The 26th Street Flea

There was a flea market that assembled itself outside the gates of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn some Sundays.  The trouble was, it only convened on “some Sundays,” it was unreliable.  It didn’t matter much anyways, I and my art student friends were usually broke; and the stuff they offered wasn’t worth much.  It was all new stuff, and to me that really was worthless.  I figured flea markets should only sell old stuff.

This flea had come a long way from the early days a century before when upholstered furniture for sale had to (by law) be brought outside the city limits of Paris, to stop the infestation and spread of fleas.  The only thing I remember buying at the Pratt Gate was a red pillow with little pineapples all over it.  My girlfriend Isabelle bought a matching one.

Through someone, probably my friend Jordan, I heard there was a flea market in Manhattan that was worth going to.  Now we were all about 21 years old (the transfer students stuck together – I wasn’t going to hang out with some 18 year old) and almost always broke.  A trip to Manhattan was considered a special thing.

We knew how to get there; it was only a dollar for a bullseye token, purchased at the booth at the Clinton-Washington stop on the G Train.  The G didn’t go anywhere though, we had to transfer at Hoyt-Schemerhorn for the A Train.  Once we were on the A, the world was our oyster, that is, if we could afford the oyster.

My friends Stuart, Jordan, James and I; we marshalled our funds very carefully.  We lived on Kraft macaroni and slices of pizza at Luigi’s on Hall St and DeKalb Avenue, where slices, like bullseye tokens, were only a dollar.  On better days we’d dine at Kum Kau Kitchen on Myrtle Avenue.

To us, doing anything in Manhattan was symbolically (and for us literally) out of our price range.  It was just so much trouble to do anything, we didn’t go to movies (we waited for them on TV) and we went to local bars for their shitty draft; and before and after we hunkered down at our drafting tables and did our work.4809273241_1cd902bbfb_z

So it took some doing to get me there.  The flea market was located on 6th Avenue, the Avenue of the Americas; 6th had those round signs on the lampposts, with flags from different Latin American countries.  It was a double parking lot affair, taking all the spots not needed by 9 to 5ers on the weekends.

It was located between 25th and 27th Avenues; it was called the Chelsea Flea Market, or the 26th Street Flea, or even the 6th Avenue Flea Market.  I guess it depended on who you asked.  To me it was always the 26th Street Flea.

Getting there was easy, take the G to the A to the F Train at West 4th Street and get off at 23rd.  It was practically right there.  This part of 6th Avenue was really empty, parking lots and short run down buildings.  Behind the lots were tall brick buildings with elaborately rusting fire escapes and water towers perched on top.  There were hundreds of nondescript buildings like this, especially in this part of town, the edge of Chelsea.  I always pictured balding old New Yorkers with thick New Yorky accents worked there, vests and fat short ties; steel fans turned on and blowing left-right-left.

That first time we climbed out of the subway exit on the northeast corner of 23rd and 6th.  Jordan said it was close but I didn’t see it until we were right on top of it.  I crossed 24th going north, on my right was another parking lot, this one with cars.  I figured later these cars belonged to the vendors.

The east side of 25th Street was where it began, a big lot stuffed with card tables and big umbrellas and a lot of people, many of whom looked like the ones I imagined working right upstairs during the week.  I could see the next lot up was another one, almost as big.  I didn’t go to that one much; that was the $1 lot.  I got up close and saw the parking attendant booth was manned by someone who worked there, collecting crisp ones for entry into a lot that looked to be full of furniture.

Old days

Old days

Usually I considered it too much of a gamble to spend a dollar on a lot where the stuff looked too expensive for me.  Anyway,  the milk crates my friends and I gathered from in front of the Key Foods on Myrtle Avenue served as capable furniture for us dorm dwellers.

Jordan and I split up at the first lot, the free lot.  He knew right where he was going.  To the Record Guy, he’d stop at the first box and methodically flip-flip-flip through every single record.  I wandered around randomly looking for old stuff.

Old books throughout, a Life Magazine guy, a Look Magazine guy, old clocks, jewelry people, old clothes, shirts and lingerie.  Random linoleum tables and chairs, old National Geographic maps, car parts, there was a little bit of everything for everyone there.  It looked like time capsule stuff from the Sixties and way before had been dumped there – and I loved it.  It was a lot better than that new crap they had at the Pratt Gate on DeKalb Avenue.

Whether I was broke or not, I went back almost every week (weather permitting) in the late ‘80s.  I couldn’t get enough, sometimes I just looked, well, usually I did.  I would blow most of my 5 or 10 dollar allotment on subway tokens away from Pratt and back; and a large Frozeade on the corner of 26th and 6th.  I knew the Frozeade stand, like the hotdog stand next to it was strategically located to pull people into the $1 lot.  Sometimes I’d cough up a buck and stumble in with brain freeze.

Same view years later, minus Andy

Same view years later, minus Andy

Andy Warhol at the free lot, wish I'd brought my camera that day.

Andy Warhol at the free lot, wish I’d brought my camera that day.

It was like a free history lesson, splayed out all around me was the detritus of how people before me used to live.  New York in the Fifties, New York in the Sixties, it was all there on tables and on the ground; a little yellowed but still alive.  It was proof of the historical coolness of New York.  This is what I was here for.

The vendors themselves were usually older, serious people, constantly looking down at their own stuff and then quickly glancing up and around, letting everyone know they were paying attention to their goods.  Some of them had kids they’d dragged along, they were the ones sitting sullenly in the back of the booths or merchandise tables, slowly chewing takeout from across the street.

The flea marketers were of all ages, they were hip, in the know, and always ready to walk away.  It was part of the dance.  Offer, counter offer, turn away, “OK how about….?,” walk back, haggle a bit more, then purchase.  That part was distasteful to me, I wasn’t a haggler, I was young, and I thought they’d get mad at me or worse, never make a counter offer.

Pic from '90s

Pic from ’90s

The rare occasions I bought, I was only too happy to give them what they asked, to the disgust of Jordan or Stuart, and the sometimes mild consternation of Isabelle.

Some of the people around me would stand confoundedly for twenty minutes or more, staring at god knew what, before slowly peeling away, looking up and around all startled, like they’d forgotten where they were.  There was a mild etiquette where when you were going through books or records and ran into someone; one would agree to wordlessly step back so the other could continue.

Sometime about a year after I started going, they put a second $1 lot inside the first one.  It was in the back facing a blank brick wall.  The stuff there must have been expensive, I rarely saw it.  If this kept on then the lot would be like a Matryoshka doll, with one having to pay dollar after dollar to get to the center.  Anyway they usually had those Russian nesting dolls in the free lot.  I guess to the organizers it seemed like another good idea to pull people into the bigger $1 lot that enveloped the new enclave.

I had a camera back then and I wished I used it more.  Compared to nowadays it was such a pain in the ass to go and buy film, make sure you load the camera properly, take your twenty shots or so, and then hand off the camera at some developing place like B & H Photo.  Then wait for days for it.  It didn’t matter, I wasn’t nostalgic yet anyway.

One day during the week I was at my job at Manhattan Signs and Designs on 22nd off 5th Avenue.  After work I walked over to 26th and 6th, a place I’d never been to during the week.  It was eerie, all filled with cars it was busy and different.  It still struck me as a ghost town.  The context was all wrong.

Like with all fun things, I eventually took the 26th Street Flea for granted.  Eventually they turned the free lot into a $1 lot too and I just kind of stopped going.  That was in the early ‘90s.  But that was not before my friends and I found some great stuff.  I bought vintage Hawaiian shirts, Tom Jones records and several Marilyn Monroe magazines.  I found a book about the sinking of the Titanic that was printed a month or so after the disaster in 1912.

This was where the old $1 lot within the $1 lot was located

This was where the old $1 lot within the $1 lot was located

Jordan found a lot of Elvis stuff and stacks of old Martin Denny records.  Isabelle found a great set of curtains and what she still calls the “best pair of jeans I ever owned in my life.”  Even Stuart, ever loathe to part with his money, found a couple of knick knacks.

I wish I’d taken some pictures, but I would have been embarrassed, “Hey look at this tourist taking pictures of our flea market.”  I was 22; I thought everyone’s attention was naturally on me. Anyway, I thought if those parking lots had been there that long it (the Flea) probably wasn’t going anywhere.  I didn’t know much about aging and change and how serious New York was about reinventing itself.

Current successor to the old Flea, now on 25th near Broadway.

Current successor to the old Flea, now on 25th near Broadway.

But Alan Boss, the guy who started the whole thing up back in the ‘70’s; well, he knew what was going on.  Around ’94 he started the Garage, located at 112 W. 25th, right around the corner from the flea.  Same principle, empty lots on weekends could be put to better use, this time out of the rain and away from Manhattan’s encroaching developers.

Then boom, one lot sold and construction started on a condo tower.  The 26th Street Flea was down to one lot, the original $1 lot.  Later on, boom, the other lot sold and another condo tower went up.  The old brick buildings behind them both stayed to this day; but I always imagined the bald New Yorkers with fat ties were dismayed by the newness.

Left and right, these condos fill what was once the empty lots of the 26th Street Flea.

Left and right, these condos fill what was once the empty lots of the 26th Street Flea.

I know by ’99 (probably a few years before that) it was over, the 26th Street Flea (or whatever you call it) was no more.  Nostalgia kicked in then.  I knew I’d never have another day on the F Train, wondering if I was going to get to the lot and see something of value that nobody else could see.  I had that feeling with that Titanic book.  Isn’t that feeling the only reason anyone goes to a flea?

The flea market people (maybe Alan Boss and others) started another small lot flea on 25th street across from the Garage (by then called the Antiques Garage), it was in a much smaller lot but hosted many of the same vendors from the old Flea.  Then they started the really successful Hell’s Kitchen Flea market on 39th and 9th.  It had an official name now and together they formed a kind of loose Flea Confederation.

I went there a few years ago, it had some good stuff, but it had some new stuff too, and that was not so good.  Frozeade Inc. had gone under and there were funnel cake and pizza places there; the Flea not only had a name but a logo.  It was an organized thing and the feeling from the 26th Street Flea was gone.

The old Flea felt like a bunch of people had just coincidentally gotten together to sell their really old cool shit.  The Hell’s Kitchen now is like a street fair.  The flea and the street fair are different things; a flea shouldn’t be like the Atlantic Antic.

I missed my chance with that camera but I was too young to be bothered.  Most of my pics of the site now are culled from my friends at Google Maps, AKA my sometimes repository of buried memories.

Antiques Garage

Antiques Garage

If you’re in town check out the parking lot on 25th, close to Broadway.  Poke your head inside the Antiques Garage.  If you love it don’t be afraid to snap a few pics from your endless digital camera roll, god knows the joint won’t be there forever.  If you want something new, head west over to the Hell’s Kitchen Flea; or just go to Ikea.

The only thing the same is this scuzzy McDonald's on the right.

The only thing the same is this scuzzy McDonald’s on the right.

1 reply
  1. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    …alphabet city flea??? Or maybe they call it east village. That one was pretty awesome, too. Every thing looked like it was removed from someone’s apartment without permission. Lots of “classic” New Yorkers running the stalls there. Records, leather jackets. A giant pile of shoes! Used bicycle parts, wtf? There’s no way that those were acquired through honest methods!


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