Why Brooklyn Flea Couldn’t Cut it in Philly

What’s in a name?

Photo via Brooklyn Flea Philly

Photo via Brooklyn Flea Philly

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” is the next-to-last line in Frank Sinatra’s famous paean to “New York, New York.”

And of late, this city has witnessed a slow but steady stream of New Yorkers moving down this way to make it here because they can no longer afford to make it there.

Most of those people are residents, though, and so far, Philadelphians have welcomed them with open arms.

Businesses? That’s another story.

These past two weeks have seen the abrupt shuttering of two New York transplants that sought to establish Philly beachheads: the co-working space 3rdWard and upscale flea market Brooklyn Flea. The former closed its doors suddenly on October 11th with a sad announcement; news reports here indicate that the cost of expanding into Philadelphia, where the co-working studio acquired and rehabbed a former industrial building in Old Kensington, sunk the business.

(By the way, this isn’t the first unsuccessful foray into Philly for the Brooklyn Flea folks: About three years ago, they launched a Philadelphia version of their New York real estate blog Brownstoner, keeping that name for the Philly operation as well. They pulled the plug after nine months because while traffic steadily rose, ad revenues didn’t. Whether that was a Philly  problem or a new-media problem, however, remains an open question.)

Then, this past Sunday, Brooklyn Flea, which landed in the Piazza at Schmidt’s with a splash in June, held its last Philly flea market. Comments on Brooklyn Flea’s Facebook page and on discussion boards suggest that this failure had several parents — a location that, for all its advantages as a spot for outdoor fairs, remains hard to find for many; inadequate marketing and promotion on the part of Piazza management; high booth rents and high merchandise prices — but it might, just might, be this reason given by a poster on Philadelphia Speaks that really sank the operation:

“I refuse to support anything in Philadelphia that has some New York thing in their name.”

Philadelphians have long bristled at the presumptions of our bigger neighbor to the north. An 1839 propaganda poster opposing the building of a railroad into the city, a favorite among history and railroad buffs, rallies public support for its cause by asking, “Do you consent to become a SUBURB OF NEW YORK?”

Sixth borough” talk notwithstanding, it appears, Philadelphians still withhold that consent.

More evidence that we prefer the local comes in both the coworking and flea market spheres. 3rdWard may be kaput, but the homegrown NextFab and IndyHall both flourish, for instance. And the manager of Brooklyn Flea Philly, Mark Vevle, has already announced the launch of a new indoor flea market. To be called Franklin Flea, the market will take over the street floor of the former Strawbridge & Clothier store at 801 Market starting Nov. 16. As if to reinforce that PhillySpeaks poster’s sentiment, Brooklyn Flea Philly hot dog vendor Keith Garabedian said this:

“As a Philadelphian I have to think that being called the ‘Brooklyn Flea’ didn’t help much either. The flea’s manager, Mark Vevle, I think understood that and we can’t wait to be part of his much more aptly named ‘Franklin Flea’ this winter at the old Strawbridges building.”

And indeed, those New York transplants that have not boasted their New York roots, such as Shake Shack and Joe Coffee, seem to have had an easier time winning acceptance from Philadelphians.

So, if you’re a New York business owner looking to either follow some of your customers to Philly or attract the affection of the locals, here’s some free advice: Lose the New York baggage and adopt some Philly attitude. You’ll get a better reception.

Veteran reporter-editor Sandy Smith has been scribbling away since his youth, when The Kansas City Star hired him as a summer reporting intern  out of high school. Part of the team that launched an award-winning newspaper at Penn and founder of another  at Widener University, he is currently editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog and contributes to Philadelphia magazine’s Property blog as well as other local publications.


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  • Philadelphia Flea Market News

    Who is this mystery poster on that somewhat obscure rant-fest of a blog that Ms. Smith would base her whole theory on the demise of two businesses on his or her overly-provincial comment?

    As far as I know, 3rd Ward was not named for the city of New York and, if it was, no one in Philly would know that. Besides it lasted seven years. And no Philadelphian seemed bothered by Brooklyn Flea Philly’s name on opening day when, as I decribe on my blog, Philadelphia Flea Market News, rivers of visitors where pouring in from every opening of the Piazza (finding the place didn’t seem to be a problem either).

    There’s a place in the heart of South Philadelphia called New York Bakery. It has been thriving for many years, with that name, for basically one reason: ready for this (drumroll please) THEY HAVE GOOD BREAD!

    Brooklyn Flea Philly failed because they did not have “good bread.” Or, their bread was smaller and more expensive than their competition’s. Brooklyn Flea charged $100 for a 10’x10′ space. Most likely the standard in New York, but what they didn’t know, or chose to ignore, is that there is already an organization running high-end flea markets in Philadelphia. Their name is Phila Flea Markets (no affiliation with me or my blog) and they charge $60 to $80 for spaces that are almost twice the size of Brooklyn’s. And, they run their markets at an extremely high level of excellence. And, they have been doing it for more than twenty-five years.

    Ultimately, it comes down to simple math (and/or real estate). Brooklyn Flea Philly vendors could not fit enough merchandise into their (by Philly standards) tiny spaces to cover their (again by Philly standards) high overhead. Therefore, they had to charge more for their merchandise and shoppers noticed. They bought less, vendors subsequently made less, and eventually both exercised their option to take their business, and businesses, elsewhere. The fact that they had other and better options made the choice all the more easier.

    If Phila Flea Markets did not exist then vendors might have been more willing to be more patient with Brooklyn Flea Philly. In that case, shoppers might have been more willling to spend more money on high-end vintage and antique items and maybe, just maybe, the flea market would have succeeded.

    If Ms. Smith and Mr. Vevle truly believe that the secret to a successful flea market in Philadelphia is to simply give it a Phila-centric name, then I know of a bridge in Brooklyn that might be for sale and I think they should look at.

    • mcourtne

      Nice addendum to this loosey goosey article.

    • Exactly! I’m amazed by how many people seem to be trying to pin the failure on the name. The ultimate problem was it was populated almost entirely with vendors selling expensive junk, and I do mean junk (really how many wooden milk crates and mason jars do people need?). There were a few vendors offering unique items, but they were lost in the crowd.