(Photo: Alexis Bates)

The pop-tents started going up around 10am on September 19th, shaded by the iconic archway of the Manhattan Bridge. Brunch customers spilled out onto the sidewalk in Dumbo, chatting in Australian and French accents and ordering flat whites, French toast, and pulpy mimosas. There was an auspicious sense of normalcy in the chilly, riverside air on that first day that the Brooklyn Flea reopened since the coronavirus ravaged New York.

“It’s been horrible,” Monica Minier, owner of Iki Kimono NYC, said of the past six months. “Everyone had to scramble to sort of learn how to make money without the markets.”

Her wares are eye-catching and her selection gigantic. Printed kimonos cover the stone wall behind the booth, embroidered kimonos extend past its bounds and towards the street. They’re all antique or vintage, and in excellent condition. According to Minier, she has had “no sales for months.”

Prior to the pandemic, Minier, like many of the vendors at the Brooklyn Flea, worked almost entirely out of the markets that speckle New York City on weekends. Then, on March 12, Brooklyn Flea announced on Instagram that its winter indoor markets would be suspended until further notice.

Initially, Naomi Bergknoff, another vendor at Brooklyn Flea and the owner of Omnia Vintage, was relieved. She had been looking forward to another event, the Manhattan Vintage Show. “I felt really stupid,” she told me over the phone. “When things shut down I was like, Oh, well, good thing the Manhattan Vintage Show isn’t until the first or second week of April. We should be good by then.”

The show’s cancellation was her indicator that things were getting serious. Pre-pandemic, in-person sales at flea markets and shows made up 50 percent of her business, but Bergknoff describes herself as one of the lucky ones: she was already well established online by the time COVID ran most of her compatriots aground. As the pandemic dragged through April and into the summer, Omnia Vintage’s Instagram page popped off with announcements of sales – Bergknoff says sales like her “50 Dresses for $50 each” event did especially well in this age of mass unemployment – plus shots of Bergknoff, masked and laden with bags of packages on her way from her Gowanus studio to the post office.

“I did not think people were going to want to shop,” she said, “but people were, I think, looking for something exciting or different or new; you know–  some retail therapy.”

Alessandra Canario’s stall at Brooklyn Flea sits catty-corner to Bergknoff’s with the archway at its back. She was striking in bell-bottom jeans and a mask with a pair of lips painted on it. She also had to hustle to transition to online sales when the markets were shut down. In addition to her dyslexia, which made online selling a “daunting” idea, she explained, “I just prefer to sell vintage clothing in person because the sizing is so particular, the feel of the fabrics, I think it’s more of a tactile thing.”

Pointing to a long blue dress and jacket set hanging from the perimeter of her pop tent, she said, “I mean, you try to describe that in two sentences.” At first glance, the cut suggested a summer dress, but the material was a fuzzy, 1970s-era poly-fleece. Two sentences doesn’t capture it – the experience of touching that unfamiliar textile is difficult to explain. 

(Photo: Alexis Bates)

Canario’s sentiment gets at the heart of what makes flea markets so special in the age of fast-fashion’s endless copies of itself in cheap chiffon and cotton-poly blends. The very experience of handling other peoples’ old stuff is an adventure in itself – double-knit polyester vests (boy, did they do some cool stuff with polyester!), buttery printed leather jackets, nubbly wool tweed jackets, all rendered in living color – and the social setting is one that breeds community. Yet Canario says her online business is thriving in part because of this community. “It’s been a really humbling experience. I’d say half my sales are returning customers.” In the beginning, even before she set up her online shop, customers reached out to her, asking for pictures of things they might like to buy. “It was scary at first, but it’s kind of my new normal now.”

By one in the afternoon, the sun was high in the sky and the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge had begun to recede. Dumbo buzzes with activity, and the Brooklyn Flea is no different. Almost everyone was masked, and the booths were placed a respectful distance apart – no longer crammed together as they would have been in a simpler time (a few months ago). Yet it was easy to forget about the pandemic. The weather was so beautiful and temperate, the people so eager to interact with one another, so excited when they carried their purchases over to pay. 

In the booth next to Canario’s, Francois Hugon did a brisk business in bright white antique blouses and underthings. His mother washes everything, he told me, and line dries it in her sunny back garden before shipping it to him from France. It took the better part of the day to get a word with him because he was so busy with customers. 

“So far, so good,” he replied when I asked him how it’s been. “I made the rent and more.”