THE NEW YORK TIMES
Brooklyn’s Dekalb Market: A Tidy Flea, but What to Buy?
By ALEXANDRA JACOBS
Published: November 15, 2011
WHEN I visit a rural area, which I do only with great reluctance, there is often someone there urging me to awake before dawn with flashlight and steaming thermos, as if for a whale watch, and visit the local flea market.
Though I love old things, this sense of urgency has never really resonated. Surely all the choicest tchotchkes and gewgaws won’t be gone by daybreak? Isn’t the whole point of country life, anyway, to escape the sharp elbows and competitiveness of a boom-time Barneys Warehouse Sale?
Over the last few years, the madness of the flea has infected New York, specifically gentrified Brooklyn, with a vengeance. What was once the province of furniture dealers, pickers and hoarders is now as much a part of the haute bourgeoisie’s weekly routine as brunch; and indeed, thanks to the complicated tacos and exotic hot dogs on offer at the markets, the two experiences can now be handily combined. They are still mostly free-form, ragtag affairs, though, with the goods (and the bads) scattered pell-mell on tables, movable racks or along the ground.
This is not the set-up at Dekalb Market, a tidy space that opened last summer along the Flatbush Avenue Extension, a block or so from the blessedly nonironic waxen maraschino cherries and neon of Junior’s. Conceptualized by Urban Space, the British-based planning firm responsible for the Columbus Circle and Union Square holiday markets, it’s a flea that’s been doused with DEET.
I visited on a warm autumn weekday, striding up on a walkway whose carnival colors were perhaps slightly enhanced by a contact high from a few pot smokers loitering along the perimeter of the Long Island University campus across the street. Inside, gravel crunches pleasantly underfoot, conjuring a sandbox for adults.
Actually it’s a sandbox for children, too, with an abundance of “crazy-hair dads,” as an old-fashioned former colleague of mine likes to call them, letting their flesh-and-blood Juniors run hither and yon. Considering that the market is in the middle of downtown, it has a remarkable sense of peace, shattered only by these small fry yelling “I want a doughnut! I want a doughnut! I want a doughnut!” (Cuzin’s Duzin, six for $2); or the wail of a siren en route from the nearby fire station; or the gentle bleat-bleat of the convenient on-site ATM.
But where will you be spending your money here? Apart from the food stations, which make up a little under half the space and surround wooden picnic tables (bordered by a row of politically correct lettuces), Dekalb Market amounts to a small collection of shops housed in recycled shipping containers. The level of amenity falls somewhere on the spectrum between the Jardin du Palais Royal and the barracks erected by the Dharma Initiative on “Lost.”
At Kooj, a boutique named for the proprietor’s boyfriend that stocks around-the-house essentials like pompom-bedecked ballet flats and horse-printed shorts in Nigerian cotton, I hesitated, figuring out where I might try on a navy blue cable-knit cashmere pullover by Qi (a bargain at $49). My hostess, Christy Luo, sprang up from behind a table where she’d been scribbling with a feather quill.
“I have a dressing room!” she announced, whipping a cotton sheet into a private cocoon with a few deftly placed safety pins.
It makes me sweat when I can’t pace several cubits before considering a purchase, and I exited the container empty-handed. But I was impressed by Ms. Luo’s entrepreneurial derring-do. It’s the lifeblood of Dekalb Market, which right now feels rosy with purpose and good will, though its offerings aren’t exactly vital.
At Dog Tag Designs, a guy named Tyagi Schwartz is making lamps with heads that rise like stalks out of a bed of wittily juxtaposed old books, like a Sylvia Plath biography and Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone.” In the same container, his sweetheart, Lanie Lynn, whose name befits her comic-book blond beauty, sells 1960s costume jewelry affixed to cards made from vintage school photos: young women grinning in creepy beehives.
Designer goods are scarce, though I unearthed a Carolina Herrera nautical top for $68 at Honeysuckle & Hearts, which sells used clothing, and Ms. Luo was also selling a Louis Vuitton Speedy 30 from her personal collection ($375).
THERE is also what seems to be a glut of merchandise destined to end up at ... well, dirtier flea markets. Shearling gloves without fingertips, so you can manipulate a smartphone even in the dead of winter; Moleskine notebooks ($32) for scribbling one’s increasingly rare offline thoughts. And far too many Etsyish souvenirs of the borough’s transformation, like Fort Greene-“flavored” cleansing gel, and ceramic coffee cups reading, ho ho, “I Got Mugged in Brooklyn.”
Still, this little community of shopkeepers is tremendously endearing, their relaxation contagious. They chat and smoke, and open when they please — and never before the civilized hour of 10 a.m.
138 Willoughby Street, downtown Brooklyn; dekalbmarket.com.