Frank Sinatra famously crooned that if he could make it New York, he could make it anywhere. Business owners know better.
This past June, Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby, the masterminds behind the Brooklyn Flea empire, decided it was time to expand beyond New York City and set their sights on Philadelphia. Brooklyn Flea, which operates weekend markets in New York, has become a fixture for those looking to snatch up antique art, vintage clothing, crafts and food made by local artisans.
Its founders assumed that what worked in New York would work in Philly as well, but they were wrong. The market, called Brooklyn Flea Philly, failed to attract the expected number of vendors and shoppers and so in October, it closed for good.
Mark Vevle, a Philly native, was hired by Butler and Demby to manage the market. He learned a lot from the issues the trio faced transplanting a Brooklyn-based idea to Philadelphia and so when Butler and Demby threw in the towel, he thought: 'Why not give it a try myself?'
Vevle opened Franklin Flea on Nov. 16 (the market will run until Dec. 21) and so far, it's been a success: applications for vendor spots have skyrocketed, and Vevle aims to open an outdoor location in April. Using the Brooklyn Flea model as inspiration, Vevle plans to expand his venture, possibly opening a separate food market (modeled after Smorgasburg), and organizing various retail, food, and art events in public spaces throughout Philadelphia.
Here's what he changed to make a once failing market into a Philadelphia success story.
Name: In retrospect, it probably wasn't the best idea to try and sell something with Brooklyn in the title to Philadelphians, Vevle says. “We started getting a lot of feedback that there was a segment of the population who wasn’t embracing the market because it was perceived as a New York entity.” Changing the market's name was hands down the easiest fix: “I changed it to something that felt a little more Philly centric, the Franklin Flea.” Boom. Done.
Location: Unlike many New Yorkers, Philadelphians tend to stick to their own neighborhoods on the weekend, Vevle says. Brooklyn Flea Philly was located at the Piazza at Schmidt's in Northern Liberties, on the outskirts of the city. Vevle knew that he needed to find a new, more central location if he wanted his market to succeed. He opened Franklin Flea at the Strawbridge building in downtown Philly. That way, “when you’re coming to Franklin Flea you can also stop at the Apple store, you can go see the light show down the street, or go to restaurants downtown,” Vevle says. “It’s an easier sell for people to get off their ass on a Saturday and come out from the suburbs.”
Angle: Vevle isn't a native Philadelphian (he grew up in Minneapolis), but he's been in the city for a couple years and has “grown a community here,” he says. “I’m 37, about to be 38...I like Philly a lot, and I’m ready to put down roots.” Once he became the sole face of the market, public perception immediately thawed: “I think we all underestimated how much people resent outsiders coming into Philly,” he says. He wasn't even aware of how chilly the initial reception had been until “The story changed, and it started getting out there that the guy actually lives in Philly, and he’s going to do it on his own.” Suddenly, the project received an outpouring of interest and goodwill. That, he says, didn't exist before, when it was two guys from Brooklyn trying to set up shop.
Scale: Vevle isn't burdened with the weight of previous successes and therefore has the luxury of setting more realistic growth metrics for his market. Whereas Butler and Demby are used to operating large, packed markets every Saturday and Sunday, Vevle is new to the scene. “I don’t have a company that has multiple employees that needs the market to exist on a bigger scale so quickly,” Vevle says. “I’m in a position where I can nurture and watch it grow at a slower pace.”
While keeping what was working: Vevle credits Butler and Demby for teaching him how to create and maintain a specific overall aesthetic. Brooklyn Flea is carefully curated, and Franklin Flea will continue on in that model. It's important, Vevle says, that he is strict about what the market isn’t -- it’s not a traditional flea market (a.k.a “a rubbage sale”), and it's not a crafts market. Vevle wants to focus on antiques, collectibles, and a small selection of vintage clothing. “It’s not just about being picky or snooty…we need to seek out the best of the best in those categories because there aren’t a lot of markets which offer that.”
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