Jonathan Butler had been working on his Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner.com for four years when he had a hankering to do something more.
He felt nostalgic for the flea markets of his childhood where he’d wandered as a kid. Fast-forward to 2008–Brooklyn was brimming with local artists and artisans, yet it didn’t have a full-fledged flea market. That year, Butler put out a call to vendors. In the first 48 hours, he received nearly 100 applications and Brooklyn Flea was born.
In the years since, Brooklyn Flea has exploded in popularity with five markets around Brooklyn including Smorgasburg, which features more than 100 local food vendors. The food market has appeared at Whole Foods in Manhattan, and is the vendor at Central Park’s SummerStage festival. Any day now, a 9,000-square-foot Smorgasburg-inspired beer garden will be opening in Brooklyn, thanks to the backing of outside investors.
Not long after getting Brooklyn Flea up and running, Butler and his partner Eric Demby started seeing copycat markets popping up all over the place. “In early 2008, if you’d said that in 2011 everyone and their mother would be trying to start a flea market, I would be surprised, but it makes sense,” he says. “The only way to fight it is to have the best market.”
Here are five ways Butler and Demby have grown their idea into a burgeoning flea market empire–all in the face of growing competition and high-demand real estate:
When Butler moved to Brooklyn in 2003, he suspected the area was hankering for a flea market of its own. In September 2007, he decided to test the waters, getting a handful of salvaged goods vendors together in a local schoolyard one Saturday in September for an event he called “Salvage Fest.” People loved it. Their enthusiasm was enough to convince Butler that he was onto something. He then started scouting locations for a larger, more regular market.
Dipping his toe in the water with that first small market gave him a safe way to test his idea without taking on too much risk. “I like trying things with limited downside,” says Butler. “You spend a little bit of money to see if something works.”
When the first Brooklyn Flea opened in the summer of 2008, Butler and Demby were careful about who they took on as vendors. A large part of the market’s success, many would say, has to do with the quality of its offerings. But in the beginning, being picky about what vendors they took on meant they were turning away business. That meant losing money in the short term.
“Traditionally most flea market operations are happy to let in whoever wants to pay for a booth,” he says. “The first couple of years, there were plenty of weekends where we had empty spaces rather than let in vendors we thought weren’t a good fit.”
When Butler and Demby were approached by a developer in late 2010 asking them to set up a market on a vacant lot just outside a series of new high-rise buildings on the Williamsburg waterfront, the pair approached the opportunity cautiously. At the time Brooklyn Flea consisted primarily of craft and vintage sellers, with only a handful of food vendors in the mix.
The developer wanted a market that ran Saturdays and Sundays. They knew opening a new location on Saturdays would mean they were competing with their other existing market. Butler and Demby realized they had more than enough applications from food vendors to open up a market focused exclusively on food. The next summer, they launched their first Smorgasburg market on Saturdays.
Brooklyn Flea has launched a few projects that haven’t panned out. In 2013 they teamed up with Whole Foods in Manhattan’s Bowery district, but soon after, realized they wouldn’t be making much money out of the partnership. Last year, the market also launched outside of Brooklyn in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., but once it became clear there was little opportunity for growth in those locations, they decided to drop them.
Still, while they’ve had their fair share of false starts, for Butler all those opportunities have been important to tackle.
“I’ve been able to take baby steps,” he says. I haven’t had to bet the farm on anything. “You have to kiss a lot of frogs to get your prince.”
Hosting a sprawling flea market in a borrowed space is risky business. About a million different things can go wrong. That’s why earning the trust and respect of the people they do business with was a top priority for the pair from the start.
“We have always been really straight shooters,” Butler says. “When there is a complaint, we deal with it right away. We don’t pretend it’s not there.”
“As long as the public feels like you are being straight with them, they are going to forgive any small mistakes you might make,” he adds. “It’s when people feel like you aren’t being straight with them that things go bad.”