Brooklyn's funky Flea comes to the Piazza

Pearce Vazquez gets a hand from Brandon Regan (left) as they move Vazquez's flea-market find, a marble-topped table, to his car.
Pearce Vazquez gets a hand from Brandon Regan (left) as they move Vazquez's flea-market find, a marble-topped table, to his car. (STEPHANIE AARONSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 20, 2013

Wielding his megaphone like a carnival barker, Devon Walls commented on people in the passing crowds, invited shoppers to inspect his wares, and announced the sales offered in his booth. It was another busy Sunday at the Philadelphia outpost of the Brooklyn Flea, the shopping mecca that offers everything from vintage signs to antique furniture, reclaimed clothing, and handcrafted jewelry.

"Ladies and gentlemen, look at the strongman competition as they carry a 300-pound table to their car!" bellowed Walls, an owner of the Artist Warehouse in Chester, as an employee helped customer Pearce Vazquez cart off a marble-topped table.

Off-megaphone, Walls noted: "We like to have some fun. Sometimes people who deal with antiques can be uptight."

But not this crowd, which filled Northern Liberties' Piazza at Schmidts. Not far from Walls, Tawfeeq Gaines and his team posed with a bride and groom getting photographed in the square. The couple's photographer lined the men up as if they were bridesmaids, albeit ones in tight camouflage pants.

A man walked by carrying a windmill he'd just purchased. A couple bragged about their good deal: two five-gallon metal jerricans, circa World War II. A woman haggled over the price of five Art Deco wooden chairs - the vendor asked for $240, but she wanted only two. (What about $80 for the pair, the vendor offered. No deal.)

"There's an energy people bring here," said Gaines, cofounder of the Philadelphia-based Butcher Shop Rehab/Search and Rescue Squad, which features everything from original clothing to used furniture.

"People need a reason to go out and walk outside of South Street. They need a reason to go to shops outside of King of Prussia."

The Flea started in Brooklyn in 2008 and had grown into a wildly successful market held year-round (outdoors from April to November, indoors the rest of the year) in a few locations. Travel + Leisure magazine named it one of the nation's best flea markets in 2012. A recent New York Times article on "hipsturbia" - the trend of so-called hipsters moving to more affordable suburbs - described the new suburbanites as people "who set their cultural compass to the Brooklyn Flea."

The Flea is known to draw from all walks of life, even the celebrity side. Local blogs keep up with the Brooklyn sightings. Usher seen shopping during his concert tour! Jessica Biel spotted trying on brooches! (It's unclear how that aspect will play out in celebrity-challenged Philadelphia.)

Besides the unique finds - like a cabinet constructed of metal mailboxes from a Bucks County post office or a table made of rulers - the Flea has its share of food vendors. In Philadelphia, that means stands from New York favorites like Mighty Quinn's barbecue and Red Hook Lobster Pound, as well as more local tastes like John & Kira's chocolate and Nomad pizza.

"We strive to create a balance between furniture and housewares and new items and food and jewelry," explained Eric Demby, who cofounded the Flea with Jonathan Butler and chooses the vendors - a revolving cast that represents local businesses as well as those from other states, like Delaware. "It's not an exact science, but it's this overall gestalt we were going for."

This is the first time the Flea has opened a market outside of New York. There was interest in other cities, but the space wasn't right or there were worries about managing a quality market from afar.

"We wanted to make sure if we did something in another city, we wanted to do it as well as we did it here," Demby said.

Then Jared Kushner saw the Piazza, with its open public square and established stores and easy access from the highway. Kushner's company, the New York-based Kushner Cos., acquired a majority share in the Piazza in February of this year.

"Northern Liberties is very similar to Brooklyn in terms of the people who live there. . . . I thought it was an area with a unique and special element, and it had tremendous character and energy," he said. He called Butler, an old friend. "It was about 20 seconds before we decided to do it."

Demby, too, sees a similarity between the Philadelphia neighborhood and the New York borough.

"The cultural and social moment feels somewhat similar to when we started the Flea in Brooklyn," he said. "We sensed the moment was right and we love the city."

From 50 to 75 vendors have sold their wares during the first three Philadelphia weekends. Ultimately, Demby would like to see 100 offerings.

The Flea is committed to the Piazza for the summer. If all goes well, Demby said, he could see that market staying open through November, as it does in New York. After that, it could move to a covered space for the winter, December through March.

"There's a good buzz going and people are coming, but the jury is still out," he said. "For a long time it was like, 'How can we run a market in another city?' Now it's fathomable."

Vendor Cindi Berrier travels six hours, round trip, to bring her offerings to the Flea. Big sellers in the Flea's first few weeks have included vintage Mason jars and milk crates, "things that are easy to carry home," she said.

Her stand, Queenie's Junktiques, offers a range of items culled from auctions, junkyards, and garage sales near her home in Lewistown, Mifflin County. The inventory changes weekly.

"We get things out of households that have never been exposed to market, generation after generation," Berrier said. "A lot of people who come to the Philadelphia market are a younger crowd, and they want more funky, eclectic things."

Angie Nilsen pulled from her back pocket a metal Dunlop bike lever, purchased for $15 at Berrier's booth. Most modern versions of the tool, used to remove the tube from the rim during repairs, are plastic, she said. Her son routinely breaks them, she said, and this one had proven generations of staying power.

"I love vintage things," said Nilsen, of Long Beach Island.

Nilsen's niece, Brittany Goganzer, was there to support her mother's jewelry stand, but she, too, found herself doing some shopping. She described the atmosphere at the Flea as "just funky."

"People are bringing stuff you can't buy at Target," said Goganzer, also of Long Beach Island. "Then you have talking pieces in your home."

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