See below for an update on this story.
A former Aqueduct Flea Market vendor who has started a new market of his own in Manhattan says the Aqueduct closure is both a tragedy and an opportunity. “I had neighbors there who put their kids through college,” says Bobby Smith, a veteran seller of new consumer merchandise. “Now their kids are accountants for Deloitte and Touche, and they did all that on an Aqueduct payday. Losing that resource in that community was a tragic thing that never should have happened.”
After years of working retail on the fair and festival circuits around the United States, Smith says it was an eye-opener to arrive in New York City. “I had never done a flea market prior to coming to New York,” he says. “When I moved to New York, I was amazed at the flea market industry, and that you could make a living selling at flea markets on the weekends. That’s how I made my living for many years. Many families were raised on that income from those small businesses.”
But with years of experience, Smith saw that some markets, including the Aqueduct, tended to stagnate. “Since being in the New York area, I’ve done all the big markets. Aqueduct, Meadowlands, Columbus, Cowtown, you name it, I’ve done it,” he says. “I was always frustrated by the push to lock everybody into monthly contracts and long-term spaces. I saw the same thing every week, with no innovation, nothing new.”
“As big as it was, the Aqueduct was a neighborhood market. Nobody from Manhattan would come by the Aqueduct,” he remembers. And that’s still a problem, he opines. “The Brooklyn Flea is a great place, but each time it’s 150 of the exact same vendors.”
New flea market dynamics
Smith compares these flea markets to big-box discount stores, and with his new market, he hopes to revitalize and maintain a dynamic market, so that repeat customers will always have a reason to return to the flea market. “We would like to create a diverse market where exhibitors can come and go,” he says, “and while we will have monthly exhibitors, and allow reservations, we will not force exhibitors into monthly contracts, as we believe a diverse, ever-changing market is at the heart of what makes this business thrive.”
Smith says, “I believe that a flea market should always offer the customer something new and fresh each week, so as not to become just another store, like a dollar store or a Wal-mart. There has to be a sense that there needs to be something special each time, not just that the same thing will be here next week.”
That’s especially important in a down economy. “Back in the Great Depression, people could take to the street to sell apples and rags to try to put food on the table for their family,” says Smith. “Now you can’t do that in this regulatory environment. But with the economy we’re in, the flea market creates a great opportunity for people who want to supplement their lost wages. And it gives lower priced goods to working-class people who can’t afford to buy stuff in traditional stores.”
Smith’s new flea market, the Urban Market Days pop-up market, runs every weekend in Manhattan under the Metro North commuter train elevated railway at 116th Street and Park Avenue. For more information, call him at (646) 727-0087 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sept. 20 Update: Unable to attract the vendor support he needed, Bobby Smith has put his Urban Market Days flea market on hiatus. Smith’s partner and landlord, Dimitri Gatanas of Urban Garden Center LLC, has contacted FleaMarketZone with a comment on this story: “We are not hosting this event at our shop. We attempted on numerous occasions to contact Bobby Smith, and he is not responding.” According to Gatanas, there may be a market of some kind on the site in the future, most likely with a community recycling and yard sale theme rather than focusing on new merchandise sold by professional vendors.
Photo credits, with thanks: CUNY, Google Street View.