There may be no arbiter of culinary cool greater than the Brooklyn Flea. The sprawling market has served as incubator extraordinaire for countless impassioned entrepreneurs chasing the dream of ditching the cubicle-combs of Manhattan for freedom in the guise of a living hustled by hovering over a fiery range.
The Flea stands as an institution of such influence and import that it’s hard to believe it’s only been around for five years. We met up with market co-founder Eric Demby to learn more about the inception, meaning, and meteoric rise of the hallowed fields of Flea.
So Eric, let’s start at the beginning…How did the Flea come to be?
Well, I was a journalist for a while, and then I got a job working as the speechwriter for Marty Markowitz, who is of course the Borough President of Brooklyn. I worked for Marty from 2003 until the middle of 2007, and while I was there, Jonathan Butler, who is the co-founder of the Flea, launched Brownstoner. Brownstoner emerged as a unique voice for what we called ‘new’ Brooklyn. There’s a lot of old Brooklyn media that covers the same stuff all the time, but Brownstoner was a new place where you could reach a different kind of audience, and have a different kind of impact. I was working as a spokesperson for an elected official, so I paid attention.
Jonathan was anonymous when he launched Brownstoner, but we emailed back and forth frequently. When I started looking for the next thing after working for Marty for a while, I talked to him about working on Brownstoner. The timing wasn’t quite right, so I went back to freelance journalism.
Jonathan came up with the idea of doing the Flea, and in the fall of 2007, he actually found and secured the Fort Greene location and announced it on his blog. This happened at a time when I was really looking for something to do. I wanted to do something on my own. I didn’t want to go back to working for someone else. I was intrigued by the Flea idea, so Jonathan and I met and had a whiskey at Rebar, in DUMBO. I think we were the only people there. We talked about it, and we saw a lot of potential for it.
It’s funny to think about now, but in 2007, there was still some novelty to talking about building something big and new in Brooklyn. Now it’s like a cliché, but really just five years ago, Brooklyn did not have the kind of identity that it does now, as a place where you can kind of build or do anything.
We also thought we’d be well positioned, by working together, to make it a success. Jonathan had this huge platform with Brownstoner. I had all this experience with both press and journalism, and with community building and events. So there was enough overlap that we decided to just do it. We went full-on inventing this thing, never thinking about how anyone else had ever done a flea market – just always with the confidence that if we put it together the way we believed it should be done, we’d get it right. So it wasn’t a random idea that we thought we’d just try and see what happened – we were very serious about it from the beginning. We were like, “Let’s build this thing.”
It’s interesting to think that Brooklyn’s identity as a place was so different just a few years ago. It hadn’t really been defined in the way it has been since. There was no sort of obvious way for people to get their heads around what exactly Brooklyn was, and why it was so great. A lot of people point to the Flea as something that really catalyzed that, or captured it. Was there an intent on your part to do that?
There was definitely some intent, although I don’t think either of us would have used those words at that time.
Working for Marty…one of his major initiatives was always putting Brooklyn on the map. Brooklyn was the only borough with its own tourism center, and as a communications director for the borough president, I was kind of an ad hoc clearinghouse for press. We’d get emails from journalists all the time, saying things like, “I want to do a story about Brooklyn for a Japanese magazine. Where should I go?”
And there was a list of places to go, but it was kind of weird. We’d always ask ourselves, “What’s Brooklyn about?” You could go eat at Diner. You could go to Coney Island and ride the Cyclone, or walk across the bridge and go to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. There are icons, but none that really capture what Brooklyn is all about. What I’d always try to convey to those journalists was that what you really want to do is just wander around a place like Fort Greene on a Saturday and think, “Wow, this is a really cool vibe.” Ha ha.
I think one of the things that has made the Flea what it is, is that it captured that in some way. It emerged as a sort of partial cross-section of people and things that make Brooklyn great. It’s got all these people trafficking in everything from vintage furniture to eyeglass frames to t-shirts, taxidermy and salt water taffy. It’s almost like…there’s this Paul Auster book I just read where this guy makes a miniature version of the world in his giant mansion. It’s basically like that. It’s like Brooklyn distilled down to its essence.
You can go to the Flea and you can have an authentic experience that’s actually not manufactured. In New York it’s harder and harder to do that, as a tourist or someone who lives here. It reminds me of the New York I moved here for, the New York I know and love, that’s gotten harder and harder to find – the New York that sort of reveals itself to you slowly, and delivers new kinds of experiences week after week.
When we started out, Jonathan and I both saw that in order for the Flea to be a success in the way we wanted it to be a success, it couldn’t just be a fun place for people in Fort Greene to hang out. We knew it would have to be something that would draw people from all over Brooklyn, from Manhattan, and tourists from all over the world. We said, “If we’re going to charge vendors $100 for a spot, and we want to have a hundred and forty vendors, it’s not going to work if we just have a thousand people from the surrounding neighborhoods coming by each week.” The whole model was based on getting a lot of people to come every week. We didn’t know exactly how that was going to happen, but we felt like there was a lot of potential for it to happen.
And it did. It’s weird now that we’re becoming an institution. Other people are starting to do similar things to what we do, which feels strange. But we don’t feel old – we’re still having fun.
Tell me a little bit about those early days. What were you doing on a day to day basis then? And when did it start feeling like it was going to be a big thing?
Early on, I spent a lot of time recruiting vendors. Like the Salvatore Brooklyn Ricotta girls. They don’t do the market anymore – they’ve sort of outgrown it – but I remember having a drink with Betsy at Café Tabac on Smith Street the February before the market opened. They had been featured in the Times food section and I was like, “I have to get them for the market.” We talked and she was like, “That sounds cool.” A week later they told me they were officially in, and not only were they in, they were excited about it – they saw it as a conduit for growing their business. So they were my first real coup. They were in it with is. They needed it as much as we did. There was a lot of that sort of running around, trying to line up great vendors before the first market.
Twenty thousand people came to the first Flea, so we really knew right away that it could be big. The weather was terrible, with this cold, sprinkly rain, but we had gotten some great early press and the turnout was huge. A DJ friend of mine called Small Change had agreed to sell records at the Flea, and the Times ran a full-page story on that in the Style section a few months before the market debuted. The Red Hook Ballfield food vendors joined, and that had gotten all the food bloggers going. New York Magazine ran a full three-page guide to the market the week before we launched. The New York Times came to opening day and set up a photo shoot in the softball backstop. They took pictures of people all day, and ran it on the front page of the Style section the following week…
It was unbelievable. This all happened within a period of two weeks, and right in the middle of it was the first Flea, and twenty thousand people showed up.
Then the Times and everybody started running stories about the food. We started getting national and even international press by the summer. So that all happened right away and that was when we realized there was this bottomless, infinite need for stories about Brooklyn.
We had a lot of attention, but it was not easy figuring out how to stabilize everything and capture it all. We knew right away that we were really on to something, but it really took a good year or two to stabilize things. It’s a lot of work for the vendors. If it rained one day, the number of people coming to the market would drop dramatically, and the vendors wouldn’t make any money, so we’d lose all our momentum and have to start again from scratch. Back then, half the vendors every week were new. The markets weren’t always full. We needed to have reliable, consistent crowds for the vendors, so they’d show up and keep showing up every week. It didn’t really stabilize until the tourists started coming in 2008.
Once we knew we were going to have this platform we were able to take a long view of it, but it wasn’t easy keeping it together on a week-to-week basis. I was working really hard to convince vendors to come on, and if they had a bad day, I was begging them to stay. It’s a blessing, you could say, that that’s no longer the case.
It was non-stop – booking the vendors for each week, making sure everyone knew where they needed to be, when they needed to be there, trying to inspire people to keep coming back. I’d go to the market on the weekend, get there at 6:30 in the morning, work all day until 8pm, talking to the vendors, helping them get set up, collecting money, and just controlling this market with thousands of people in it. It was all-encompassing. It still is, but now we have more people working on it so it’s not as crazy.
I think the beginning was really exciting for everyone. I think that’s why a lot of the original vendors are still there, and why so many people come back to the market again and again – we all feel like we created it together. People were like, “We’re on to something here. It might not be working perfectly, but we’re just going to have to wait it out and keep showing up.” They did, and everyone helped each other out and that’s what allowed the market to succeed, and I think that’s why people are so proud of it now.
And how has the day-to-day changed for you now that things have stabilized? What has it become?
There are still a lot of logistics, but now a lot of the effort goes into sort of protecting the Flea, and the essence of what it is. It’s called the Brooklyn Flea, but I don’t want it to ever feel like a branded experience. I try to maintain a generic flea market quality to it. It’s not about it being the Brooklyn Flea so much – it’s about the people buying and selling things there.
People ask me all the time, “What’s the Flea about?,” and I’ll have these quasi-religious moments contemplating that. It’s not an easy question to answer, but the question itself is like a guiding principle. For example, if some corporate brand wants to market a product through the Flea, I’ll ask myself that question. I’ll go to that place and come back and say, “You know, it’s just not really what we do.” I’m not against that sort of thing. I understand the way the world works now, but if it doesn’t fit with what has made the market such a success, we’re not going to do it.
We think of the Flea as a community, and more importantly, as of the community. I know community is sort of a loaded word – you can transpose any meaning you want onto it – but for our purposes, community sort of is our brand. So we protect our brand the way any company would, but it means something different for us. We don’t talk about projecting an image to the world. Our brand is actually about being hands off with that sort of thing – just letting the market be the thing that it is. Basically, to be brandless, in the era of brands.
There are a bunch of people selling things to people who want to buy them. That’s what the Brooklyn Flea is. We really think of ourselves as a platform for whatever happens there. So on a day-to-day basis we try to make it as easy as possible for our vendors to sell their products. We try to keep the price low. The way we keep the price low is to keep lots of people coming to the markets each week, so it can support lots of vendors. The more people, the more vendors, and the more vendors, the better it is for everyone.
So we make it as easy as we can. We try to get vendor parking zones approved by the city, we hire security and cleanup crews so it’s a comfortable place to go. We work with the politicians to make sure nothing gets in the way. Our job is to keep the forty thousand square foot space where the market takes place pure, on a week-to-week basis. Which is not that simple, but that’s what we do.
And we work to keep the right mix of vendors. What we do on a day-to-day basis now is fairly complicated, but when it comes to the market itself, it’s really about limiting the static.
Do you feel pressure to keep adding new vendors? Do you feel like you have to be continually mixing it up to keep things fresh?
I do feel that pressure, but I try to resist it. The Flea is a very complicated organism. It’s sort of like pure capitalism. The vendors just bring stuff that they think is going to sell into a small ten foot by ten foot space. If it doesn’t sell, they’re going to leave. So we have an organic turnover that forces us to have new people if we want to stay full. That’s a kind of natural force of the market that gives things a sort of magical balance.
The vendors that keep coming back are only coming back because they’re selling stuff. It’s kind of evolved to a point now where people actually assume that their favorite vendors will be there each week, so we don’t need as much new stuff as we once did. It’s better for us to have that stability now, for many reasons.
One of the things with Flea, if you want to peek behind the curtain a little bit, is that our professional relationships with the vendors are really symbiotic. We have been loyal to them. We work hard to bring people in the door, which benefits them. And we benefit by knowing they’re going to be there every week, paying for that space. We’ve had a lot of vendors come and go since the beginning – the percentage of those who stay and show up each week and are responsible and friendly? It’s actually pretty low. Once we find those people we like to keep them.
It’s really a family or mafia-style thing. They’re in. We prefer that they only sell at our markets now, and it benefits them to not sell at other markets because it keeps the Flea special. Now that the market has matured, we like that we don’t have a lot of turnover, or feel a need for new vendors. We like that these are businesses that we’re able to help grow, that hire people and sometimes go on to start brick and mortar operations. The Flea is really a business incubator – it’s been a positive economic story in a time that hasn’t had many. So catering to the whims of people wanting new things is pretty heavily outweighed by the kind of natural machinery of the Flea.
Also, new vendors are a lot of work. Every food vendor has to drop off samples or come in for a tasting. They have to get all these permits. We have to promote them. If they start and they fail or don’t come back, that’s a lot of time wasted for us. So new vendors can be a mixed bag. But the success ratio for new vendors now is much higher. We’re much better at identifying who is going to succeed.
How many applications to you get? How do you pick?
We’ve had about 15,000 people apply to be in the market since we started. That’s a lot of people. One of the nice things about the market is that it’s an old fashioned situation. It’s not a big transaction for anybody. People come in, they try it out, if they like it they stay, if they don’t they move on. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. There are rarely any hard feelings.
It’s gotten to the point that I can look at a vendor application and pretty much know right away if they’re going to work out. I’ll be blunt about this – spelling matters. If you can’t construct a sentence or spell something correctly, it’s not a good sign that you’re going to be organized enough to show up at a market at 7am with a bunch of equipment and staff, and be able to make food efficiently all day long.
Photos matter too. If your photos are out of focus or don’t represent your food clearly? Not happening. Another thing that helps is showing that you know the markets, and you know what we already have and what we don’t have. If you send in an application saying you want to sell hot dogs? You should know better. Asia Dog and Brooklyn Bangers are at all three of our markets each week. Not happening.
We look for food vendors who have one thing that they do really, really well, and that no one else at the market is already doing. So we look at all those things. It’s like interviewing someone for a job, or dating. If you don’t fit all the normal criteria but you make something amazing, we’ll give you a shot. Because you never know, there’s always that possibility. It’s sort of like discovering a movie star in a Hollywood pharmacy in the old days – that’s the attitude we have about it.
It’s really different now than it was at the beginning. In the beginning when we were desperate for good vendors I spent all this time going to people’s houses, trying their food and hanging out with them. I remember going to the Choncho’s Tacos guy’s apartment in the East Village right after my first child was born. It was like a hundred degrees outside. He lived in a fifth floor walkup. He was deep frying all this fish and making tortillas from scratch in this tiny apartment. I hung out with him and his girlfriend for hours, talking about his food, getting to know them. Hours later I was like, “My wife is going to kill me!”
I remember Brooklyn Soda Works too. Those guys came to my house when I had a four month old baby, in a snowstorm. They trudged through the storm with all this crazy stuff they’d been making in their basement with grapefruit rinds and those kinds of things. The baby was crying, we were all jammed into my kitchen, they set up this carbonator on my tiny kitchen island and we started tasting sodas and I was like, “Wow. This is amazing.” That’s just how it worked then. Now, it’s more like speed dating.
What’s your take on the food thing? And by that I mean the explosion in interest in good or interesting or unique stuff…Obviously, the food vendors are a hugely important part of the Flea, and Smorgasburg is all food…
The food thing is really incredible. Brooklyn and New York are like nowhere else right now in terms of the entrepreneurial energy being put into food. People say food is like the new rock n’ roll, but it’s not like rock n’ roll. It’s much bigger. It’s amazing how many people are like, “I left my job because of the bad economy or because of a personal life choice, and food has always been important to me and da da da da da…” And many of them are quite smart about it. They take it seriously. They’re trying to launch a business. It’s the thing. It’s not that it’s cool, it’s that it’s apparently a sector of the economy that has real potential, unlike most other sectors right now.
I think a lot of factors come into play with the food thing, which is why it’s so powerful. It’s so bourgeois – it’s hard for me to talk about it without getting into the political elements of it. Originally my goal with Smorgasburg was to create this locavore Shangri-La, with the Greenmarket, farmers and all these great local food vendors together in one place. The reality is that people want to go there and stuff their faces with smoked meat. Ha ha ha!
Look, my feeling is that the Flea and Smorgasburg are platforms in the biggest and most influential market in the country, if not the world. If you want to succeed, you have to sell people what they want, and the markets do that, but while doing that we hope to be part of elevating this concept or perspective on the way the world works and promoting that to a wider audience.
I think there’s a corollary at play – the deeper and faster we move into the technology black hole, the stronger things like the Flea and other entities that are connected to food and community become. Real world interpersonal connections are harder and harder to come by. Talking with someone who makes or grows food, and then eating their food offers a very human and direct way to connect. I don’t want to get too philosophical about it, but I think the food thing is really a very regressive movement, in a good way. We kind of went off course with the mass-mass production of food, and what’s happening now is the beginning of a course correction.
What has all this – the success of the Flea – meant to you personally?
I grew up in a sort of communal area of central Maine. A lot of people, artist types, including my parents, left New York in the 60s and 70s for places where the land was just dirt cheap. Up there, everybody just helped everyone else – building houses, farming, gardening. There were all kinds of musical performances and plays staged in old churches. My dad was in a weird analog electronic music ensemble called Central Maine Power. We had a farm. So those were my roots.
There was never any intention of replicating any of that with the Flea, but very soon after we started it, it became clear to me that part of what made it special was this sense of community and connection that was in some way similar to that life in Maine. I guess I’ve always craved that sort of thing. I’ve done a lot of things that I liked or even loved for work here in New York, but I don’t think I would have been able to stay here and start a family without the Flea. I don’t know…whatever the Flea is, I’ve always craved it.