Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.Photos by William Chan.
Husband and wife duo Amy Abrams and Ronen Glimer have been running the Williamsburg market Artists & Fleas for an impressive ten years, in an era when marriage and retail can barely survive that time span independently. What started as a hobby ("We needed something to do on Sundays") grew into a robust business that launched a number of now-well-know designers and stores, including Brooklyn Charm, Erica Weiner, and Lavai Maria.
In recent years, they've expanded the bazaar to a series of pop ups within the Chelsea Market, bringing a little bit of Brooklyn to Manhattan's far west side. We sat down with the pair to find out how the Chelsea Market expansion happened, what sells in one market versus the other, and what they think of their vendors being poached by major retailers.
Tell me about how Artists & Fleas came to be.
Amy: Ten years ago, we had a lot of friends who were artists. We were living in Williamsburg at the time.
Ronen: We used to go to Brimfield three times a year, buy a bunch of shit, bring it home and carry it up our walkup and fantasize about selling.
Amy: We also loved to travel, and marketplaces were a big part of that—something that comes alive during the day and then closes down at night. I also grew up with a mom that would drag me to art shows and flea markets. I had an idea for a store, briefly, of all these stores within a store. Ronen loved real estate and loved riding around Williamsburg and we came across this warehouse and we thought, "Wow, let's see if we can fill it with artists and vintage."
We sent an e-mail to everyone we knew, and there really weren't a lot of markets in the city at that point—all of the old flea markets that were on Sixth Avenue were shutting down pretty quickly. We put the word out, and people who are artists all kind of know each other. We opened with about twenty vendors.
Ronen: I'm going to tell you the 25 second version of how we got to start: We've always liked stuff, we like to travel, we were both doing something else professionally—Amy was in graduate school getting a degree in counseling, I was working at a very uninspired tech company doing marketing—we had friends that were designers and artists. We lived in East Williamsburg, the neighborhood felt vital and alive, and people were getting busted for selling on the street. We thought, "What if we brought everyone inside?" We had the idea that anyone who ever flirted with the idea of making something, could sell something.
How did the expansions to Chelsea Market come about?
Ronen: In 2006 we were open two days a week [in Williamsburg] and our vendors were starting to make a living from the market. Online started to grow, society's acceptance of being able to make a business on your own terms was viable, and as a result we started to take our business more seriously. We wondered, how could we give [vendors] a taste of what full time retail was about, but still have the benefit of being in a market? Chelsea Market, historically, was my inspiration when it first opened.
Amy: Brooklyn has become what Brooklyn is [laughs]. Brooklyn has been having this moment for some time. The city has had some really amazing retail corridors: Nolita was amazing for a time, the Lower East Side was amazing. But a lot of that has moved to Brooklyn for rent or whatever reason. So we were thinking, "Manhattan is ready for this." We got reenergized to come back to the city.
How do the two locations complement each other?
Ronen: There's no question that they feed one another. Last weekend we spent eight hours talking to every single person that walked into the door in Williamsburg, asking them where they're from and how did they come to us. Many of them—aside from the regulars, of which there are a ton—were wandering around the neighborhood because they heard Williamsburg is a cool place. That wasn't the case two years ago. [In Chelsea] you have high visibility: the High Line, the Meatpacking District, you can see our sign when you're driving up Tenth Avenue.
Amy: For some vendors, it gives them a chance to step up their game. It gives them an opportunity for a bigger reach. Williamsburg is still a place where a ton of [store] buyers come through, especially internationally, because it feels a bit more "discovered," but the buyers end up coming [to Chelsea] and they are excited to see the vendors in a different venue.
Ronen: We've always wanted anyone who thought about selling their stuff to have the chance. Try it for a day. It's gonna cost you a hundred bucks, you're going to meet a ton of people, and you're going to walk out of there thinking you've learned something.
Amy: Vendors have really been able to identify their client. For some vendors, their client really is in both places, but for others, they've tried it, and their client is only in one of the two locations for whatever reason.
Do you mind if a major buyer from a major store comes through?
Amy: It's awesome. Anthropologie and Free People come through all the time for the vintage. There are a lot of Japanese tourists who come and have stores and place big orders.
Ronen: Buyers don't want to be invited, they want to discover.
Amy: If one of our vendors leaves beacuse they got a big wholesale order and that was their business objective, we're proud of that.
What products do you see succeeding in one location versus another?
Ronen: There is an insatiable appetite for vintage in Williamsburg. I think the right vintage in Chelsea works—it's a matter of selection and style and price because a lot of stylists and designers end up walking through.
Amy: Sometimes edgier stuff that's really artistic does better in Williamsburg but is a little misunderstood here [in Chelsea]. Things that work well in both places are more accessible, like t-shirts.
Ronen: Something I'm really proud of is that visual artists do well in both locations.
Amy: Sometimes it's also price point. People who design clothing, which has a higher price point, seem to do better [in Chelsea], especially if it's more architectural as opposed to more hipster. Hipster works in both locations. Things that are—oh, I don't want to use this word—more sophisticated and have more of a Chelsea, art-vibe [also work]. A couple hundred dollars for a beautiful, handmade shirt works here but not in Williamsburg, I think that price point is high for Williamsburg—but not for vintage.
When you get applications from vendors, what makes a vendor stand out?
Amy: I don't have to like everything—that would be ridiculous. Sometimes we get [applicants who make] really crafty things around the holidays like crocheted doll skirts, and it's just not going to work. I never want to take someone's money if I don't think they are going to make any money. What we always say to them is, "Have you been to the market? Come to the market, we feel pretty strongly that this isn't a good fit." We get emails from people all the time that say, "Thank you so much, you're right, it would have been a disaster, I wouldn't have made any money." We don't want people to do badly.
Of course there are times where we aren't quite sure—"That's interesting jewelry"—we give them a chance and they stay with us for six months. We have to be careful, though, because the whole market can't be jewelry or no one makes money.
Ronen: We look for a point of view. If it's someone who designs, or a vintage seller. Vintage sellers are artists in their own right.
Amy: Vintage sellers need to specialize in an era.
Ronen: Or a vibe, or a style.
Amy: Yeah, but we've defineitely had people apply and try to just sell their own clothes. That's not what we're about, we have Beacon's Closet for that.
Ronen: We're not a flea market. We walk this line and it can be very confusing to people. "This isn't a flea market, this is more expensive." But it's not a boutique.
You've had some vendors grow to a level of success leading them to wholesale businesses or their own stores. Is there any quality you see among them?
Ronen: They know what they want before they even come in. Many of them wanted a store of their own.
What is your general thought on pricing?
Ronen: Pricing definitely matters. Our goal is to create an experience where the market can decide what it wants and what it doesn't. I always tell people there's stuff at the market from five bucks to five hundred—we don't sit there an have a database, but we always look to have a good cross section of not just products but also price points.
Amy: In Williamsburg, your average price point is $25 to $150. [In Chelsea] you go up higher, but this time of year is weird.
Ronen: Right now it's all cheapo American tourists. What I'm hearing [from vendors] is that everything they're selling is under $40. They're selling a lot of it—the small stuff people can put in their suitcase.
Amy: So many of the corporate retailers have trained people to only buy stuff on sale. Sometimes shoppers try to nickle and dime our sellers and our vendors are like, "Listen, I made this by hand."
Ronen: They always try to haggle. In Williamsburg, shoppers are more interested in things that are made by hand and here it's like, "Why is that $30? I just saw the same thing on Canal Street."
What is your typical customer in Williamsburg like versus Chelsea?
Amy: What time of year?
Let's say about peak tourist season, summer time, versus holiday.
Amy: There are more tourists in the summer and more locals during holiday. Williamsburg has a lot of regulars. In the summer it brings a lot of tourists, for good or bad. Most of our vendors are there year round and they have pretty consistant numbers: the locals go away for the summer and the tourists fill it in.
Ronen: It only takes one customer to make your day. And most people have that customer.
What do you think about when you think of placing a vendor in one location versus the other?
Amy: They self-select. Sometimes we encourage certain vendors to try one location versus the other.
When it comes to laying out the market, what's your philosophy?
Amy: This is an art.
Ronen: Flow is so important, and it's really tricky. I look at display, price, style.
Amy: There's some level of seniority, too, but we don't want them to get too comfortable because you've got to mix it up.
Ronen: The best compliment is when someone does better than they expected in their space, because they had to rethink the way they do business. You have to sell yourself and tell your story in a different way.
Are there any other locations or expansions in your future or on your dream list?
Amy: We have a wish list. The next couple of years will be interesting for us because we have a few things on the horizon. We have a couple of options and it's about picking the next one because we can't do all of them at once. When you've been in business for ten years, it's pretty monumental on a certain level. We're trying to be very thoughtful and strategic.
What's it like to have been a couple and run a business for ten years?
Ronen: Well, we've had the good fortune of being best friends for longer than we've been married. We've also had the benefit of not necessarily running the business as intensively at the same time.
Amy: Ronen is very involved in the day-to-day and I'm not—that's very useful. Nothing's going to come before our relationship, and we've been lucky to have a business together but it's a circus. We've had a lot of control over our time because of it. We work hard, but we play harder. We are able to travel a ton. We don't fight so much in general, but we never fight about the business.
Do you have any career advice for either someone who wants to start their own retail business in general, or makers who might want to start selling?
Amy: I'll take the first one. Dip your toe in the water and do a lot of research. Work at a store so that you really understand all that you don't understand. Befriend store owners and ask them, "What's the hardest thing? What's the sale cycle like? What's cash flow like?" Because the more informed you are the more you can be prepared to go out on your own. If you want to open a shoe store next to another shoe store, of course they aren't going to give you information. But if you want to open on the Lower East Side, go to someone [who has a store] on the Upper West Side. Be transparent.
Ronen: For the makers looking to start selling, I think that markets are a great low-risk platforms. Go find a market that you think is right for you, talk to some vendors.
Lightening Round! 8am or 8pm?
Handmade or vintage?
Montauk or Rockaway?
Mac or PC?
North West or Blue Ivy?
Ronen: What's Blue Ivy?
Amy: I have to go with Jay-Z's kid.
TV show you absolutely can not miss an episode of?
Amy: Breaking Bad.
'30s, '60s, or '90s?
Amy: I guess the '90s. I like the '60s. No, I don't like the '60s, I like the '70s.
Sriracha or ketchup?