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June 26, 2012 | last updated June 28, 2012 8:26 am

Two months in, Portland Flea-for-All hitting its stride

Photo/Matt Dodge
Photo/Matt Dodge
Erin Kiley and Nathaniel Baldwin are the founders of the Portland Flea-for-All, which opened in April

For many the term flea market conjures up images of dusty roadside stands laden with mounds of junk and obscure collectibles, a business model seemingly built on the kitschy salt shaker market and often limited to the warmer summer months. Located in the resurgent and increasingly hip Bayside neighborhood, the Portland Flea-for-All is bucking the rural trend with its new, two-story indoor market located at the former Asia West furniture showroom on Kennebec Street.

The market, currently open Saturdays and Sundays, draws on the robust local community of artists, craftspeople and vintage mavens to offer a more curated flea market experience, helping sellers to gain exposure while keeping overhead low and allowing them an outlet from the often-isolating Internet marketplace.

"We wanted to play off Portland's strengths, which we think are its artistic and curating community," says Erin Kiley, who runs the fledgling market with her fiancÚ, Nathaniel Baldwin.

The southern California transplants were able to quickly take stock of their new surroundings upon arriving in town over a year ago and wasted no time in carving out a niche. The market opened in April.

"Portland is known for being a wellspring of entrepreneurial spirit, and it was clear right away that the community was young and vibrant and open to new things," says Kiley.

The town has no lack of merchants selling local, handmade and vintage goods, from boutiques like Ferdinand (at 243 Congress St.) to Pinecone + Chickadee (at 6 Free St.) and Moody Lords (at 578 Congress St.), but with smaller locations and regular hours, they didn't exactly encapsulate the couple's idea of the flea market experience.

"The Flea-for-All is styled more like an event. People come and connect with vendors personally. When a vendor is on site and can tell them about piece they are selling and its history, it serves them well," says Kiley. Vendors pay $30 a day to showcase their wares.

The Merchant Co. at 656 Congress St. treads similar territory to that of the Flea-for-All, but embraces a model where vendors rent table space and, in exchange for a percentage of their sales, are freed from having to tend to their goods, relying on the store's staff to ring up their sales.

Opening last Spring, The Merchant Co. came on the scene just as Kiley and Baldwin were doing their own shop-hunting. While the timing initially elicited some nervousness from the couple, Kiley says the two ventures have forged a mutually beneficial relationship. "They've been really great allies of ours," she says.

In fact, the whole city's arts, crafts and vintage community has been very supportive of the flea market venture, according to Riley. "Coexistence is a natural way to make Portland a big destination for this type of thing," she says. "The more people we can bring in doing this, the better."

"I don't think it has impacted us whatsoever," says LeAnna Fox, owner of The Merchant Co. "We have many vendors who also sell at the Flea-for-All, but it's a different style of business and a different clientele," she says.

Far from approaching a saturation point, Fox says that the more local art, craft and vintage goods on the scene, the better. "We encourage local artists to get their work out there as much as possible," she says. "There are so many artists in Portland and Maine in general that you're able to keep a variety that is unique."

While struggling to set themselves apart, Kiley and Baldwin couldn't help but embrace at least one guiding tenet of the flea market industry: make it an event, not an everyday occurrence. "One of the big things is that experiential quality. You make it an event and it builds up excitement for the weekend," Kiley says.

The Flea-for-All has diverged from this strategy at least once so far, hosting the May incarnation of local networking event Portland Greendrinks at the space this spring. "Eventually we might move towards doing more events during the week, or some sort of consignment aspect, but right now the weekend is our bread and butter," she says.

Despite Portland's love for all things vintage and handcrafted, Kiley and Baldwin encountered what they considered to be municipal red tape. A rule designed to limit routine flea markets within the city established fees of $50 per day for flea market operators, $20 licenses for vendors and a $35 processing fee for vendors.

"When we started, we were told it would be super easy and we would just need this one permit," says Kiley.

While the city clerk's office initially agreed to streamline the process and drop the operator licensing fee to $225 a year, miscommunication between city attorney Gary Wood and the city council's Public Safety and Health and Human Services Committee over the $35 processing fee sparked a debate at an early June meeting.

The council eventually voted 5-3 to approve the changes, doing away with the both the initial processing fee and $25 annual renewal fee while giving police the authority to seize suspected stolen goods.

"The city was amazingly supportive," says Kiley. "No other municipality in Maine has any [such] licensing requirements, so this would have been pushing people to other flea markets," she said.

Citing Wood and councilors Dave Marshall and Kevin Donoghue as key supporters of the amendment, Kiley said she was encouraged by the officials' support of young entrepreneurship within the city. "For young people starting a business, it is intimidating, but I think the amount of support we ended up getting was an exemplary model of what Portland is capable of," she says.

After a little more than two months, the Flea-for-All is hitting its stride. Kiley said the crew is not afraid to shake things up to make sure it's best serving its customers and vendors. For example, vendors were initially mixed between the two floors with overarching layout, but Kiley and Baldwin have since moved household goods and consignment items to the second floor while grouping individual vendors together on the ground level. "It's worked nicely because now the second floor is sort of showroom and it allows the pieces to speak for themselves," she says.

In tailoring the business to the locally-minded market available space, some aspects of the traditional flea market model have been left by their roadside origins. The Flea-for-All is a juried marketplace, giving Kiley and Baldwin the chance to vet vendors and create a pared-down market without a lot of overlap in offerings. "We do the culling for people; we're selective, but not narrow minded," says Kiley.

The flea market also serves as an important bridge for young artists and entrepreneurs looking to get their wares out there without taking on the financial burden of a brick-and-mortar storefront or relying on Internet sales. "This particular business model is a no-brainer; for vendors who don't have the [resources] to open up their own stores, $30 a day is pretty workable," Kiley says.

The arrangement also has some fringe benefits for vendors who make the cut, according to Kiley. "We do all the promoting, public relations and most of the branding."

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