Meet The Ringmasters Of The Brooklyn Flea

1_EricDembyJonathonButler01_053Photographed by Winnie Au
It's been, what, five years and change since the Brooklyn Flea first landed at Fort Greene's Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, and it's already as much a New York institution as Sunday brunch. Strong words, perhaps, but ask yourself, "What savvy, stylish, reasonably curious person you know hasn't at least stopped by or said they would?"
Look, even if you're just not the flea-market type, the burgeoning empire — created by Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby — of crafted works, secondhand goods, and handmade nibbles is getting harder and harder to avoid in our fair city. Along with its three locations (it opened up in Philly, y'know), three Smorgasburg food-stand havens, and growing presence at places like Central Park's SummerStage, Whole Foods, and endless pop-ups, it's almost as ubiquitous as bagels.
But that's all sort of secondary to what's been achieved by Demby, the former communications director for Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, and Butler, creator of local real-estate site Brownstoner. Simply by addressing a need and keeping their eyes and minds open, they've allowed vendors of all shapes and sizes to come into the light and share their passions with the city. On top of that, they've made a living, breathing organism that allows anyone to understand Brooklyn simply by walking through it. "It gives you a little cross section of what’s cool in Brooklyn culture at this moment," says Demby of his creation, "whether that’s handmade goods, upcycled items, and, of course, food."
Brunch and vintage dresses, what else could a New Yorker ask for?
2_EricDembyJonathonButler02_090Photographed by Winnie Au
Market Strategy
Butler: “Brooklyn is, what, the third or fourth biggest city in the country on its own and has a lot of creative people who, on average, have a little less money than people in Manhattan, and all it had was one little flea market. So, that was the initial thought — just a broad stroke — that Brooklyn needed it. As we started thinking about it, it also became clear that there was a community of makers that was going to be served.”
Demby: “At the beginning, we were desperate to fill the market up. It was counterintuitive not to accept people unless they were at a high level, because we were leaving money on the table. But we didn’t want to fill it up with crap, so stuck to our guns and declined most applicants. After a year of a good days, horrible days, and stressed-out vendors, we are able look back see that it was the key to our success. You know, if you just set sail to whichever way the wind’s blowing, you’re going to end up in places that aren’t part of your longer-term strategy.”
Organic Food
Butler: “The markets sort of evolve organically — with guidance from us, but organically. For instance, we almost didn’t have food in the market! Then, 2008, we were like ‘Oh, I guess we should have it. People probably get hungry, and our vendors probably need a place to get coffee.’ There weren’t that many places nearby to support that, so we just had some food, and it took off.”
Demby: “Yeah, it kind of fed on itself. All these people started applying with interesting food ideas — people who were doing it as [a] hobby, or chefs at a restaurant working in a basement 50 hours a week but always wanted to make pork buns. They got to come out from underneath their rocks, see the sunshine, meet people, and have fun. So, we were like, ‘Oh, maybe there’s something going on here.’ We don’t impose too much of our own viewpoint onto the market. That’s kind of become our guiding principle. These things have a way of revealing themselves.”
The Future of the Flea
Butler: “The next thing on the horizon is launching a Washington, D.C., market in the fall. D.C.’s at this moment of transformation right now. I was down there a few weeks ago, and the horizon is just lined with cranes. All sorts of new buildings going up, neighborhoods are changing, retail and restaurants are opening everywhere. Then, first quarter of next year, we’re going to be launching our first brick-and-mortar project — a beer hall in Crown Heights! We’re building out kitchens for four of our most popular food vendors and a rotating cast of others. Now, if we were just looking at it, like just from a bottom-line perspective, it might not be something we would be tripping over ourselves to be [able] to do. But it is a great opportunity for the vendors, so it’s worth it."
Demby: “See, what’s been gratifying is that we’re starting to understand how to bottle what we do and allow it to flourish in other places. But really, these things are like organisms; you have to give birth to them and then do your best to parent them. But really, they’re going to live on their own. It’s exciting, but it can also keep you up at night, because, at a certain point, you don’t really have control over it. We’re live and open to the public every weekend in an open space, so we never really know what’s going to happen — if one week is going to lead to another good week, if people are going to like it or turn on you. Honestly, though, that’s what makes it fun.”
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