Cat’s out of the bag, guys: No April BH Flea this year. We’re tremendously sorry about it, too–not just because we love the Flea and the ways in which it brings multiple communities together, but also because once a physical space is gone, it takes many, many creative opportunities with it.
As Boston Hassle publisher Dan Shea said in an interview with the Harvard Crimson, “third spaces” (taken from Robert Oldenburg’s concept of the “third place”) are vital to city communities. They offer a dimension to our lives that exists outside the confines of work and home. They are where mini-societies are born; within them exists unique rules, commerce, and values. When maintained properly, with hard work and goodwill, they are equitable to both inhabitants and newcomers. And so it’s with deep regret that we must shut the door on our own third space, at least for a little while.
Of course, our dilemma is nearly universal at this point. Without any third spaces, or even second spaces, we’ve entered a landscape entirely untenable to the independent maker. Flea markets, retail shops, conventions, fairs, and restaurants have shut their doors across multiple cities. Without access to the space, the customer and the experience, independent sellers are struggling.
How does a maker sell their goods? Well, there’s always the Internet. But in a precarious economy (that wasn’t doing too hot before the virus struck), it’s hard for craftspeople to feel as though as they have stable footing beneath them. Where does a community so reliant on face-t0-face commerce go from here?
I spoke to two of the Boston Hassle Flea’s most beloved participants, Matt Brennan of Two Thangs Pop Art and Ruth Plaster of Mud Hedz Pipes & Ceramics, about life as an independent maker in the days of COVID-19.
BOSTON HASSLE: How many flea markets do you typically table at this time of year?
MATT BRENNAN: I’m usually doing 2-3 a month this time of year (including conventions and all events).
RUTH PLASTER: For most artist/makers, there are generally three seasonal opportunities to sell direct to consumer. They are: the fall outdoor market season (September – October), the holiday indoor market season (mid November – December) and the spring indoor and outdoor market season (April – mid June). Currently, the five April markets that I had confirmed have been wiped out. It is looking like most of May will be cancelled too… If the quarantine lasts through May, I will miss out on a dozen spring sales opportunities. That is about a third of my annual income. I will also have lost the opportunity of exposure to new customers; who may have utilized my Etsy store or sought me out at another market, for their holiday gift shopping.
BH: What aspects of selling items in person do you prefer over selling online?
MB: I love-hate selling in person! When you’re meeting people face to face, you’re dealing with their real and immediate reactions to what you’re doing. You get people that are straight-up rude and shitty to you and then you get some really wonderful moments. I make paintings with a specific purpose to connect people. Someone gives me two of anything and I turn it into a piece of art which I then travel around and sell all over the country. When some person orders something especially weird, it’s really one of my favorite moments when someone thousands of miles away is flipping through my prints and then really connects with that specific one.
RP: Although most of us makers also have online shops and busy social media accounts, there’s no compensating for the connections, sales opportunities, and the promotional value of meeting your customers in person. I have found that people tend to get really excited about chatting with the artist who makes what they are buying. Many folks don’t fully understand the thoughts and processes behind the making of a handmade item. Being able to clarify and convey the meanings and methods of an object that I’ve made, helps someone to better know and appreciate and care for it. Additionally, it is a pleasure and very gratifying to converse with people who are interested in my art… It is refreshing to speak with folks who have are objective, have a different perspective on my work, and are curious about me. Finally, observing and talking with my customers, other makers, and folks in the crowd, helps to keep me updated with trends. It sparks inspiration and fosters new ideas.
BH: What aspects of selling items online do you prefer over selling in person?
MB: Selling online is much more transactional which is better and worse. You miss that magic that can happen with a good conversation, but you also don’t have to deal with, like, a little kid coming up to your booth and being stoked on a painting you did only to have their mom tell them they don’t want that, it’s stupid. It’s also much more efficient for making money to pay the bills as someone sees it, they buy it or they don’t but you don’t have to expend time and effort on the people that aren’t into it anyway.
RP: Selling online is not as fun as selling in person, as it is kind of impersonal. However, it gets my work to places where it would never have a chance be. I have shipped work to the UK, Canada, Australia, and China, as well as to all fifty states. This definitely helps me promote the Mud Hedz brand. Also, although my online sales are far less than my in-person sales, they help to provide cash flow during the market off-seasons and do quite well during the holidays.
BH: How has business been since COVID started? What adjustments have you been making?
MB: Business is slow. No two ways about it. I had a big cool-off when this started and a bunch of cancelled events, but it’s really just re-enforced how behind on all the day-to-day things I was. I’m starting to chip away at all that and pour this time and effort into new avenues for revenue. My business model is definitely the hustler model where I’m trying to bring in as many different sources of little bits of money so I’m using this time to open up more that I haven’t had time to put effort into.
RP: Aside from the spring closures of flea and craft markets, local shops that carry my pipes have also been closed. As a result, my online sales have grown, which is a perk, but they haven’t come close to bridging the gap in my losses. To be proactive, I have been working with my laid-off designer friend to finally create the parked Mud Hedz website. I have also become involved with some online maker promotions including The Boston Women’s Market’s Empowerher Market and Instagram’s Thanks, Artists Club. Not sure how all of this will work out, as it’s is still early in the process, but I’m sure every little bit helps.
BH: Where do you expect your business will be in six months? How do you expect other independent sellers will adapt as a result of this lockdown?
MB: By hook or by crook I’ll still be slangin’ thangs into 2021. I’m tripling down in these uncertain times and just focusing on growing my ideas and adapting to what the new world will offer will offer as ways to reach people. It will be very interesting to see how things change. I think there will be a lot of people in the vending world who quit to look for more stable forms of income and I also think there will be a lot of people with more free time on their hands that are going to come out of this looking to make a go at it as an independent makers.
RP: We were planning on starting a serious home search this April and have been preparing our condo for the market. I had hoped that we would be moving this July, so as not to disrupt the fall and holiday market seasons. I planned to expand my staff and wholesale business beginning in January of 2021. COVID-19 has completely stalled our plans… I feel disappointed but, we have savings to weather the storm and my husband will qualify for unemployment. My dreams will be delayed but we will be able to survive the mess and hopefully remain healthy.
I am, however, concerned for many makers who are already working two jobs to float their dream. The loss of craft market income may mean an inability to pay studio rents or worse–apartment rents. It may take months for them to get to a place where they have time and a place to make their art again. This quarantine fallout will definitely slow down or stop the progress and test the spirit of many struggling artists.
The fallout from COVID-19 is hitting us all very hard. Those who are lucky enough to hang onto good health will be fortunate. Some of us will be slowed down, others will have to start over, but the alternative of sacrificing nothing to fight the virus is unthinkable.
While the lockdown drags on, you can check in with our Boston Hassle vendors on their social media accounts, Etsy shops, and websites. If you are having trouble finding your favorite seller, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can support Ruth Plaster and Mud Hedz by visiting:
You can support Matt Brennan and Two Thangs by visiting: