On a recent Saturday morning, the intersection of 20th Street and Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn’s South Slope was quiet and mostly serene, the silence broken only by the gorilla.
The creature ran out of a parking lot, past a rack of coats, a sequin-studded Liberace-esque jacket, and a pile of costume jewelry. It scampered up and down 20th, waving a sign that read “FLEA.” It had on black sneakers and was, upon closer inspection, not a gorilla at all, but flea market vendor Larry Fisher in a gorilla suit, trying to get a little attention.
Earlier that week, presumably out of costume, Fisher had sent out an SOS email. “The old dinosaurs of Park Slope Flea are treading water,” he wrote, “trying desperately to keep our head above the sewage.”
For years, Fisher, 53, sold books, collectibles, vintage toys and records at a weekend flea market at Park Slope’s P.S. 321, an elementary school on Seventh Avenue.
“The essence of the market was there for 32 years,” says Paul. He’s its former manager (and doesn’t give his last name to reporters). “The gist was that it was an affordably based market for a wide range of vendors — not a streamlined, Bloombergian octopus of unaffordable crap.”
That last bit is a dig at the P.S. 321 market’s new owners, Brooklyn Flea, a hipster flea market empire that began in 2008 and now has locations in Fort Greene, Williamsburg, and Washington, D.C. (Its Philadelphia location recently closed.) Brooklyn Flea also has a food operation in Williamsburg (Smorgasburg), as well as food vendors and two bars at the South Street Seaport (Smorgasbar).
The Flea has won a pile of awards (including “Best Spot for Crafty Cruising” from the Village Voice in 2010) and been heaped with praise. But Paul, Fisher, and a band of other longtime vendors say the company forced them out of P.S. 321, usurping the contract and hiking the rental rate from $40 to $100 per space. The old vendors took their talents to a spot off the beaten path, behind the Al-Noor School in South Brooklyn. Paul is the manager again, only now he’s working for no pay, trying help the vendors settle in.
These first few weekends, business has been slow. P.S. 321 is located along a well-trodden row of shops and restaurants, while Al-Noor’s neighbors include a halal poultry slaughterhouse, an auto repair shop, and approximately zero foot traffic.
“This is how people made their living,” protests April Summers. She and her husband, Frank, own Brooklyn Trading Company, which doesn’t have a storefront: They’ve sold at the market and on eBay for the past five years. “At $100 a stall, plus the cost of buying your merchandise, that’s really tough.”
More broadly, the veteran vendors see the Flea as What’s Wrong with Brooklyn Today: twee interlopers selling a manicured, carefully curated version of eccentricity to customers whom Paul, a cartoonist by trade, describes as “coddled Cassandras, yuppies in $300 distressed-leather jackets. Brooklyn is now a Stepford version of itself,” he says.
Brooklyn Flea cofounder Eric Demby is a tad exasperated by the portrait of shabby treatment the old timers paint.
“It’s our understanding that the previous operators of the P.S. 321 market either couldn’t or didn’t wish to continue running the location,” he writes in an email. “I believe two of the three original operators passed away and the third is or was in poor health.” (On this both parties agree: The former owners were a small group; one died recently, and another abruptly decided she didn’t want to continue running the market, though the vendors say she didn’t provide much explanation.)
Demby says “many parties” urged the Flea to respond to the New York City Department of Education’s request for bids on the market contract, “especially . . . folks who wanted to see some change at a market that had remained relatively static despite a neighborhood that had evolved significantly around it.”
According to the DOE, the Flea and three other groups bid on the market; the Flea’s winning bid has not yet been made public, because the contract hasn’t been finalized. They’re allowed to run the market for 12 weekends without the contract, which, once approved, runs for two years. They’ll be given two options to renew, each for an additional one-year term.
Demby says his people have worked with the school and the PTA “to ensure a smooth transition. We have minimized our food presence at the outset out of respect to local restaurants — a big concession for us.”
Moreover, he adds, “It should be made clear that we have accepted the majority of ‘old’ vendors from the market who have applied to sell with us as operators. In fact, we’ve worked hard to accommodate a few of them who don’t have access to a computer/email or don’t know how to do that, even though our system of communication with 500-plus vendors relies heavily on it.”
He does concede that a few of the former vendors weren’t invited back: “A handful of applicants from the previous incarnation have been declined because they don’t fit with our reputation for quality vintage/antique or handmade items — we’ve never allowed mass-produced or imported goods, for example.”
But, he goes on to say, “for anyone to say they were ‘forced out’ means there’s some misinformation going around about the process of seeking and selecting a new operator. Having run flea markets for six years now, this rumor mill among vendors is to be expected. It’s unfortunate that folks feel this way, but it’s just not true.
“Our interest in 321 has nothing to do with the bottom line or profit. We love the tradition of that market — I shopped there often in the ’90s — and feel like the Flea is perfectly positioned to both continue and improve upon it.”
On Park Slope’s countless neighborhood blogs, the reaction to news of the Flea takeover has been conflicted. In the comments of Park Slope Stoop, some argue that the quality of the old vendors had been going down for a long time, that they were selling, as one person puts it, “landfill stock with price tags.” Others contend that the items are basically the same, but that the Flea puts them in a prettier and pricier package.
“I know I’ve sort of had my fill of curated/crafted/’locally sourced’ stuff,” one commenter writes. “Enough already. We get it. Not everyone in Brooklyn actually wants to live in a ‘curated’ apartment featured in Design Sponge or Apartment Therapy or maybe in Gather magazine.”
Plenty of people do, though.
While the new South Slope Flea struggles to find its footing, business at P.S. 321 on a recent weekend is bustling. Some of the new vendors seem to be selling the same stuff the old ones did: a tangle of toys, records, old clothes, and postcards written by someone else’s great aunt. Other booths, however, feature brand-new $80 blouses and highly polished wood furniture. Park Soap carries artisanal, small-batch soap, and Dough offers upscale doughnuts. At South Slope, there’s free coffee in Styrofoam cups. (No word on whether it’s fair trade or single-origin brew.) At P.S. 321, three vendors are offering identical-looking “antique” phrenology busts.
Not all the old vendors left, and not all are disgruntled. “Things have improved for me,” says Larry Schaal, who has been at P.S. 321 for five years and decided to stay with the Flea. “I’m getting the benefits of Brooklyn Flea’s reputation, and I’m getting more business. But I had no issues with the older people.”
The proceeds from the Flea’s contract go to the school’s Parent Teacher Association, which is steering well clear of the controversy.
“We benefit tremendously as a school from the income that comes in from the flea market,” says PTA co-president Teri Horowitz. “It is a part of our PTA budget, which pays for arts and enrichment programs at P.S. 321.” She does confirm that under Flea management, the contract is more lucrative. “Other than that, though, we had a very nice relationship with the former market and assume we will with Brooklyn Flea,” she says. “I am not a flea market shopper myself, so I really can’t comment too much on that.”
Fisher acknowledges that the Flea might match the tone of the neighborhood in a way the old vendors don’t anymore.
“They really know what they’re doing,” he says. “They’re very smart. A friend of mine’s been telling me to go grovel to the Flea and sell with them. He said, ‘They have the pulse of the zeitgeist.’ It’s true. But they also have a pulse of a corpse.”
Fisher pauses. “We wanted to sell our crap, go home, and make our art, and not have to deal with the intrigue,” he says finally. “It’s not really that interesting. Those guys are just about making money. We’re just looking to not have to deal with them.”