Q&A with Karen Seiger

If you’ve been reading my blog faithfully, you’ll definitely recognize the name: Karen Seiger, market expert extraordinaire. I had a chance to speak with the passionate flea market-er about her blog, how she chooses a “featured seller,” and her favorite markets (all of them!). Here are the highlights:

How did the Markets of New York City project get started?

[My husband and I had] cashed in our Amex points and went to Paris.  My husband found this book called Markets of Paris, this beautiful pocket-sized book with rounded corners. We earmarked all these pages and went to visit all these really great markets, and we discovered that the place where we always stay had not one but two farmers’ markets across the way. So we ended up buying food in the market and cooking it up in our apartment, or buying the prepared foods, like the incredible roasted chickens, potatoes cooking in the bottom of the roasters so they cook in the chicken juice, fresh tomatoes and oranges from North Africa. It was just splendid.

We were sitting one day and I said, “I know we have farmer’s markets in New York but I wonder if we have other kinds of markets.” So we went to an Internet café right then and there and tried to find markets on Google. This was 2008, and even at that time websites were not as accessible as they are today, so markets were very difficult to find. I thought, “Maybe there’s a market guide for our city.” I spent the next year going to markets every weekend with James, my husband, and did all the research and discovered that there were all these great markets – the old can factory, which has since closed, the Brooklyn Indie Market in a little tent, which just closed.

I sent a book proposal to the publisher who had done Markets of Paris and got a call the next morning, less than 18 hours later. We had a deal almost immediately. And then I was off the races. I feel like that book, the first edition, captured the history of this incredible entrepreneurial, handmade movement.

How did the website component get started?

The book came out [in] May of 2010, but December ’09 my editor said, “You know, we have another author who has a blog and that seemed to help with book sales. If you feel like blogging, go ahead and do it.” I thought, “Finally, I have something I want to write about!” So I started the blog, and the blog really accompanied the book. By now, the book is out of date, and it’s completely out of print. I’m actually looking for a new publisher, because my publisher doesn’t do multiple editions. They put out beautiful, chocolate-dipped strawberry treasures of little books, but they don’t invest in the follow-on. I am looking for a publisher with a little bit more longevity, who wants to do an e-book, who wants to do maybe an edition every two years because these markets change so much. But for now the blog is really where the information is.

We re-launched the blog in December. I wanted it to feel more like a magazine, more like an inspirational site.

How do you choose “featured sellers” for the site?

The new structure of the website has dictated an artisan, farmer, food and a flea posting. I try to plan two, three months in advance –  usually it’s about a month in advance – who’s going where. I go to multiple markets. If I’m running low on images of flea markets I’ll go to fleas and meet people that I can write about.

To find the individuals or the products that I feature, it’s a three-part process. First, their product, whether it’s food or handmade or a flea collection, has to catch my eye. It doesn’t have to be something that appeals to me personally, but I have to find it interesting. And the person has to want to talk to me. The person has to be nice. And by “nice,” I don’t mean you can’t be crabby. Because if you’re a vendor and you’re sitting at a flea market on a rainy day in August and it’s a million degrees, you’re allowed to be crabby. But you can’t be mean and you can’t be a bully.

Thirdly, it always helps if people have their online act together. It’s a pain when I’m trying to write about somebody who doesn’t have a website, or even an Etsy store – or, especially at the flea markets, vendors don’t have shop names. So I have to be careful how I tell people how to find these individuals. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s always much better if somebody has an active Twitter account, and a Facebook page, and a website. [But] it’s really about their energy and their products and their commitment to being on the markets.

Do you have any favorite markets?

I always say my favorite market is the market I’m standing in. And I honestly mean it. Even with smallest school [or] community market, there’s always going to be somebody that is either selling something really cool that they’ve made by hand, or something that they found in their grandmother’s cupboard, the most beautiful little teapot I’ve ever seen. If they’re committed to putting on the greatest yard sale in the village, I love that. But the big ones are impressive. Hell’s Kitchen, GreenFlea, Brooklyn Flea – those are machines. Those people put on an incredible event.

You know the movie Brigadoon? It’s a story about a Scottish village that appears in the mist every 100 years. If you come across it, it’s there, but when the mist goes, Brigadoon disappears. It’s sort of like the markets. They create an environment with so much energy and creativity and enthusiasm. And then it’s gone, it’s just an empty lot – until next weekend, when they’re back with all their magic. 

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