Editor’s note: As EV Grieve reported recently, there are persistent questions about the future of Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church on East 11th Street. The weekend flea market that takes place in the church parking lot has its share of loyal customers, but it (like the church) is struggling to survive. Freelance reporter Lindsay Lowe stopped by the flea to see how vendors are doing and to talk with shoppers:
The Mary Help of Christians flea market appears to be bustling, but looks can be deceiving. “I come every weekend. I just love to go through everything,” said Susan Conrad, 45, who often buys unusual, artistic objects to display on her image consulting website. However, regular shoppers like Conrad have grown scarce in recent months. The market is still packed every weekend, but these days, vendors say, more people are browsing than buying.
As New Yorkers continue to struggle financially, it seems that fewer consumers are willing to indulge in impulse flea market purchases. Many vendors have seen a dramatic drop in profits over the past few months, and those who depend on their income from the market are worried.
“I actually rely on the weekend market money,” said one vendor, Millie Santos, 56, who sells sterling silver jewelry and other accessories. Santos works twice per month as a housekeeper, and her husband Sam is disabled and receives a modest fixed income. They rely on earnings from the market “so we can have food in the refrigerator [and] toiletries,” Santos said.
Now, even those are hard to come by. Santos said she made between $300 and $350 per weekend; today, she said, she is lucky if she reaches $100. Add the $80 it costs to rent her table and the $5 to $10 in equipment storage fees, and she is essentially breaking even. “We’re trying to survive here,” she said.
Vendor Jeanette Williams, 56, has also noticed a steep drop in earnings. “There has been a decline in sales tremendously,” she said. “There is no profit; I now see a decrease of about 70% or maybe break even, and that’s cutting it close.” Williams works at H&R Block, but even though she is steadily employed, for her the market is “another resource to make ends meet.”
Flea markets often serve as barometers for the overall economic climate, says Jeff Mann, president of the National Flea Market Association. “If people have more money in their pockets, they are going to spend it,” he said, adding that when times are bad, “flea market vendors have to know how to adjust.” He said that the ability to quickly lower prices in response to consumer demand gives vendors an advantage over traditional retail stores.
East Village vendors have indeed lowered prices, but many feel frustrated when customers demand even bigger bargains. “If something is $5, they’ll ask if I’ll take two,” said Ricki Seltzer, 49, who recently lost her job and is trying to support her two young children. “It’s a flea market, not a free market,” she added.
Times may look bleak for vendors who have seen their sales plummet, but some like Millie Santos are hoping things will pick up soon. She has cut prices on many of her silver rings, she said, and “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that with the holidays coming, maybe I can move some of my jewelry.”