoor one!—is its artsy offerings. "I believe it's more upscale," said Connie Breslin of Jones Lang LaSalle, the management company for the train station. Only 76 vendors made it to the booths that 350 applied for beginning in April. It's also about supporting the local: "88 percent of the fair is products made in the United States, and 75 percent of vendors are from the New York area," she added.
Best Bet: Aviva Stanoff
"I'm inspired by the beauty of nature and its imperfections," said pillow textile designer Stanoff, whose fabrics are part of the permanent collection in the Brooklyn Museum. "We press real objects into fabrics by hand. If you look at these little things, the have bug bites, and crinkles in the leaves." There's also some pillows covered in jewels alongside her velvet offerings. She hopes that her pillows "inspire people to want to decorate and accessorize their homes, where there's a lot of moments with families."
Best Bet: Moontide Dyers
Abby Chambers and Laura Cronin decided to go into business together after friends encouraged them to sell their uniquely dyed shirts and dresses. "This is the first time they've been at Grand Central," said Alison Bruun, a friend of the Massachusetts-based designers, who works at the booth. But they're about to be a little bit more local: "Abby just got a studio space in Long Island City, so she'll be working there as well." Bonus points: this (indoor) stall has a dressing room to try before you buy.
"At Union Square, we have a bit more of a downtown crowd," Urban Space's Van Dolsen said about how their two markets differentiate. "We've catered to their needs with our 'Little Brooklyn' section, featuring handmade goods from the borough." But they're careful to pay attention to variety. "We definitely want to make sure we have something for everyone at these markets."
Best Bet: Vintage Wine Boxes
Only at Union Square will you find these vintage-style cases that hold either one or three bottles of wine—they don't sell online and they don't have a store, according to seller Thomas Heikes. The designer "works with families all over the world" to create her horizontal and vertical boxes, as well as table displays. "She pays them a lot more than they would get paid elsewhere," Heikes added.
Best Bet: Kubiya Games
They're the largest seller of wooden brain teasers and puzzles in the United States, and these games remind you that something doesn't have to be plugged in to be fun. Many of the puzzles are recreations of classic ones from as far back to 15th-century Africa, said seller Kobi Levi, and all products are made from wood in a sustainable Thai forest. Look for Kubiya to possibly set up shop on Fifth Avenue next year.
*also at Bryant Park
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