Flea markets, with their time-capsule quality, are the natural stomping grounds for lovers of nostalgia, history, and ephemera. No flea market in New York City has embodied that character more than Chelsea Flea Market, which has operated since 1976 across what used to be a swath of parking lots in the West 20s. It has drawn celebrities and style mavens, most notably, Andy Warhol, who was known to show up in his old Dodge convertible on Sundays. Over the years, however, the tornado of real estate development and changing tastes and shopping habits (i.e., the Internet and the emergence of eBay) have whittled down the market to one location at 29 West 25th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway.
Now, what was once the city's largest, and some say, best, flea market is no more. Sunday marked the final day of Chelsea Market, which is closing because the operators were unable to renew the lease from the LLC that owns it.
Gothamist took one final tour this weekend, surveying the tables of bric-a-brac, antiques, jewelry, used clothing and housewares, and quirky treasures. The regulars, however, know the flea market for being a priceless subculture unto itself, a place rich in characters, from the the wise-cracking Russian watch dealer who enjoys schnapps from a steel flask to the doleful 81-year-old veteran vendor Joe Burns, who once owned (and lost) a self-named restaurant on First Avenue and 51st Street and paints hyperrealist portraits on the side.
"It's the best entertainment in New York," said Joseph Gibbon, an art dealer who has been shopping at Chelsea market for roughly 30 years and rattled off a list of finds over the years, from 18th century English ceramics to a 19th century bronze figure of an athlete.
Decked out in an oversized fur hat and tartan coat and pants, he added: "People are always asking me about my wardrobe and where I get my fashion sense and where I find things. And I find it here at the flea market."
It's a place for New Yorkers who like to meander. According to Henry Baker, an antiques, jewelry and furniture vendor who has been at the market for 30 years, most folks don't know what they are after. "People come here as an avenue to get their stress out," he said. "They walk around, they talk to other people. And then, if they see something they like, they buy."
Weaving through the tables on Saturdays, Dolly Lyla, a Park Slope resident and flea market regular, was caught off-guard by the closure. "Nowhere do I find such merchandise," she cried. "This is painful for me." Then, she quieted as her eyes narrowed on a gold-filled bracelet. Unlike most, she didn't attempt to bargain the $20 price. She immediately draped her newfound bargain beside her prized possession: a diamond-studded bangle from Cartier, gifted to her many years ago from her children.
The woman who sold her the bracelet said, "People are going to miss this terribly."
Like many of the old-timers, she was wary of press and declined to give her name.
Danny Belfiore, 36, who began selling at Chelsea Flea Market in September 2018 after selling through eBay for many years, explained that the dealers like to keep a low-profile for fear of theft as well as competition. The vendors vie for items at auctions and then sometimes for space at the market. (The areas closest to the entrance are considered the prime asphalt real estate.)
One weekend a month, Belfiore, a former jeweler who got into the business about nine years ago, wakes up at 1:30 a.m. so that he can drive his van from the Bronx and start prepping his booth at 3:30 a.m. The diehards start lining up for the flea market before it opens at 6:30 a.m. Before 9 a.m., the entry fee is $5. After that, it's a $1.
Despite being the new kid on the block, he was mournful about closure. He deals mostly in second-hand designer clothing as well as collectible items, from VHS tapes to Playboy magazines. Although he sells the stuff online, he said the inventory moves much more quickly at the market.
"They're taking away the character of the city," he bemoaned. "How much more life do you want to take away from us?"
On Sunday, he posted a farewell tribute to the market on Instagram, to strains of the old Doors song, "The End."
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No other place in the world has shown me or my business so much love. The Chelsea Flea Market gave me the human connection I was missing from internet selling, and changed me forever. We can’t let NYC take everything we love, I’m optimistic for the future and grateful for the past. To all my customers, Thank You.. #chelseafleamarket #chelsea #manhattan #nyc #newyorkcity #newyork #fleamarket
Many of the dealers, including Belfiore, held out hope that the market would reopen somehow. Either the current operators, Helene and Alan Boss, would find a new location or perhaps another individual would swoop in and be able to hammer out a new lease, they said. Several seemed unusually optimistic, perhaps because they have spent their lives trading in luck by hunting for used and lost objects. Because in the end, who really knows what kind of things accrue value and to whom, and where they will ultimately be discovered.
Burns knows this for a fact. Years ago, he found himself cleaning out a three-level house in Queens where the previous owner had lived the life of a ruthless pack rat. "It was so crowded you could just walk in the door sideways," he said. The place took weeks to clean out, with garbage bags piled to the ceilings. When he finally reached one of the bedrooms, his instincts told him to look under the bed. There on top of a case of cheap silver jewelry was an item he recognized: a matchbook from his old restaurant.
"I almost fell down," he said. "It meant something to her."