New York is hardly itself again, but among the seedlings of recovery that are pushing through the cracks in the concrete, here’s one that comes just in time for crisp autumn weekend mornings: The durable, uneven, grungy, beloved Chelsea Flea Market comes back on Saturdays and Sundays starting September 12. It’ll open at 8 a.m., for the first time since December, in its customary parking lot on West 25th Street near Sixth Avenue.
It’s a comeback twice over, because the market last winter went through a near-death experience well before the city closed down. At the end of 2019, the flea’s founder, Alan Boss, lost his lease on the 25th Street lot, and the whole thing seemed to be a goner. Then the business was picked up by the team behind the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, which had planned, before the COVID crisis hit, to reopen it in April. Starting next week, there’ll be food for sale at the market from several Smorgasburg vendors, which is pretty clearly an improvement.
As is true in most New York retailing, the past decade’s real-estate pressure and increasing wealth have been hard on the Chelsea Flea. At one point in the late 1980s, give or take, the market sprawled over seven vacant lots, with hundreds of vendors selling an immense array of vintage and antique stuff. Andy Warhol bought kitsch there; Al Goldstein’s collections were cashed out there after he went broke. The stuff for sale ranged from great to ghastly, often at the same time. One guy sold nothing but Heywood-Wakefield furniture; others might have jazz LPs or vintage go-go boots; still others dealt in cheap near-junk. The real shopper-aficionados lined up at 4:30 in the morning to get first crack, as everything came off the trucks. Because this was New York, quite a few of those obsessives were interior designers, graphic artists, fashion designers, and other visual tastemakers. As a result, the stuff sold at the Chelsea Flea trickled into editorial spreads, onto theater stages, and inspired runway looks, informing much of an entire generation’s work. It is not overstating the case to say that the mid-century-repro furniture you see at West Elm or Crate & Barrel today — and indeed the reason you know the term “mid-century modern” — descends from the stuff those stylish people bought at the Chelsea Flea 25 or 30 years ago.
Today, all but one of those empty lots have been filled up with giant condo towers. The market is down to one parking lot on 25th Street, although a couple of nearby satellite businesses sell antique and vintage stuff as well. Because it’s so much smaller than it was, your odds of finding a perfect gem amid the shlock are necessarily reduced. But that’s okay! You’re there to be out in the city, in a place that is a little grubby and weird, among other New Yorkers who are perhaps also a little grubby and weird, and maybe go home with a groovy framed poster or a strange old Lucite chair. And now you can do it again.