Lords of the Flea

Lords of the Flea

It’s an unseasonably warm day in early November, the ground wet and puddle-speckled from showers that blew over earlier. Everyone’s removing hats, folding up scarves, tucking jackets under armpits. Though the day is just an anomaly in Brooklyn’s steady descent into winter (the next day would be gray and chilly), it has the exuberant feel of early spring.

It’s ideal weather for Smorgasburg, the outdoor food market. Today being Saturday, Smorgasburg is at East River State Park in Williamsburg, a bare-bones space facing the water. (On Sundays, the fair moves to the Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO.) Food vendors have set up their stalls in the shade of a waterfront high-rise, their chalk signs advertising freshly made offerings: pupusas with pickled cabbage, organic beef hot dogs topped with sesame slaw, blood-orange donuts, beet burgers. Near one stall, a boy chows down on some sort of fusion taco; pulled pork and pickled radish dangle ominously, but he expertly cradles the tortilla, managing not to add any new stains to his soccer jersey. At 11:30, the crowd is still a trickle. The only substantial line snakes away from Ramen Burger, the food fad of the moment.

For the most part, the people here skew young and casually fashionable. There are beards, there is plaid, there is bright lipstick and vintage clothing. It’s a tableau of what certain parts of Brooklyn have become, and what, now, at least in the popular imagination, has come to represent the borough as a whole. Attendees, a mix of tourists and locals, are drawn by the quirkiness of the food options, as well as a desire to eat locally. “It’s nice to get away from that chemical stuff,” a girl in tight jeans and a white scarf tells her friend.

Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler, founders of Smorgasburg, fit in with the crowd they’ve created. Butler, sporting floppy brown hair, jeans, and a navy hoodie, looks like an overgrown skater. Demby’s a little more polished, with grey hair and a trendy wool sweater, but his two young children, whom he’s brought along, keep him at least somewhat ruffled.

The two men stroll around the fair. (A man recognizes and stops Demby, and from the way he waves the man on — politely but firmly — it’s obvious he’s used to being approached.) Demby stops to get his daughter a s’more before joining Butler at Asia Dog, where they buy matching hot dogs topped with slivered carrots. They chat with the vendors. Butler runs off to catch his son’s soccer game, and Demby hands his hotdog to his wife. His two daughters run over to him, tugging at his jacket, demanding that he help them find a lost bow.

Demby, left, and Butler peruse the offerings at Smorgasburg.

Vendors are grateful, by and large, for the opportunity Smorgasburg affords them. Susan Markush and Patty Fields, the mother-daughter team behind Pecan Patti, have been selling at the market since last summer. “We’re originally from just outside of Savannah,” Fields explains. “When I first moved to Manhattan, I had such a craving for Southern-style candy. Pecans are really big in the South, but I couldn’t find anything that did it. I called my mom — we were always making and eating this stuff when I was growing up — and said, ‘We should start a business!’ Because there’s nothing like the stuff we make!”

“And here we are!” Markush says. “It’s been really positive.” She eyes a light flow of people streaming past her booth. “It will be busy later,” she says. (The market usually swells towards late afternoon.)

Smorgasburg’s benefits extend beyond foot traffic. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of the different vendors,” Fields says. “We share information about market opportunities. It’s a good community.”

Since being accepted by Smorgasburg last summer — Markush and Fields had applied a few years back, but didn’t make the cut — Pecan Patti has taken off. Fields was able to quit her job earlier this year; now, Pecan Patti is her job. Without Smorgasburg, that likely would not have been possible, a reality that both Fields and Markush recognize. Their ultimate dream is to develop a following substantial enough to allow them to break out of the market and set up their own brick-and-mortar shop, the way Smorgasburg successes like Mighty Quinn’s, Bombay Sandwich Co., and Dosa Royale have.

Smorgasburg is just one arm of the Brooklyn Flea empire, which started back in the spring of 2008, when Butler and Demby teamed up to open a market in Fort Greene on Sundays. The project was an instant hit, and has spread aggressively throughout Brooklyn, sprouting several additional venues. Currently, the Flea has locations throughout the borough, including the Fort Greene Flea on Saturdays, the Williamsburg Flea on Sundays, Smorgasburg in Williamsburg on Saturdays and DUMBO on Sundays (it moves indoors, to 80 North Fifth Street in Williamsburg, from Thanksgiving to April), and, recently, a Park Slope Flea on Saturdays and Sundays. This summer, the Flea set up a mini Smorgasburg, plus a full bar, at the South Street Seaport. The Flea ventured outside of the city altogether this past year. In June, Butler and Demby launched a Philadelphia spinoff (Brooklyn Flea Philly, which closed in October, the pair’s sole failure) and, in September, a Washington spinoff (the District Flea, which will return in the spring).

The expansion of the empire is far from finished. This January, Butler is opening a 140,000-foot office space in Crown Heights, with an attached 9,000-foot, Flea-run beer hall, scheduled to open in March. The two are also working on an undisclosed development project in the Lower East Side.

Thanks in part to its rapid expansion and the crowd it draws, the Flea has become one of the borough’s most recognizable attractions. It also looms large in the story of Brooklyn’s ongoing transformation by wealthy young newcomers, as neighborhoods, block by block, are remade in an image the Flea itself, only a few years ago, helped define.

The first Brooklyn Flea opened on April 6, 2008, a Sunday, in the fenced-in, blacktopped recreation yard of a Catholic high school in Fort Greene. The turnout, despite unseasonably chilly weather, was excellent; around 20,000 people showed up that first day. Locals, though, were less enthused. A church sits across the street from the fair, and congregants were overwhelmed by the chaos suddenly streaming down their once quiet sidewalks. There was palpable tension, and it wasn’t just coming from frustrated churchgoers who couldn’t find a place to park.

“It was a time in Fort Greene where it was transitioning into what that neighborhood is like now,” Demby says. “But because it was five years ago, there was more tension between people who had lived there a long time, and us. The perception of what we represented.”

“They were not wrong for us being a harbinger of what was to come,” Demby continues. If, when he goes out with friends, there’s a long wait for a table or a movie is sold out, they’ll jokingly blame him for making the borough so crowded. As with most jokes, there’s a kernel of truth at its heart. “I know what they mean,” Demby says. “Everyone laughs, but I think some undercurrent of that isn’t wrong.”

A vendor’s breads, from Smorgasburg.

“If you had a timeline,” Demby says, the day the flea opened “would probably be one of the milestones. Not in an egotistical way, but just because a lot of people came out that probably hadn’t been to Brooklyn before.”

“It was a tipping point in some ways,” Butler says. The Flea, both agree, got people who had never considered visiting Brooklyn before to get on the subway and check it out. “They got off the subway, and were like ‘That’s a beautiful brownstone,’” Demby says.

“‘Wait,’” Butler adds, “‘I can sell my bedroom in Manhattan and get this house?’”

Until the Flea, claims Demby, “There really wasn’t a reason to go to Brooklyn on a large scale.”

The Flea might never have existed if Jonathan Butler had liked his job at Merrill Lynch.

Butler, who grew up on the Upper East Side, graduated from Princeton in 1992 and spent subsequent years working unhappily on Wall Street.

In the early 2000s, he and his wife bought their first house, a five-floor brownstone in Clinton Hill, with fourteen-foot ceilings and nine fireplaces. In the fall of 2004, Butler, bored at work, started blogging anonymously about his brownstone’s renovations, quickly expanding the blog’s coverage to include real-estate developments and deals throughout the borough.

At the time, change in neighborhoods like Clinton Hill was accelerating, but relatively few people were chronicling it. “Those first couple years at Brownstoner tapped right into this thing that was happening,” Butler says. Brownstoner “became the water cooler for the borough, all the excitement and anxiety that underlays what was getting played out.”

The volume and pitch of reader responses to Brownstoner assured him there was a market for the coverage he was producing and a possibility that the site could grow into a viable business. In February 2007, after pocketing a bonus, Butler quit his job at Merrill Lynch. He had nine months of money to live off of — enough time, he figured, to see if Brownstoner could become profitable.

He also wanted to test another idea he’d been kicking around for a while: a flea market. In September, Butler organized a one-day market, which focused on salvaged architectural materials and featured vendors he’d sourced through Brownstoner. It was a modest but encouraging success, and so a month later, Butler decided he was ready to expand. He posted an ad for a business partner to get the flea up and running, and clicked with Demby, who had tried his hand at music journalism (with brief stints at Rolling Stone and MTV), before working for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, first as a speechwriter and then as Markowitz’s communications director.

Butler, left, asked Demby to help him start the original Brooklyn Flea in 2007.

The flea market in Fort Greene certainly wasn’t Brooklyn’s first. It was, however, the first intended for a certain type of shopper. For months before the opening, Butler and Demby courted potential vendors. From the start, they wanted to ensure that the Flea was, by their own standards, tasteful. “Stuff you’d put in your house,” Demby says. Butler adds, “No street fair crap like tube socks.” They accepted and rejected vendors based on gut instinct. “It’s kind of like pornography,” Butler says. “You know it when you see it.”

The pair’s taste appealed to the new wave of residents who have invaded Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Clinton Hill, and other neighborhoods en masse. (“If you wanted to find a ground zero for hipsterdom, it might be the Flea. I don’t think that would be wrong,” Demby says.) But the type of vendors they cultivated drew a criticism they’ve been hearing ever since: that their empire is too twee, too precious, and, most of all, too expensive. The Flea sells $1,300 reclaimed-wood tables, $250 hand-painted bike helmets, and $178 cutting boards.

The issue came to a head in November, when the Flea opened in Park Slope, at P.S. 321. Until Butler and Demby won a bid to operate their market in the schoolyard, the space was populated on weekends by old-time vendors, who had rented out spots at a rate as low as $40 a day. (Brooklyn Flea typically charges vendors between $120 to $275 per day, although they recently lowered prices at P.S. 321 to between $60 and $80.)

It’s a blisteringly cold day in late November, and the new Brooklyn Flea at P.S. 321 is essentially deserted. Only half of the scheduled vendors have shown up. If it weren't for the massive Brooklyn Flea poster, it would be easy to overlook the scrappy group gathered there.

Sam Lucey, the market’s manager, surveys the scene. He started working with Butler and Demby four and a half years ago, managing the concessions at SummerStage. This year, they asked him to continue on and help manage the winter market. He’s dressed for the job in a corduroy jacket and fur-lined hat, wings tightly drawn over his ears.

Lucey is aware that his market’s arrival has caused some anguish. A few of the old vendors stopped by to speak with him yesterday, citing multiple sources of dissatisfaction. “Some of them felt like they weren’t asked back, some are upset because the rent went up, and a lot of them are upset because of the way we operate,” he says.

At the old market, vendors could simply show up when they felt like it. But the Brooklyn Flea doesn’t accept walk-ons; vendors must apply for a spot at the market online, a process that requires sending pictures of their merchandise to Demby and Butler. Scheduling is coordinated by email. “A lot of the guys that were here before, they don’t even have computers, they don’t have an email address, they don’t know how any of that stuff works,” Lucey says. “They feel powerless. When you say, ‘All you have to do is go and send an email,’ they say, ‘I don’t even know how any of that works!’”

Lucey has been working with a few of them, asking if they have friends or family who could help them access a computer. If not, he directs them to the local library. “Some of the most pissed-off ones at the beginning have tried a computer, realized it wasn’t that bad, and are coming here and selling,” he says. “That’s really good to see.”

Even with computer access, though, some old vendors don’t meet the Flea’s standards. “We only really sell handmade stuff, and we prefer locally made stuff and vintage things. That’s a conscious decision by Eric and Jonathan, which upsets some of the old vendors. They feel like, ‘I’ve been here for 20 years and I made good money, I have customers that come back … why can’t I come here?’ It’s like they’ve been kicked out of their second home, and I can completely understand it,” Lucey says, shaking his head in sympathy. “My heart goes out to them. I feel bad that that’s the situation.”

One of the old-timers was among the brave few who turned up here today. Larry, who prefers not to give his last name, happily sells at the Brooklyn Flea.

“I’ve been here the longest,” he boasts. He’s been selling at P.S. 321 for well over 20 years, and his stall boasts a wide selection of merchandise: collectible action figures, jewellery, CDs, records, and his most prized items — a small selection of guitars.

He seems glad Demby and Butler are running things. He’s already seen the explosion of a “different breed of customer,” as he puts it, and business is up. He’s no longer close to the previous group of vendors, those who approached Lucey on Saturday, because “they feel like I betrayed them,” he says. Their stubbornness upsets him, even if he understands their frustration, especially when it comes to the Internet. “I just started using a computer,” he tells me. “I would have had the same problems if my son hadn’t set me up.”

According to Larry, the former vendors have relocated to a parking lot on 20th Street, between Fifth and Fourth avenues. But two weekends in a row, the lot is deserted. While P.S. 321 lies at the heart of Park Slope and on a busy shopping street, sandwiched between restaurants and boutiques, the displaced vendors have settled in South Slope, near vacated lots and auto-repair shops.

“It looks slow over there,” Larry says. “It’s not a neighborhood for walking.”

Where old vendors go is one question. Another, says Barika Williams, the policy director for the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, is where new vendors come from. It’s too rare, she believes, that vendors belong to the communities surrounding each the Flea’s various locations.

“There isn’t a neighborhood preference for local small businesses to grow via the Brooklyn Flea first,” she says. “There isn’t an explicit marketing, retention, and involvement strategy for local communities and local businesses.”

As ANHD’s policy director, Williams works to increase access to affordable housing in New York City and ensure that neighborhoods remain accessible for a wide range of New Yorkers. Her feelings about the Flea are mixed. While she’s encouraged that the market fosters small businesses, she concerned that it’s ultimately becoming a borough-wide chain.

She’s noticed that the same vendors sell at multiple Flea locations, and that worries her. What she’d like to see is for Butler and Demby to fill as many spots as possible with local vendors before opening it up to businesses outside the immediate community. She understands why this rarely happens, though. “It’s harder,” she sighs. “It's a heavier lift.”

Spring rolls, from a vendor at Smorgasburg.

Demby insists that all the vendors from the previous market at P.S. 321 were invited back, with the exception of vendors selling cell phone chargers. (“I don’t think it would be the right place for that,” he says.) And the old vending fee — $40 for a lot — “was way out of whack with what any market could charge,” Demby says. “My sense from being in that neighborhood a long time, myself and pretty much everyone I talk to, is that the market was dying a slow death, and had we not taken it over, it probably would have been gone within a year.”

He has little patience for people who resist moving in new directions. “In New York, most people adapt to change … but not everybody does. The types of folks who were selling at that market …” he says, trailing off. “One guy could have just asked for a spot at our market and sold there. We would have welcomed him back, because I liked him. Instead, he chose to make a big fuss about it. I guess I don’t really understand what the problem is.”

The vendor in question is Larry Fisher, who started a blog (and organized a protest, to which he arrived in a gorilla suit) to air his grievances with Butler, Demby and all that the Flea, in his view, represents.

“It’s always about making money,” Fisher wrote recently. “Except now, it is always about making money but having the PR to present to the public that it is not about making money but about ‘community,’ and about making a farm out of the tough inner city.”

“We live in an obnoxious time, in an obnoxious city, with lots of good people who are just hanging on by a thread,” he continues. “New Yorkers, Brooklyn people have been pushed around by people who come from Maine or the Upper East Side. We got pushed around and bullied, and there is no turning back. We lost the city.”

Butler’s latest project, the multi-purpose commercial space in Crown Heights, is a variation on the theme the duo’s flea markets have explored, and one that has already drawn familiar strains of criticism.

“The idea of what the market should look like versus a successful market aren’t always the same thing,” Williams says. “You can have a very successful retail area that doesn’t look the way the city would consider pretty or fashionable, but is that a bad thing? If businesses are doing well, if the residents like the stores and the options that they have, isn’t that OK? And who makes the decisions as to whether or not that should be changed or not?”

Butler doesn’t buy the concern. “No one is being displaced. If this does well, I don’t think you will find a single person who will be upset that 400 or 500 people are working in the building, and going and spending money in the community after work. That’s a total win-win.”

Williams is not so sure.

“I think the fundamental question is: are development projects happening to neighborhood or for a neighborhood?” she says. If the Crown Heights project is happening for Crown Heights, she believes, residents will have expressed a need for the space — they will be open to it, and also have priority when it comes to renting offices.

If it’s happening to a neighborhood, however, the developers will need to bring in people who live outside the immediate community to fill the space. And that’s when problems arise. “If this is development that is not intrinsic in the needs and wants and desires of the neighborhood, other people will use that space and potentially start to push out.” She’s seen it before. “It’s going to change the dynamic of the neighborhood. We see that happening in DUMBO, Washington Heights, Williamsburg over time, parts of Harlem.” Butler may not find conflict in 400 people coming into a neighborhood and spending money at local businesses, but Williams worries it's not that simple. “People are going to say, ‘This is great. I’d love to live over here. Why don’t I buy this property from this person who actually loves their neighborhood and would love to stay but no longer can afford it?’”

In the mind of Letitia James, City Council member for District 35, which includes Crown Heights, Butler’s development space is happening for the neighborhood. She and Jonathan met in 2008, when he came to her with his idea for the Flea. She helped him find a location in Fort Greene and helped ease tempers when the church across the street revolted against the sudden crowd.

She understands that reactions to the Flea are often complex, but she’s never regretted her decision to back Butler, she says. After the first few weeks of the original Flea in Fort Greene, she received an outpouring of thanks from grateful local businesses selling at the Flea. “I saw their faces and met all of them and got a sense that they were part of our community,” James says.

“I think people need to understand who Jonathan Butler is,” she says. “Jonathan could live anywhere, but he chooses to live here.”

And though he and the Flea he helped create are seemingly going everywhere — to Philly, to D.C., maybe even to “ten more cities,” Butler says — they’re also not going anywhere anytime soon.

Laura Entis is a staff writer at Entrepreneur. Her writing has appeared in Psychology Today and Bedford + Bowery.

Eric E. Anderson is a web designer and front-end developer at Squarespace. A resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he is also a freelance photographer.

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