“It’s lit, Mom! Lit! Get it? Do you get it?”
On a brisk November afternoon, eleven-year-old Ava Cashman was clutching a bag containing a glow-in-the-dark-smiley-face sound-activated T-shirt fit for a rave — or, per Ava, a school dance. “If you went to a mall you’d never find this stuff,” Ava gushed, before rushing away to sample the sweets from Momofuku Milk Bar.
This was the Union Square Holiday Market, one of more than a dozen outdoor and indoor markets that spring up in the city in November and early December of each year. Oases of craftiness in high-traffic destinations, they sell wheels of cheese and recycled film reel candles, finger puppets of dead philosophers and living ornaments made from succulents. They’re frequented by tourists, office workers on break, families, teenagers, and commuters, who (for better or worse) make their treks to the office along sidewalks crowded with booths.
Markets aren’t exactly convenient in the era of one-click checkouts and same-day deliveries: You might have to rummage, haggle over price, stand outside in the cold. Still, they remain popular. At Union Square, more than 600 applicants applied last spring for about 150 booths, according to Julie Feltman, market director for Urbanspace, which currently operates three of the largest markets in Union Square, Columbus Circle, and Bryant Park. (In 2008, Union Square received just 150 applications for 100 spots.) Vendors and shoppers alike say that markets hold a unique appeal. “It’s an experience!” says Dan Treiber, a vendor at Brooklyn Flea’s winter market at Skylight One Hanson, the old Williamsburg Bank building. In his booth, you can dig piles of tiny cars and braid the hair of Eighties-era Troll Dolls while records play in the background. “There’s a visceral feeling to it.”
Urbanspace launches its first New York City holiday market 25 years ago in Grand Central Terminal, as an expansion of the company’s markets in the United Kingdom. Today, there are markets in every flavor: crafty (Etsy Holiday Handmade Cavalcade at Chelsea Market, BUST Holiday Craftacular at Greenpoint’s Brooklyn Expo Center); neighborhood-y (in Ridgewood and Astoria and on the Upper West Side); foodie (Grand Central’s Holiday Fair, adjoined by Claus Meyer’s Great Northern Food Hall; Brooklyn Flea’s winter market, adjoining Smorgasburg).
Each markets is designed for a different clientele, says Feltman. “Union Square has a funkier downtown feel,” she says. “Columbus Circle is a bit more expensive, with highly designed pieces.” Funky, it must be said, is a relative term: Though there are artist-drawn temporary tattoos for sale, the red-and-white-striped booths organized into pockets like “Little Brooklyn” still feel swank enough. (The most outré thing on display on one visit was a guy roaming around with a disfigured Donald Trump piñata, which, though also handmade, was not one of the wares for sale.) Bryant Park, alongside local artisans, also offers shops selling NYPD hoodies and gift-shop-y Christmas decorations. “It’s a huge shopping and tourist destination, so we want to have things that serve New Yorkers as well as shoppers from elsewhere,” says Feltman, noting that vendors of more mass-market products may be local businesses, too.
Urbanspace’s selection process is extensive: Old vendors are notified in March whether they’ll be returning (more than 90 percent do), so they have most of the year to plan. New vendors submit applications by May and decisions are made in July. “We look for people with experience in their business,” including strong online and social-media presences as well as originality, Feltman says. “Markets are in vogue because people are becoming more conscious shoppers. People are willing to spend more money to get a storied product. Do you want to spend $3 on a jar of dill pickles at a grocery store? Or get an artisanal, high-concept, beautiful jar of pickles for $8?”
Jessy Caruana, a jewelry designer from Montreal, was one of the lucky newbies. She got to work in the spring smashing raw gemstones into 5,000 pairs of irregularly shaped earring studs that she stacked up in her apartment in anticipation of the 37-day holiday market season. “It’s a ‘get down on your knees with a hammer’ type of situation,” she says serenely, bathed in the glow of crystal lamps from her booth, Rawspiritnyc. “You have to be in a good mood while you do it, because the crystals will absorb your energy. I play piano music in the background.”
“It’s a marathon,” says Shara Porter, who sells hand-printed leather wallets a few booths away from Caruana. Porter, whose studio is in Massachusetts, earns half her income for the year at the Union Square Market. “I miss Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday, my girlfriend’s birthday,” she says with a laugh. “My cat, my dog, my rabbit.” (The latter, Valentine, is here in spirit, stenciled in silver on a black wallet.)
One thing that makes the marathon easier, says Panama Banasiewicz, a vendor at Beauty and the Bees, which sells Tasmanian honey-based beauty products, is “vendors helping vendors.” Around noon, an older Chinese man arrives at Union Square pulling a plaid cart and weaves his way through the booths. “You hungry? Chicken, beef?” he asks Banasiewicz. The man hurries away when asked for an interview. “He probably doesn’t have a license,” says Banasiewicz. “I need that kind of ingenuity in my life!”
A few hours later, the clang of a high-pitched bell — soft enough to ignore, loud enough to notice — signals the arrival of Jumbo Joyce, Union Square Market’s patron saint of plastic bags. “I’m going on a cruise the day after tomorrow — my husband surprised me,” the tiny woman with a pushcart tells Beth Vaccari, who’s running the Unemployed Philosophers Guild booth. Vaccari picks up two boxes of bags, soon to be holding shoppers’ purchases. “Enjoy your vacation!” she shouts after Joyce.
“The market is its own little world,” says Annie Watkins, Vaccari’s colleague at the Guild. The Brooklyn company makes Leo Tolstoy finger puppets, “Freudian Slippers,” Plato’s Republic passports, and “National Embarrass-mints” with Trump’s face on the tin. The Guild is one of the market’s longest-running booths, its operators having sold there since the market opened in 1993. One of the highlights for Vaccari and Watkins is the rotating cast of made-in-New York weirdos who habituate the market. One year, they recall, passersby remarked so frequently on the Freudian Slippers that they began keeping tally of the comments: “That’s too funny” narrowly beat out “That’s a riot.” “People love talking about the stuff here,” says Watkins. “That’s one of the best parts.”
Compared to Union Square, Brooklyn Flea’s winter market feels small, with about half as many vendors and a bigger emphasis on vintage. At Union Square, a 60-square-foot booth rents for $17,000 for the season, according to Porter. Brooklyn Flea, whose winter market is open on weekends between November and March, charges vendors between $150 and $275 per day. When picking vendors, says Eric Demby, co-founder of Brooklyn Flea, “It’s a delicate balance of giving priority to longtime vendors and making sure the experience is exciting” by bringing in new talent. “The Flea is a representation of Brooklyn — what’s best and interesting about it.”
Treiber, who sells at Brooklyn Flea’s outdoor market during the summer months, moved his booth, Dan’s Parents’ House, into a corner of the bank building this November. He describes his inventory as “anything in piles”: broken doll parts, pickle-shaped pins, Eighties-era “Food Fighters” action figures (think donuts with guns). He even offers a post-election special: a Ronald Reagan 1976 campaign pin. “Republicans buy it because they love Reagan. Democrats buy it because he lost that year,” he says.
“The great thing about vintage is that it’s green,” says Jess Ryan, a Brooklyn Flea vendor who sells midcentury-modern kitchenware at her booth, Huntress Home. A longtime collector, Ryan finally turned her knack for rescuing vintage Arabia Finland bowls and Dansk enamel-wear into a business. “I’ve had people start crying because they recognize something their grandmother had,” she says.
The next aisle over from Ryan, Lamine Berete of Berete Tribal Art sells piles of indigo-dyed cloth from West Africa, ranging from cobalt (new) to faded sky-blue (older). “In Africa women wrap themselves in the cloth,” says Berete. “Here the women use it for everything!” He pulls out his phone to reveal a photo of a plush bed covered in indigo pillows.
Berete travels to Africa three times a year to stock his booth, visiting the workshops and homes of craftspeople each time. Shopping at the Flea is not so different, he says. “It’s like the old-fashioned businesses we grew up with. When you can see and feel something, it’s better.”