By Ede Rothaus
Interview with Sheila Strong, Manager
As part of WestView News’ ongoing coverage of the impact the Coronavirus has had on our Village community, this reporter visited the flea market on Bleecker Street adjacent to Our Lady of Pompeii Church and had a series of interviews with Sheila Strong, the Market’s manager. Following is a condensed version for publication of our conversations.
WVN: What’s the name of this market?
SS: Pompeii Flea Market/Bleecker Street Market.
WVN: Who is the Market manager?
SS: Me. I’m the boss. I guess my ‘official’ title would be “Manager,” but it’s just me, so I am the Boss.
WVN: How long?
SS: 19 years. Unpaid.
WVN: How did you get the job?
SS: I ran the flea at Little Red (the Little Red Schoolhouse) for 15 years. My kids went there. When that market closed in 2000, I learned the Community Board was wanting to open a flea market on Bleecker to help support Our Lady of Pompeii and was looking for someone to manage it. I applied, was interviewed and got the job. Telling them I would do it for no pay in exchange for a free space didn’t hurt.
WVN: That was it? You manage and they give you a free space?
SS: Well, I did get one—and only one—instruction. Actually it was more like an order from Lucy Cesare, a well-known West Village figure at the time and a patron of Our Lady of Pompeii. None of the vendors could sell anything that competed with any store in the neighborhood.
Looking back on it, she was kind of great to do that. It demonstrated her love and protection of the West Village, and especially of Bleecker and Carmine Streets.
So we had no food—Zito’s, Rocco’s, Murray’s (the original) no flowers—the fruit and vegetable store run by the two Portuguese men. And from the beginning in a very natural and organic way, the vendors did a lot of their personal shopping—and it was mostly food—in the local stores. Some of those shops were gone before COVID and now with the constantly changing rules for business—including us along with everybody else—we all are trying to shop local as much as we can to support whomever we can.
WVN: How many vendors?
SS: Up to 15 with nine being regulars. Most started 19 years ago along with me, September 2001.
WVN: And today?
SS: Seven dropped out because of COVID. Two got stuck on buying trips in Thailand and Brazil. Last Sunday there were five vendors. The cold weather is really bad for business and there are no tourists.
WVN: How long does the market run?
SS: The usual season is April 1 to Christmas eve. Saturday and Sunday 10-7. This year because of COVID we weren’t able to open until the middle of August—one third of a year’s sales—gone. Add to the mix the hottest weather and no tourists. But it was the neighborhood that turned out for us and that helped a lot in the beginning. Everyone was so glad to see us—that we had returned. People bought a lot. And as COVID receded a bit, we began to get shoppers from the other boroughs and New Jersey. But how much can our neighbors buy? And now with only six weeks before we close for the season— fingers crossed.
WVN: How des the market work?
SS: Vendors pay for a five or 10 ft space on a daily basis. Each space can only protrude five feet into the street from the wall of the building, which is private property. Extending out only five feet gives passerby room to walk and shop. Bleecker Street is very narrow there. All rental proceeds go to Our Lady of Pompeii.
The majority of our vendors are locals—living in the Village and Chelsea—Carmine, Christopher, La Guardia Place, Morton. I used to live on Charleton, now I’m in the East Village.
WVN: What’s for sale?
SS: Handmade items and things unique to the neighborhood and New York City. Hats, jewelry, baked goods, Native American beaded items, rings, vintage posters and clothing, Zoom jewelry, Bakelite and vintage kitchen ware.
WVN: How is the flea doing?
SS: This year we will be lucky to hit half of what we normally contribute to the church. The Caring Community Senior Center that so many depended on is closed. The Archdiocese closed the school. We are open. And while our official hours are 10 to 7, don’t come until 11. After all, it is the Village.