Monday, April 4, 2011

Flea Market Is Sprucing Up for Move to Coney Island by Liz Robbins -

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Debbie Quintana-Stiefel knows it is time to expand her palette. Beyond the brown and deep-red lipsticks she carries, she must now add fuchsias and oranges and complementary foundations to satisfy her new customers.

It is a fairly significant change she plans to make to cover the even more diverse complexions of the Brooklyn women she expects to serve when her cosmetics stall moves from the defunct Aqueduct flea market to a new home in Coney Island.
For 33 years, Ms. Quintana-Stiefel was a fixture at a once-bustling racetrack parking lot in Ozone Park, Queens, that hosted 500 vendors. Developers shut down the market in December to build a new casino at the struggling track.
Now the market’s former operators are bringing a handpicked group of 120 vendors from Aqueduct to a smaller site in Brooklyn and introducing a freshly polished identity: no fleas allowed.
Strictly prohibiting secondhand goods, the market of 170 vendors will open on May 15 as part of a shopping and entertainment site called the BK Festival, representing another step in Coney Island’s ambitious, if often contentious, redevelopment plan.
Sitting on Stillwell Avenue, one block from Surf Avenue, the 110,000-square-foot space will also have a fairground for concerts, rodeos, corporate-sponsored giveaways and pony rides.
“They’re going to put some lace and frills to dress it up a bit,” Ms. Quintana-Stiefel, 56, said. “That’s a good thing for me.”
Ms. Quintana-Stiefel, whose wholesale business, Allessia Kosmetics, built a loyal following of Caribbean, African and Central American customers at Aqueduct, was curious to see how the Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge faces would change her stock.
“Aqueduct got big and it got sloppy — this will be a classier act,” she said.
Tommy Brady, 53, an owner of the BK Festival, said, “We want it to fit in more with the whole program of the new Coney Island.” He managed the Aqueduct market with his partner, Tommy Walker, 60, for 13 years.
On Wednesday, the “two Tommies,” as vendors know them, and their event director, William McCarthy, plan to sign the contract with the developer of the property, Joseph J. Sitt.
In 2009, the Bloomberg administration paid Mr. Sitt, 46, the chief executive of Thor Equities, $95.6 million for 6.9 acres he owned in Coney Island; he kept 5.6 acres to develop hotels and stores with the goal of turning Coney Island into a year-round destination. He has razed some older buildings, angering some in the community, but the festival space on Stillwell was already vacant.
That site represents the first part of Mr. Sitt’s vision, even if it will only be seasonal, through October.
“It’s a little nostalgic — I started my businesses as a flea market operator at the Aqueduct,” Mr. Sitt said. At 16, he sold toys when the flea market was known as Barterama, waking up at 2 a.m. to load a truck and grab a corner stall.
Three decades later, his family-friendly concept is more sophisticated, based on focus groups and testing. Two years ago, when the Aqueduct gaming project seemed imminent, he recruited vendors, from pickle makers to bakers, alongside entertainers for a monthlong stint in Coney Island. The results convinced him the model would work.
“There will be no used goods, no dollar goods, but it will be all upscale product, almost like an outlet center,” Mr. Brady said. “We’re not here to hurt nobody; we want to help Coney Island.”
But in Queens, the market’s closing has left some in the immigrant communities missing a primary option for low-cost shopping.
“When we look back at what we lost, we’ll realize in South Queens that we’re not only giving up something that was really historic, it was a support system for many people who would send products back to their native communities,” said Richard S. David, the executive director of the Indo-Caribbean Alliance in Ozone Park.
He said that an impression had been created, unfairly, that the market had represented something “low-scale and unattractive.”
Some former vendors have found other sites. Mike Thai, 26, said he now sold “cheap watches” at a flea market behind the Sunrise Cinemas in Valley Stream, on Long Island. Mr. Thai said he neither wanted to travel to Coney Island, nor pay what he heard were higher rents.
The prices, factoring in total square feet, are the same, Mr. Walker said, because the stalls are slightly larger in Coney Island. The Aqueduct flea market ran three days a week, while the Coney Island market will operate on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Mr. Brady said that while no shuttles were planned to take former shoppers the 13 miles from Queens, he hoped to have a trolley within Brooklyn.
“It’s been very tough; Aqueduct was my life,” said Yvonne Kissoon, 52, who had sold lingerie there since 1987 and has her shop nearby. She is excited to have a corner stall at Coney Island; she said she trusted Mr. Walker’s and Mr. Brady’s business skills.
“We don’t know what we’re going to get into,” Ms. Kissoon said, “but it’s better to try than fail to try.”