When speaking to the founder of the Youngstown Flea, Derrick McDowell, one thing he always expresses is that the flea is not a flea market and the flea is not an event, it is an experience. I thought the idea was intriguing but had yet to grasp the true meaning of his words. Was this marketing mumbo jumbo? I mean, it is a once a month activity, technically making it an event. And the main activity happening is the sale of goods, i.e. a market. However, rounding out the last flea of the year, (the Holiday Flea at the Deyor Performing Arts Center) I had an epiphany that reinforced Derrick’s description of - and conviction of - the purpose of the flea.
Friday evening I participated as a vendor of the Youngstown Flea. I had a wonderful time. Loading in had its difficulties - but true to form, other vendors stepped in to help one another load in and set up. During the flea we networked, took photos of each other’s spaces and marketing each other’s small businesses as a whole. The crowd filtered in steadily through out the night. Families with babies in strollers (commonplace at all Fleas), regulars and newbies with bright friendly faces eager to meet and mingle the artists behind the products made their way around the main concourse, the second floor and Overture restaurant. Music played with cheery tunes in the background, ending with a beautiful choir ensemble practicing in the auditorium that those on the south end of the building could hear clear as a bell. The only missing from the flea was the array of adorable pets that visitors brought throughout the season (very missed, but understandably not admitted into the beautiful Deyor).
I participated in the annual Canfield High Craft Show, put on by the senior class. This is a large show with more than 250 vendors. I was reluctant at first, due to the sheer immensity and the fact they accept direct sales and don’t limit the number of vendors per genre (meaning people with the same exact products were set up next to each other). However, I have a few friends who have done very well there so I gave it a try. One great thing is that the high school seniors are friendly and eager to assist. They load vendor merchandise in and it deliver it right to your designated spot. They get your lunch for you and are very accommodating, which is extremely nice. Set up was smooth and easy.
It’s approximately 15 minutes until doors open at the Canfield High Show and there are customers within the building shopping. An announcement comes over the loud speaker informing shoppers they must vacate the building because the show didn't start yet. I look at the doors to the main entrance and customers are waiting outside in the lines. The students poised at the door start calling out shoppers and telling them to go back outside. I grimace at the awkwardness. Having shoppers arrive before all vendors are set up is not ideal. But it is something most of us deal with, give a brief explanation that the show hasn’t begun but never turn those customers away.
Fifteen minutes later the doors open as if Walmart just opened on Black Friday. A crowd emerges down the main hallways and past my table. On one hand I was thrilled to see such a large turnout to support small business and makers. On the other hand, I was left feeling kind of cold. The warm smiles of yesterday turned into blank stares. These shoppers were on a mission - and as the hours slowly ticked by I realized it was not a mission to meet, mingle or have an experience. At this point I realized this is why we leave “market” out of the Flea. Most hello’s were met with muttered hi’s and a lack of eye contact. I won’t lie - I was bummed. And I missed the Flea.
Downtown Youngstown hosted the Flea, the Butler Art Show, the Ursuline High School show - all very successful shows for small business people and craftsmen. I can guarantee the income generated within the downtown area from retails sales on small business this weekend were probably one of the largest the area has seen years. And this is because of people like Derrick and organizations such as Defend Youngstown, CityScape, Youngstown Business Indicator, Shop Local Mahoning Valley (and many more) and new small businesses that may have opened with a sense of risk in their location, but they did it anyway. Perhaps it is time for retail to make its way back to Downtown Youngstown.
Please feel free to view the following link which features a interview with Derrick on location at the Flea. Daybreak Nation at the Holiday Flea
Items were for sale, but was this just a market? It didn't feel like it. It felt like a party among like-minded people, members of a community, friends. And it didn't fit any preconceived ideas of a typical flea market. The craftsmanship and quality were evident. The displays were unique and painstakingly planned out. The merchandise was intriguing and in- style. Location is a primary element of the flea. Above all, it must be in the heart of downtown Youngstown. The outdoor Fleas sit in front of the Covelli Center, the premier spot for downtown entertainment. This Holiday Flea was no exception and I was truly humbled to be set up at such a beautiful and historical venue. The mouldings, inlays, elaborate paintings, and warm glow throughout created the perfect holiday ambiance.
So really, what makes the Flea so fundamentally different than this and any other craft show/makers market that I have been a part of? First of all, the purpose. When Derrick began his venture to create the flea, it was not with an end goal to make money. It was not to get as many vendors as possible, overcharge for booth space or rake in profits. The goal/purpose of the flea is to benefit the city of Youngstown, encourage tourism from larger neighboring cities and suburban residents who don’t realize what Youngstown has to offer, and prove that Youngstown can be a successful location for small business and economic growth. And every artisan works toward that goal with Derrick, rather than solely focusing on their financial goals as a business person. And this collaboration is working.