Features

DC Outdoor Markets Incubate Businesses while Fostering Community

BY CHRISTINA STURDIVANT

Flea Market at Eastern Market, photo courtesy of Diverse Markets Management.

Flea Market at Eastern Market, photo courtesy of Diverse Markets Management.

The promise of a great local attraction takes hard work, dedication and patience. Mike Berman has witnessed this firsthand with the evolution of the flea market at Eastern Market—one of DC’s prime weekend locales for shopping and gathering.

“What was once a totally closed and desolate area became, over time, a very popular destination,” says Berman, who was introduced to the market thirty years ago by founder, Tom Rall.

Outdoor markets also act as incubators for small businesses. Entrepreneurs who can’t afford “brick-and-mortar” stores, take advantage of occasionally renting spaces that generate a consumer base and traction for larger endeavors. The flea market at Eastern Market has helped spawn the transition of struggling businesses to self-supporting establishments.

Back then, Berman was a fine artist and painter who began selling his work at the market alongside other artists, farmers and crafters. Today, Berman and Rall have partnered to create Diverse Markets Management (DMM) and have become powerhouses in the DC metro area’s outdoor market arena.

Outdoor commerce is a unique commodity in inner cities for a number of reasons.

“It adds vitality to the street—it makes public areas more exciting and it brings people together and greater connections are made,” says Berman.

Outdoor markets also act as incubators for small businesses. Entrepreneurs who can’t afford “brick-and-mortar” stores, take advantage of occasionally renting spaces that generate a consumer base and traction for larger endeavors. The flea market at Eastern Market has helped spawn the transition of struggling businesses to self-supporting establishments.

For many artists, vending at the market has helped them reached personal independence.

“When you sell at a market, you’re out there every week so you get a lot of feedback.  Every week you get interaction and that can really help you with development of your work, says Berman. “It enabled me to have a career and survive as an artist—it was my livelihood.”

With over 100 spaces for exhibitors, the flea market at Eastern Market is almost always full, making the market itself, the truest testimony of growth and development. Reaching a point where it could no longer accommodate the number of exhibitors seeking to vend, DMM birthed new ventures.

Items sold at the Flea Market at Eastern Market, photo courtesy of Diverse Markets Management.

Items sold at the Flea Market at Eastern Market, photo courtesy of Diverse Markets Management.

The Downtown Holiday Market—co-produced by the Downtown DC Business Improvement District—is one of the first offspring from the flea market at Eastern Market’s success. The 2014 holiday season will be the 10th anniversary of the much-anticipated holiday market that floods DC’s Penn Quarter neighborhood each December with high-quality crafts, unique gifts and festive treats and entertainment.

“The downtown holiday market is a big opportunity for local businesses and artists because it’s got so much foot traffic,” says Berman. “Many artists tell us it saves their year—what they make in that month helps them cover a lot of costs and gets them through the winter when they can’t sell at all.”

“It’s still a matter of the community to not just embrace [outdoor markets] as an idea, which they do, but embrace it as a gathering place, as a place to come not only to shop and buy things but to see their neighbors and to develop relationships with vendors and everybody in the community.”  – Michael Berman.

More recently, DMM has ventured to southeast’s historic Anacostia neighborhood and northwest’s U Street NW corridor to further its expansion.

The Big Chair flea market was launched in Spring 2013, taking place on Saturdays at the intersection of MLK Jr. Avenue and Pleasant Street SE. The U Street market was launched spring 2014, taking place on Saturdays and Sundays at the intersection of 9th and U Streets NW.

Both markets offer a diverse mix of art, crafts, fashion, jewelry, imports, antiques, collectibles and furniture for purchase from typically twenty to twenty-five vendors.

While both neighborhoods have appeal in their own right, neither have yet to gain the type of prestige associated with the flea market at Eastern Market. Part of the solution, Berman believes, is consciously establishing the markets as a part of each neighborhood, not just in them.

“It’s still a matter of the community to not just embrace it as an idea, which they do, but embrace it as a gathering place, as a place to come not only to shop and buy things but to see their neighbors and to develop relationships with vendors and everybody in the community,” says Berman.

Growing markets from their infancy is very familiar to Berman, and he intends to keep a spirit of persistence with all his endeavors.

“Thirty years ago when the flea market at Eastern Market started, there was nobody around. It started with one vendor and grew to five and then a handful and over time, it became what it is today,” he says. “These things take time to take root and not everyone has the patience to make it to the end when it becomes a wildly successful place.”

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Authored by: Christina Sturdivant

Christina Sturdivant is a Washington, DC native freelance writer who studied print journalism at Hampton University. Currently, she writes about national issues in higher education and local issues surrounding cultural, community and artistic development in the city. In her work, she most enjoys sharing the viewpoints of change-makers and implementing learned values into her daily life. She is also heavily involved in the Washington, DC non-profit sector and is the Founder of D.R.E.A.M. Life, Inc., an organization which provides mentorship and resources to young, single mothers in the DC metro area.