New York City has been celebrating the September reopening of the Chelsea Flea Market. The shared joy of dealers, collectors, buyers and tourists is palpable, even with restrictions and social distancing. Larry Baumhor, a former dealer in vintage photographs at the Garage Antique Flea Market, has chronicled the history of that institution and the Chelsea venue as well. He revisited the new Chelsea market recently and reports back for PKM.
“I think you can’t have a real city without a flea market, so the new Chelsea market is automatically good for New York,” said Joel Rotenberg, a longtime collector of photographs. “And since the new market is a rejuvenated, more relaxed, better version of the one under the Bosses [Alan and Helene Boss], with near-total continuity of what was left of the old-time flea market community, you couldn’t really ask for more under the circumstances.”
Rotenberg continued: “The circumstances being Covid, of course. Covid means the market has (by law) fewer dealers than it might have had otherwise and it means the crowds are smaller. There are essentially no tourists: one dealer estimated that tourists normally account for a third of market attendance. And I’m sure plenty of New Yorkers are still shy of crowds. Overall, I’d say dealers are provisionally happy but hoping for better times.”
“Yes, I miss the Garage’s regular photo dealers like you, Estelle Rosen and Robert Skingle. The regulars became sporadic under Helene Boss; so far even those dealers haven’t returned to the new market. But they will.
“I enjoy all flea markets, Larry. This is the only show in town and it’s not a bad one. The improvement over the previous reign of terror is very clear. There are many small touches that I think must be widely appreciated, like the free entry, the on-site coffee and the ATM.”
On January 1, 2020, Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler, owners of the Brooklyn Flea Market, leased the parking lot on West 25th Street near 6th Ave., formerly known as the Chelsea Flea Market. The previous owners of the Chelsea Flea, Alan and Helene Boss, harmed the reputation of the market, in the view of many dealers I spoke with, conducting an abusive reign of terror that drove people away. The Chelsea Flea, operating under new ownership, was scheduled to open April 1, 2020. But Covid hit and all the hopes were placed on hold until September 12, 2020.
I spoke with Eric Demby in January of 2020, congratulating him and offering my help with contacts of former dealers and buyers. Eric had aspirations of a dealer/buyer-friendly market with dignity and respect for all, a Manhattan haven for antiques and collectibles.
I had sold vintage photography at the Garage Antique Flea Market at 25th & 6th Ave. for fifteen years when it closed on June 29, 2014, because the property was bought by a real estate developer who built a luxury hotel on that spot. All of my friends were going to sell at the Chelsea Flea Market across the street from the Garage. I was concerned about the emotional and financial well-being of my friends selling at the Chelsea Market under the control of the Bosses. I was documenting and writing a book about the Garage and Chelsea Markets, with interviews, my own narrative, an oral history and photos. I’m still searching for a publisher, but I created a blog.
I thought Eric Demby was creating a fantasy land, a utopia for antiques and collectibles. I didn’t believe him. However, on November 7, 2020, I visited the Chelsea Flea Market for the first time under the new owners.
Dear Eric, I apologize for doubting your vision. Here’s what happened:
David Cohn: “The market is a delight. Yesteryears have come back to its previous incarnation. For years the market was monopolized by a power-hungry couple. I refused to attend the market when it was run by Satan’s daughter. We respect the virus and are very careful. It feels so good to be back again. You feel a special human element. There’s a good crowd every weekend, despite no tourists. People are not traveling. And we’re still getting celebrities like Catherine Deneuve.”
Kevin Landers: “The new owners have an interest in making it like the Dollar Lot.” (The Dollar Lot was a famous antique market on 6th Ave., between 24th and 25th Streets, from the mid-1970s through 2003.) “They are also really good at marketing. They advertise and have a serious social media reach. We’re getting sophisticated buyers. The owners have a following from their other market. We’re getting just New Yorkers. Could you imagine if we had tourists? I like to curate a look. I also have a shop in Brooklyn. The market for me is only a piece of the pie.”
Yardena Lulu: “I like this market a lot. The new management is liberal, allows you to move a few inches over your space.” (The previous owner Helene Boss walked around with a tape measure and if you were an inch over the spot, she would charge you, unless you moved.) “There’s an ATM and a coffee concession. It’s a nice atmosphere compared to the way it used to be. There is no tension. Customers are younger and some are coming from Brooklyn. The younger people like to dress up in high-quality clothes. Business is better than a year ago with the previous owners. There are no tourists because of Covid.”
Janet West is a legendary dealer who sold odd collectibles at the Garage and the Chelsea Flea Market but has not been set up since the market reopened. “I would love to come back it looks wonderful,” Janet said. “People are happy and hungry for this market. It’s way less stressful than with the previous owners. I’m still buying and selling on Instagram and eBay, but I’ll be back.”
Chuck Auerbach: “Business has been good. I like the way this market is run compared to the way it was run before. It’s friendlier. Everything is better, even the equipment that I rent is better.
Wren Britton: “I’m a freelance jewelry designer. I make jewelry accessories. I come to the Chelsea Flea looking for jewelry supplies. I sell jewelry through my website all over the world, and some boutiques, www.purevile.com. I have a background in fashion, but I have always had a love for accessories. They really can make a simple outfit pop, or make an extreme outfit topple over with glamour. I think Coco Chanel said something like ‘When you leave your house, always turn around and look in the mirror and take off the first thing you see.’ I turn around and the first space I see I pin on something else! All items are handmade with love. All one of a kind made from antiques, heirlooms, bones, doll parts, keys, lace, oddities and curiosities of all shapes and sizes. Things found in an attic. I repurpose old jewelry. Things forgotten in a basement. Things behind glass in a museum. This is PUERILE.
The vendors are knowledgeable, interesting people. Vendors are in a better mood. It feels like a community. There was a lot of tension when the previous owners operated the flea. Everyone is happier now. It’s a social outlet. Dressing like this comes naturally, it’s who I am. I’ve always dressed fashionably since I was young. I was inspired by Boy George and Cyndi Lauper.”
Kodjo Volta: “I specialize in sculptures from all over Africa. I also sell indigo fabrics from Mali and Burkina Faso, a country north of Ghana. Indigo is an organic plant-based dye. The dye looks like the original dye from blue jeans.
I have people who search for fabrics and sculptures. It’s very difficult to buy old sculptures, especially before 1920. They are valuable, but I do get them. I buy sculptures from American coalitions. Sculptures from particular countries where the culture died years ago like Gabon are rare and valuable. People from Gabon became Christians very early. It was colonized and the religion was changed. In certain parts of Africa, there are civil wars and conflict.
It’s interesting that you asked this because a lot of stuff comes out from the conflicts in certain regions. People migrate when there is a conflict. They take the objects and sell them. People lose their culture when they leave. The kids often become educated in open schools in the refugee camps. Some kids are sent abroad.
Business has been good so far. The new owners advertise very well. A lot of new young customers, even in the pandemic with no tourists. There is a huge difference now. There are no conflicts like before with the previous owners. It’s beautiful, peaceful, and well organized.”
“The idea of wandering around a flea market in search of a bargain may fit with the era of austerity being felt in France and elsewhere but, according to historian Andrew Hussey, it was a pastime that was actually invented by the surrealists in the 1930s.” ‘The whole surrealist aesthetic came from flea market flânerie (strolling),” he says. “André Breton, the leader of the surrealists, was fascinated by pieces that were regarded as being of no use anymore. He would go to the flea markets and pick up old ear trumpets and elephants’ feet and lots of African pieces too.”–Kate Watson-Smyth
Connie Nadig: “There’s positive energy and they advertise. There are no tourists. With my type of merchandise, I depend on tourists. I come every other week. I also sell at Columbus and Lambertville. But I do more business in this market.”
Zigg Dabrowski: “Business is fantastic! Mostly New Yorkers. And mostly young ladies who like to wear men’s clothing. A lot of younger people. Older people seem to be staying at home. We’re getting more people than before even with the pandemic. The market is more pleasant now. Everybody is happy.”
An interview with Eric Demby, the owner of the Chelsea Flea Market:
Larry: How’s business been for the dealers?
Eric: I think you know this better than me! But when I’ve made my rounds the dealers seem happy and content, which I consider more my role at this phase. We’ve gotten great press and have more coming, and the business seems to be there for the folks I talk to. But I always take what I hear with a grain of salt.
Larry: What are the buyer’s saying?
Eric: Buyers are the same as dealers: just glad we’re open. During Covid, there are so few sources of actual joy, and I think dealers, operators, and the public are sharing in the happiness of having this New York treasure right now.
Larry: A lot of younger people are attending the flea. Where do you advertise to attract customers?
Eric: We’ve also done more promotion than advertising with our markets—the best PR is a fantastically curated market. We had a nice New York Times mention with some photos about a month ago, a story in Gothamist, and we’re going to be in the New York Magazine “Lookbook” feature in a couple of weeks. We have 114K followers on our @bkflea Instagram, and are almost up to 5K on @chelsea_flea now too. We post amazing photos from fans, and also hire influencers to do “Instagram takeovers” like one we did with longtime shopper @purevile last weekend. That’s all definitely helping add an afternoon cool vibe to the longtime morning diehards.
Larry: What’s your opinion about the market since you opened it? Have there been any glitches?
Eric: No real glitches, knock on wood! We are truly over the moon that we even had a chance to actually open this market after being so close back in March. For it to be thriving and have such great energy is really fueling us professionally and emotionally these days.
Larry: Are you surprised that so many people are coming because of the pandemic?
Eric: The crowds are where I hoped they would be. But my expectations were managed before we launched, as you might imagine.
Larry: I noticed the tarot reading in front of the market. Can you tell me how that operates?
Eric: She’s my neighbor Rachel! @alltimetarot We are old friends and she gave me a reading on our roof this summer because she’s just starting to do it professionally. It was my first tarot reading and it really resonated with me. She wanted to put herself out there. I love how her booth looks and the vibe it creates in the market. Also, we had this awesome astrology-chart reader (who also sold vintage furs!) when we first opened the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene back in April 2008, so there was something kind of cosmic and full circle about having Rachel there.
Larry: Why did the food vendors stop selling? Are you going to have any more food vendors?
Eric: We needed more room for flea-market vendors! So many great people are applying to sell every day, and the most important thing for any new market (if this one can be called “new”) is that big push at the beginning where people experience it and tell their friends how great it is. So, I didn’t want to turn away any quality sellers at this stage, and since the food and bar weren’t doing much business anyway, we decided to make room for 5-6 more vendor spaces. We’ll probably bring back the food and bar when things are somewhat back to normal next year (fingers crossed).
Larry: Are you surprised with very few tourists attending there are still a lot of buyers and dealers?
Eric: Pleasantly surprised to be sure!
Larry: Are you planning anything new?
Eric: We may have something going with the local Business Improvement District to close 25th Street and have some holiday music/entertainment in December. Not confirmed though. Right now, our focus is trying to keep the market strong and vibrant enough to make it through January-March.
Larry: How’s the Brooklyn Flea Market performing? Please include the address.
Eric: It’s also going really well! Similar good vibes and crowds. It’s in Dumbo at the Manhattan Bridge Archway, 80 Pearl St., 10 am-4 pm, Saturdays only. www.brooklynflea.com