With warm weather rescuing the city from the claws of winter, you might be tempted to stroll through a weekend street market. But this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Hester Street Fair won’t be filling Seward Park with food vendors, jewelers, artisans, designers, and indie entrepreneurs as usual. Instead, the beloved weekend fair is going virtual, and pitching its tents on the internet.
Every Saturday, vendors are given a window of 15 minutes each to showcase their products on Hester Street Fair’s Instagram page, and attract more customers to their social media pages and websites. As counterintuitive as it might sound, the Instagram live posts have become a lifeline. “I see our little following grow and that helps,” says Robin Hilleary, owner of Fleurotica, a dreamy business that arranges flowers into art. “That means more people who are aware of what we’re doing and hopefully can empower, so I’m very grateful to them.”
Preparing a fair like Hester Street’s—which runs from mid- April to the end of October on the Lower East Side—takes months, and suspending it would mean having toiled in vain, both for the vendors and the organizers. “We’ve been working on stuff since January,” explains David Komurek, who has been managing the fair since 2016. “So all of a sudden I’m like, Well, we got to do something.”
In the months preceding the typical in-person Hester Street Fair, around 500 vendors usually sign up. This year, when the organizers stopped accepting applications in mid-March, the number was roughly 100. When Komurek and his team decided to move the fair online, vendors were still intrigued. “Pretty much everyone was excited to try to do something virtually,” says Komurek, noting that under the present circumstances, “everyone’s obviously online more.”
Jacqueline Eng of Partybus Bakeshop, who has been a Hester vendor since last year, sighed in relief when she received the news. “I knew there was no way that Hester market could open up as usual, [and I was worried that] we were going to lose that network,” explains Eng, who says the organizers are using every resource they have to help small businesses like hers. And going virtual might be of great help, indeed. “[We can] reach almost a larger network than we would have had if it was just a walk-up,” she says. In the week right after Eng’s first Instagram live appearance on the Hester Street Fair, Partybus Bakeshop’s Instagram picked up 100 new followers. Before, she would gain 15 to 20 new followers a week.
As for sales, it’s still too early in the season to make accurate calculations, and some vendors are still scratching their heads.. “It’s not like a simple answer, unfortunately,” Eng says of her sales. “We used to be open six days a week and now we are limited to three days retail service.” While there are many more online orders than there used to be—since people can only come pick them up when the shop is open—Eng and her team aren’t making as much as they used to. Yet, according to Eng, going virtual definitely helps. “Now we’re baking for what we know people already paid for—we’re not guessing and hoping that people come going outside,” she explains. Partybus Bakeshop is also baking for some few walk-ins. “But mainly,” Eng says, “we know we pay the money we need–there’s going to be no waste.”
Every vendor, together with Komurek, agrees that the in-person fair is a wholly different experience. Replicating the actual fair’s foot traffic, direct contact, and unique “vibe” is almost impossible, but there are ways to make the virtual experience more authentic. Hester’s Instagram feed is featuring live entertainment of all kinds, from DJ sets like that of Mona Matsuoka, to brief cooking seminars featuring Adam Zhu. “We’re feeling it out—seeing what works and doesn’t work,” says Komurek.
Hilleary says the workshops have required some adjustment. “It’s just a little funky, you know, growing pains to learn how to be on video. It’s kind of awkward but once you figure that out, actually I just feel grateful.”
That’s the kind of positive feedback Komurek says he’s receiving from this year’s vendors. “People are getting more followers, more traffic, and some people are making sales.” Which is true for Hester Street Fair’s Instagram as well. Before the first week, according to Komurek, they had 5,000 impressions. Now, they get 70,000—and they keep climbing every week.
When Emma Rogue advertised a Fendi skirt and a Jean Paul Gaultier mesh top on Hester Street Fair’s Instagram page, both items got sold the same day. “The Fendi skirt was up for like two or three months on my Depop,” explains Rogue, who has 23k followers on her Depop store versus just over 1k on her Rogue Garms Instagram. “And then when Hester posted it, I got a lot of attention.” While sales have remained fairly stable for her since the start of the virtual fair, her visibility and traffic have been going up—and as her same-day sales prove, that’s definitely helping her business.
Vendors are applying for small business loans, but only few applications are successful. Fleurotica hasn’t heard back yet. Hilleary applied three weeks ago and has been diligently following up via email and phone. “I had a dream last night that I got it and it was like 50 grand,” she recalls. “Then I woke up and I was like, Oh, that was bad.”
Luckily, Eng did, at least, receive Paycheck Protection Plan stimulus funds when she applied during the first round. “It was funny because we all thought, Okay, this is geared towards small businesses, this is going to be a safety net,” explains Eng. “And then, at the last second, there was this clause where any business with 500 employees could apply, and to me that’s not a small business.” She’s still trying to figure out how she managed to get it. “I honestly think it’s only because I was working with a small independent bank,” she explains. “And I didn’t have to go through all the hurdles and hoops [of bigger banks] putting everyone through. I just got super, super lucky.”
“I’m just hustling and grinding,” says Rogue, who is thinking about applying for the second round of the small business loan. Every vendor is in the same boat, trying to get more views and more sales. But Eng says the fair has helped her build her business and community. “Now it feels not even like we’re individual businesses, we function as a whole, we take care of each other and that’s been really nice.”
The vendors long for a return to Seward Park, but the fair’s virtual version is helping more than they had anticipated. “I wish we could do the markets in person,” says Rogue, “but I think it’s great that Hester Street Fair is taking action and providing this alternative for the vendors. At least we could keep alive what would have been.”