Q&A with Judith Gehrke, Executive Director of GreenFlea

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GreenFlea is a truly classic flea market, one of New York’s oldest and best known. Operating out of a school on the Upper West Side, not far from the Museum of Natural History, the market is unassuming, a little drab, but packed with treasures. In the hallways, vendors hang clothing from fire-truck red lockers and sit against a backdrop of bulletin boards tacked with children’s art projects. The main indoor shopping area is located in the school’s cafeteria, and despite the buzzing fluorescent lighting it’s a remarkable market. I’ve seen hand-crafted jewelry, scores of elegant furs, antique lamps and vases, mint condition Star Wars memorabilia, vintage eyewear, and just about everything else. My friend took home a lovely shadow box containing a dozen tiny pairs of shoes, painstakingly hand-painted by the vendor.

I spoke with Judith Gehrke, the executive director of GreenFlea. Gehrke is brisk but kind, plainly dressed and equally plainspoken, as befits her role as the market’s sole paid employee. During the week she occupies the market’s business headquarters on 30th Street, but on weekends she takes over a small space by the cafeteria, working out of a single pockmarked wooden filing cabinet all of ten inches high. She spoke to me about the history of the market and its popularity with New Yorkers. She also gave me some great advice for novice flea-market shoppers, which I will share next week in a “Beginner’s Guide to Flea Markets.” Here are some highlights from our conversation.

So, you have an indoor section all year round, and an outdoor section that’s full of vendors during the summer. How many vendors do you have at GreenFlea at peak times?

The outdoor market has about 250 spots and the indoor is about 100. On a busy, busy day we’ll have like 300 vendors.

How long has GreenFlea operated?

The market was incorporated in 1985 but it actually started probably around 1979. The exact date is not really known. During the early days, vendors had managed to sneak into the yard on weekends and they set up a market that was kind of illegal. The school got involved once the parents figured out what was going on, probably around 1981. By 1985 they realized they needed to incorporate it as a small business. [Now] it’s owned by the PTAs.

I read on the website that the PTA takes a share of the market’s proceeds, which goes to the development of the school.

Yes, it has to. There’s a regulation in the city that if a parents’ organization sets up a flea market on school property it has to follow certain guidelines. From the rents that we collect, the school is guaranteed a certain amount of money each and every year. If we exceed that amount, then they get an additional chunk of that.

What kinds of vendors do you have at this market?

I give preference to antique vendors, antique and vintage folks. I try to incorporate as much handmade, one-of-a-kind stuff as I can get my hands on, and I try to minimize the amount of commercial goods, to the extent possible. I wanted to make this more like a European-style market, so that most of the time, what we sell here really isn’t available in the department stores. This is a lot of weird, interesting stuff.

When you have a new vendor who wants to sell here, is there a vetting process?

Yes. I try to control the number of people in various merchandise categories. I don’t want to have 42 people selling silk scarves from Thailand, for example. I get a sense of whether a category is overheated by complaints coming from vendors. With this market in particular I now have enough jewelry vendors, [so] I am only looking for something very weird and wonderful. In clothing, I try to discourage people selling really low-end stuff because it doesn’t work here. I will discourage people who sell things that really should be given to the Goodwill. Rather than have people pay me rent and not do any business, I’d rather not take them in at all. It helps no one, and just makes somebody really unhappy at the end of the day.

I find there’s something about New York that really attracts flea market consumers. Is New York a more flea market-friendly city than other cities?

Many big cities in Europe have flea markets all the time. I’m most familiar with the markets in Paris, and there are markets in Paris literally every day of the week. That’s kind of my model when I was hired to do this job.

This is a very big community of recent arrivals in the United States. Flea marketing is often the way that many new arrivals in this country begin to put down roots, because there’s not a big investment that you have to make in real estate. You don’t have to be a millionaire to sell at a flea market. And that is often a pathway for them to become successful.

It’s also a more personalized form of shopping that appeals to many people. New York City is now becoming a city of chain stores. Think about how many Gap and Banana Republics you see on every other block. When you have that shift toward the highly commercial, markets become very personal and friendly and welcoming, because there isn’t high-pressure selling going on. It becomes a place that people can look, touch, even, try on, and don’t feel the pressure that they have to buy. It’s a friendlier way of shopping.

Have you noticed a difference in clientele as flea markets have become trendier?

There’s a big interest among younger people in vintage clothing, and that’s certainly something that we’re aware of. I think that’s good. It’s a more interesting way to shop than just rushing off to Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s and buying the latest label.

They’re also looking for value. They’re looking for quality at a reasonable price. You go through the racks of vintage designer clothing [and] you can score a fabulous outfit for 40 dollars. I think there’s an emphasis, especially with economic times being tough, [to] make the money stretch a little by buying something used. Most of this stuff is in fabulous condition. And really, 10 dollars on a pair of 200-dollar jeans? I can get behind that.

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