It's been a real rollercoaster ride for the Chelsea Flea Market this past year. True, the iconic antique and vintage market has been through plenty of changes since its founding in 1976 — at one point it sprawled across five parking lots, before developers discovered the neighborhood and built over almost everything — but right at the end of 2019 it looked like it was done for good. At the time, operators Helene and Alan Boss announced they couldn't resign the lease on the space and were shutting it all down.
Within a month of that announcement, Eric Demby and Jonathon Butler (founders of Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg) took the reins, inviting back all Chelsea Flea vendors for the same price they had previously paid. While they originally planned to reopen in April, along came the global pandemic and everything was put on hold.
Finally, this past weekend the Chelsea Flea Market reopened for real, with many returning Chelsea vendors, and a handful of new faces. Other changes: for now, rent is lower than before — $150 instead of $225 for the day. There's also a little bit of food and drink, which is very much on brand for its new owners — CBao, Takumi Taco, and Parish New Orleans Poboys are joined by a shipping container bar selling beer, wine, and cocktails.
I expected some grumbling about new management — Chelsea has always been more gritty than the Brooklyn Flea, and filled with old-school NYC characters — but found the opposite to be true, for now. The Bosses were not loved by their tenants, and on Saturday vendors expressed they were relieved to find things "quiet," and "organized," and "not crazy." So much so that one vendor named Rick joked, "I actually miss the tension and aggravation of dealing with Helene and Alan."
About two-thirds of those selling their stuff on Saturday were returnees from the "old" Chelsea Flea, including the market's longest-running tenant Fernando, who's been coming since 1978.
Former vendor Heather Kartie Viera told Gothamist, "I’m a huge fan of the old flea market, as it was the place that gave me my start in the antiques business in NYC. I had to work super hard for it but the market was the place where we all came together." While she has not returned yet, she plans to soon, and said, "Going forward I’m psyched for [its] return... Time for the old guard and new to join up and make a new market."
Demby and Butler are keeping vendor capacity at 50% for now, with increased spacing between booths and much wider main aisles than before. Opening weekend saw a sizable but not uncomfortable crowd out there hunting and bargaining and running into old friends. Hardcore dealers started showing up at the gates at 6 a.m., and rushed in at 8 a.m. to find the best new stuff, but for most people browsing between booths was just something fun to do on a gloriously cool day.
The Chelsea Flea Market is located at 29 West 25th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, and will be open on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the end of the year at least (chelseaflea.com)