Get Thee to the Brooklyn Flea

The venerable Williamsburg Savings Bank Building in downtown Brooklyn stood for years as the tallest building around. Its clock tower served as the timepiece for the surrounding neighborhoods, and its clock face was the largest ever at the time. Built in 1927 in a modernized Byzantine-Romanesque style that is hard to duplicate today, with large amounts of limestone and marble accompanied by beautiful mosaics and tinted windows, it was, and remains, an architectural masterpiece. Eventually it was eclipsed by taller buildings, converted in part to luxury loft condominiums, and today the old bank floor with its 63-foot-high ceiling is the centerpiece of one of the coolest uses you can think of … a Saturday flea market known as the Brooklyn Flea.

Actually, the Brooklyn Flea takes place at a nearby park in the warm weather months of the year, but convenes inside during the wintertime in combination with another Brooklyn weekend institution known as the Smorgasburg. Together, in this wonderful space, the two combine to bring not only a unique shopping experience but also a taste sensation. And that was where I found myself on a recent winter Saturday in Brooklyn, among a lively crowd of 30-somethings with their toddlers in strollers and a significant number of retired folks as well. The place has something for everyone, except for the claustrophobic.

A $1 entry fee gets you a red stamp on the back of your hand and passage onto the main bank floor, filled with wall-to-wall people. Downstairs is the food. To get there you must pass through a doorway that is too narrow for two-way traffic and seemed to me to be a fire hazard. You pass the old bank vaults with very cool doors, still in place, that are at least a couple of feet wide. The air is heavy, laden with the smell of exotic foods. I don’t know how they passed fire inspection, but just enjoy it. The food stations present fairly standard fare, such as homemade chocolates and sauces at booths surrounding the main hall, where cooks are busy churning out the most interesting concoctions.

Most unique was the Wowfull, a waffle cooked with air-filled pockets throughout, resembling bubble wrap, then filled with ice cream or chicken and toppings. Not cheap, starting at $9 apiece. Still, they are visually interesting and a tasty and popular treat.

Other booths cook up Asian noodles, sushi and Mexican taco dishes, all with a unique twist. A fried chicken slider with chicken that overflowed the tiny bun was about the most mundane food I saw.
Unique alcohols and artisanal brews are also served.

Finding a place to sit was difficult as there were few tables and chairs scattered about. So, eating in an upright position is usually required.

On the mezzanine and main floor there are booths of all types selling everything from homemade furniture to candles, jewelry, vinyl records and even photographs taken on the spot. It has all the things you might expect at a flea market. Beware that the pathway is narrow. Once you start the tour around, you can’t easily turn back.

Vintage and handmade clothing seems very popular. Tables of old ties, pocket knives, hats, scarves and jewelry pieces are on display at large tables. The crowds pour through it all. There weren’t any dressing rooms or mirrors as far as I could see. And I doubt returns would be in order. If you see something of interest, you’d better buy it. It’s probably one-of-a-kind, the type of thing that draws attendees here to find merchandise that their colleagues won’t also have.

The people here are not only looking for unique tastes, they are seeking that very special piece of clothing to make them feel like they are apart from the crowd in a place where crowds make it hard to stand out. Even if you’re not OK standing out, the winter venue for the Brooklyn Flea is an awesome stand out that should not be missed. They don’t build them like that anymore.