Illustration by Jess Ulman
Dec 7, 2020
What’s next for Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg?
As March had barely gotten underway, Eric Demby was early to the realization that everyday life was about to change irrevocably. But due to some quick thinking—and nimble pivoting—over the past nine months, he has been able to ensure the survival of the marketplace staples Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, both of which he co-founded, through a brutal year.
It was never a given that they’d make it. Even in the weeks before the official New York COVID-19 stay-at-home order was issued on March 20, going to events had started to feel, well, weird. And hosting indoor markets began to feel irresponsible. And so Demby, along with co-founder Jonathan Butler, decided to call it.
“I mean, we kind of saw it coming, but it couldn’t have been worse timing,” Demby says. Instead of using the month to prepare for the busy season ahead, the Flea and Smorgasburg organizers put everything on hold on March 12. By the time the order was issued, they had already closed down their markets, and in April, they let the lease expire on their office.
Like most of Brooklyn, Demby and Butler remained hopeful that things would return to normal in a few weeks. But as time passed, reality sunk in. Owning and operating a series of events designed to draw large crowds to share food, drinks and wares, had suddenly become a huge liability.
“It definitely sucked,” Demby says. “No other way I can say that.” For the first time since Brooklyn Flea launched in 2008, the future of the highly successful market and its many offshoots was thrown into uncertainty.
From day one, the mission of the Flea had been to bring people together. Back in 2007, over glasses of whiskey at ReBar in DUMBO (RIP), Demby and Butler first discussed the idea of launching a Brooklyn market that featured a curated lineup of vendors selling food and various vintage, handmade and repurposed goods. At the time, Manhattan flea markets were on the downswing, and the two saw a chance to fill a void.
The salad days
Demby, a former speechwriter for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and Butler, founder of the popular Brooklyn blog Brownstoner, were natural partners. The duo knew that the borough was emerging as a strong brand on its own.
On April 6, 2008, the first Brooklyn Flea was held in the schoolyard of Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Fort Greene. The day was chilly and rainy, but Demby estimates about 20,000 people came through to check out. Early vendors included Silver Fox and Ornaments and Objects, and sweet-purveyors Kumquat Cupcakery and Brown Bag Industries. “The vendors sold all of their stuff, and the food was popular. And that was kind of it, we just went from there,” he says.
Over the years the Flea grew, opening locations in Williamsburg, DUMBO and Chelsea, as well as a series of record fairs, and holiday and night markets. In 2011, Demby and Butler also launched Smorgasburg, a highly successful food-only market that spawned its own series of outposts, including the Crown Heights food hall Berg’n.
The open-air markets became more than just a place to try a ramen burger or an arepa … or to have a beer with friends … or to listen to records from local artists and scoop up the perfect chair for your living room. (Even though they were, in fact, all of these things.) The markets became tourist destinations. Places to meet when exploring Brooklyn. Places to take your friends or parents when they visited.
But then, in March 2020, the markets, like New York itself, went on pause.
Demby knew that the loss of in-person events and experiences at concerts, clubs and gatherings like the Flea and Smorgasburg was going to hit people hard, and he wanted to bring some part of this experience back. “We sort of licked our wounds for a month while everyone was just sitting at home in shock, but then we started thinking about what to do.”
A cautious return
In July, as soon as restrictions were lifted enough to allow the organizers to return to a safe level of business, Demby and Butler launched a new and abbreviated venture called Smorg To Go. The temporary Williamsburg outpost offered take-away from a rotating lineup of vendors, including Bon Chovie, Duck Season and Vaquero Elotes. A Prospect Park pop-up followed in September.
“It allowed a bunch of our vendors to be back in business and to stay in the public imagination,” Demby says. “And keeping our own spirits alive was very important too.” The organizers also seized the moment to make sure they were giving something back to the community: In addition to selling food, Smorg To Go partnered with Rethink Food NYC, a not-for-profit that tackles food insecurity.
September brought the return of Brooklyn Flea, with locations in DUMBO and Chelsea reopening for business. The DUMBO edition, which is located in and around the Manhattan Bridge Archway, was bustling on a recent Saturday, with all vendors wearing masks and mostly keeping distance. And although there weren’t any food or drink offerings, masked visitors chatted as they perused vintage jackets and handmade jewelry while ’80s music played over a large loudspeaker. These markets are set to run through the holiday season, and Demby is hopeful they can continue outdoors year-round.
Demby and Butler are looking to reopen Smorgasburg in Prospect Park in April, and in Williamsburg in June. Ultimately, though, the future is uncertain, especially as coronavirus continue to increase. Demby worries for his vendors, especially those in the restaurant business.
But he is also an optimist. And as an optimist, Demby is hopeful that the eventual return of the food market will give many local chefs a much-needed platform for business. And he’s hopeful that the current flea markets are providing similar support to their vendors and a chance to lift the spirits of attendees.
“I think that that’s why we’ve been working so hard to return even in some modified format,” he says. “To bring some little spark of joy, right? It’s obviously got to be a much more modest spark. But it is meaningful to people.”