Reinventing the Town Square
Alex Raij, the chef and co-owner of New York City tapas restaurants El Quinto Pino and Txikito, ventured across the East River on a recent windy spring morning. Armed with a jug of liquefied gazpacho, she aimed to win over the palettes of Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby, the founders of the Brooklyn Flea. They spent a good deal of April interviewing potential vendors for a new all-food Saturday market—dubbed Smorgasburg—that they opened this month along Brooklyn's Williamsburg waterfront. Raij, a creative and renowned chef who's been in the restaurant industry for more than a decade, had never created a packaged food—but hopes her bottled gazpacho, branded La Buena, can make it at the market and, someday, at the grocery store.
"We want to make a product that lives beyond the restaurant, and for that the flea is so perfect," she told Butler and Demby, pouring them cups of cool soup, sprinkled with crab meat, olive oil, and croutons. "It's so hard to get seed money for a food product, but at the market we can scale it up in a small way and grow the business step-by-step."
They agreed it was a good fit, and Raij became one of hundreds of vendors that have, over the past four years, become affiliated with the Brooklyn Flea, and who use the weekend markets as venues through which to gain exposure, sales, and a community of loyal supporters.
Butler and Demby are entrepreneurs themselves. Butler, a lifelong New Yorker, had a somewhat schizophrenic career in business, dabbling in real estate, editing stories at a magazine, earning an MBA, buying an ownership stake of a design store, and working at a large Wall Street brokerage firm. While in finance, he anonymously began a popular blog about Brooklyn real estate. That was until 2007, when he quit commuting from Brooklyn into Manhattan, quit the firm, and exposed himself as the writer behind Brownstoner.com. The same year, as he completed renovations on his own Brooklyn brownstone, Butler became enamored with architectural salvage materials. He put up an announcement on Brownstoner.com that he was founding a weekend summer flea market near downtown Brooklyn.
"I think within the first 48 hours of that blog post going up we had 80 or 90 vendors apply," Butler said. "I just thought, 'Jesus. We're kind of on to something.'" He was joined by Demby, a friendly acquaintance who had spent recent years as a speechwriter for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. The pair opened the first Brooklyn Flea on April 6, 2008. An estimated 20,000 people showed up to search for treasures hawked by antique dealers, local artisans, and chefs. The Brooklyn Flea has since grown into a weekend institution for the borough's hipster foodies, vintage-clothing lovers, and design mavens. The New York Times dubbed it "one of the great urban experiences in New York." Today, Butler and Demby work with two additional staffers, publishing Brownstoner, managing a rotating cast of 500 independent vendors, facilitating four locations of the weekend market, and catering Central Park's SummerStage concerts. And now, add Smorgasburg.
Like the Brooklyn Flea, it is poised to not only be a bustling marketplace, but also a business incubator of sorts—with individual artisans and sellers growing their small businesses at a vibrant, hip market, often attended by scouts from established retailers, such as Dean & Deluca or Ralph Lauren. "It's low-cost retail with good foot traffic, so it's ideal for them," Demby says. "That's one of the most satisfying—and unexpected—aspects of what we've done."
It's also satisfying, Demby says, that the flea is bucking most of the retail trends of the day: Online shopping, group buying, daily deal purchasing. "You go to the flea and people are literally bartering face-to-face, and going stall-to-stall the way people did 100 years ago," he says. "There's a timeless quality to what we do."
"But meanwhile people are checking in there on Foursquare," Butler interjects. And, sure enough, the duo spends most of their weekdays connected online, with two other employees working out of a shared office in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood. And the Brownstoner blog is still the cornerstone of the Brooklyn Flea brand.
"While that wasn't my initial 'grand scheme,' there is clearly a model where both publishing and events fit in a quite complimentary way," Butler says. "Now, business-wise, the flea has become a bigger business than the blog that gave birth to it."
Ask Butler and Demby whether they've used a replicable formula for a bustling artisan market—say, a Cleveland Flea—they sigh. Curation, carefully selecting vendors for each market, has been a focus from the start. Today, they attribute the unique and diverse mix of crafters, artisans, vintage resalers, and chefs, to the growing global reputation of the Brooklyn Flea.
"Even for us, if we think about doing a market in another city, you don't ever know if you can re-bottle the magic," Butler says. "You don't quite know how you did it in the first place. A nice day at the flea feels like exactly where you want to be at that moment and there's this sense of community—it's really hard to put your finger on or tell someone how to recreate it."
00:07 Eric Demby: For the Brooklyn, we... Is... It's... What is it?
00:35 Jonathan Butler: I had a thing about it for a couple years, having spent my '90s living in Downtown New York and going to the Chelsea Flea Markets almost every weekend. I was sort of surprised when I moved out to Brooklyn, that there wasn't a big flea market and it seemed like an obvious place, with all the creative people and people on... People with a little less money than they had, and it seemed like the perfect storm. You know we had a few months leading up to the launch where we had no revenue, obviously, but one of the nice things business-wise about a flea market, it's a relatively capital unintensive business. So it doesn't take a million dollars to start a flea market. You're not building any buildings; you're not putting in any infrastructure. We were... It's just the two... At that point, it's just the two of us. So overhead was pretty low. Really, I think that all we did was we brought commonsense, I guess some taste, some marketing abilities and that's all, and really, and some people skills. I think that's a big thing. But really it was literally just like commonsense and making it up as you go along.
01:49 Demby: I think we realized how much we liked doing fleas in Brooklyn. And we haven't done... It's not that we'll never do anything in Manhattan but I think that every time an opportunity arises to do something in the city, we get close to wanting to do it and then we're like, "Well, we can always just keep doing what we're doing in Brooklyn." And there's something more... I don't know, it still feels kind of special to be doing like big things in Brooklyn these days. If I do... I think one of the things that makes... Sort of makes the flea distinctive is this sort of community feeling, this kind of like overall environment that feels sort of family and free and open and positive. The vendors feel like they're part of a community. They actually are part of a community. So people felt like now that it... They feel now that they were part of what made it successful.
02:37 Butler: And then once you have loyal members of a community, they're gonna go out, be out there proselytizing for you and spreading the word for your business and...
02:47 Demby: When people hear flea market they may think tube socks and cologne; but we're not fancy but we have nice stuff.
Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby knew they were on to something when they opened the Brooklyn Flea back in 2008 and 20,000 people showed up. This month they introduce a new all-food market, called Smorgasburg.
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.