The flea market is nothing new, but local craft markets like Nashville’s Porter Flea are a bona fide — and quite modern — shopping movement. Due in no small part to the ease of promotion via social media and a renewed focus on buying local, the U.S. flea market industry grosses more than $30 billion in sales annually, and that number is on the rise.
“Attendance topped 3,500 people at the summer market this year,” said Porter Flea founder Katie Vance. “There is a lot of energy in Nashville now to build a stronger creative economy. I think people see Porter Flea as one way for us to represent — and support — our multiple talents.”
Started in 2011 by Andy Bird, Brent Elrod, Jessica Maloan, and Katie Vance, Porter Flea is a semi-annual event featuring more than 60 artisan vendors (plus a roundup of local food trucks).
“We wanted to create a dedicated marketplace for talented modern designers and artisans to help them build their business and, in turn, to enhance Nashville’s profile as a diversely creative community,” said Vance. Add in the 2010 introduction of Square — an electronic payment service that allows vendors to accept credit cards through their mobile phones — and it’s easy to understand why the craft market has taken off.
But the artists’ success is not based on the market’s popularity alone; much of it comes from the exposure artists get by taking their wares online. Social commerce websites — like Etsy — that focus on handmade and vintage items have made craft goods trendy and lucrative.
Of the 65 current Porter Flea vendors, 90 percent are Nashville natives and 68 percent sell their goods on Etsy. And the robust Nashville presence on the site is likely one of the reasons Etsy sponsored the 2012 summer market.
“We only directly sponsor a handful of markets ourselves,” said Sara Cohen, Etsy spokeswoman. Currently, Etsy sponsors fewer than 10 markets in the U.S.
“Most of our sponsorship goes directly to Etsy Teams, who often put on or participate in shows themselves,” said Cohen.
The Etsy Team concept allows members to group themselves into communities to make it easier for shoppers to browse by location, theme, etc. Many Porter Flea participants are members of the Music City Makers, a group of roughly 280 merchants who bill themselves as “Nashville-area honky-tonk crafters.”
While Etsy Teams are open to the public and the Square app allows anyone with a mobile phone to sell electronically, Porter Flea is decidedly selective and, therefore, distinct from other craft shows.
“Our market is juried and curated to maintain a size that is attractive,” said Vance. “We have around 60 available spots for vendors, and this time we received almost 200 applications. We have a committee that reviews and votes on each application based on uniqueness, quality, branding and cohesion with our aesthetic.”
The vendors echo that sentiment.
“I love Porter Flea because it’s more about showcasing Nashville’s talented artisans rather than making tons of money,” said vendor Jessica Leigh Jones, who calls her design business Tuft. “It’s well-curated, so you know you’re not going to see a huge tent of every tie-dyed product imaginable or a table with pamphlets on it. These are artists that have spent a lot of time fine-tuning their craft, so you know what you’re getting is worth every cent.”
Here are a few of the Nashville shops you can find both on Etsy and at the Porter Flea holiday market on Saturday, Dec. 1, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Marathon Music Works.
Katie Vance — one of the Porter Flea founders — is also a vendor. She makes layered necklaces out of upcycled T-shirts that she screen-prints with her own designs. The word “knitlace” is Vance’s own.
“I enjoy taking an everyday craft project like T-shirt necklaces and then taking it one more step,” said Vance. “I design patterns for the knitlaces, then screen-print the recycled shirt, chop up the shirt, then make the T-shirt necklace. So Knitlaces are one-of-a-kind pieces.”
Vance is working on a line of black-and-white knitlaces for the holiday market.
Meagan Claire Hall creates screen-printed home goods like organic reusable grocery bags and aprons. Often using images from “scary old cookbooks,” her designs include “angry toast” and “smiling ice cream.” She also sells customizable “Write a Letter to Your Mom” towels that comes with fabric markers so kids can create keepsakes all on their own.
“The art and craft scene in Nashville doesn’t seem to follow any trend but has its own unique bunch of people who are just following their individual vision,” said Hall.
At the holiday market, Wonder Thunder will debut tea towels featuring a variety of creatures as well as a Tennessee-themed project that Hall and Vance worked on together.
“Be on the lookout for possums, raccoons and moonshine,” Hall said.
Jonathan Malphrus designs furniture, art and housewares — like custom cutting boards — using domestic hardwoods and local materials.
“Local business has flourished here because Nashville realizes that ambition and dedication can’t be replaced with the lowest price available,” said Malphrus. “Porter Flea showcases the unique relationship between a city and its craftspeople.”
At the holiday market, Malphrus will debut a small line of kitchen accessories that blend modern looks and locally sourced materials.
Christopher Stewart specializes in “Victorianesque custom pet portraits” inspired by his beloved one-eyed black cat Figaro, aka “Figs.”
“I love animals, but does the world really need more awkward pet portraits?” Stewart said. “You probably don’t need a photorealistic painting of your dog Max, but have you considered a uniquely illustrated, hand-crafted portrait wherein Max is, say, wearing a top hat, smoking a pipe and gazing at a book in his old-fashioned high-backed chair?”
The process is simple: Give Stewart some photos and a description of your pet, and he will turn around a pen-and-ink portrait in two weeks.
Katie Gonzalez fuses traditional bookbinding techniques with contemporary design to make custom wedding guest books, baby books, photo albums and travel journals. Gonzalez also teaches classes on the subject, such as a leather bookbinding class at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film and a Japanese stab binding class at The Skillery.
“Unlike most other craft fairs, Porter Flea includes a strong showing from male artists, bringing diversity to the show with handmade wood furniture, letterpress posters, screen-printed T-shirts, and leather goods,” said Gonzalez. “At the Porter Flea show this summer, my husband even bought a Thump Trunk, a boom box built into a vintage suitcase.”
Jill Hickman specializes in handmade baby clothes, bibs, dolls and more. Often taking orders for custom creations, Hickman has made baby bowties, stuffed foxes and other cute animals, and Tooth Fairy dolls.
In August, Hickman blogged about her first custom order, which was placed through Etsy.
“I was pleased as punch to have received my very first order for a custom doll last week,” said Hickman. “She’s finished and headed off to a 7-year-old girl in Switzerland of all places! Gotta love Etsy.”
Hannah Gentiles sells original canvas and vintage framed prints of places like New Orleans’ Café du Monde, small-town Tennessee and the streets of Paris.
Gentiles thinks the organization of the Porter Flea market is one thing that makes it dynamic and successful.
“From the moment you arrive, you are greeted by delicious food vendors and then you move along a winding path of beautiful handmade goods,” said Gentiles. “The excitement [of] the crowd is contagious.”
Doing business on Etsy as OnePlumSpot, Gresham is a pattern designer and graphic artist who creates stretched canvases, iPhone and iPad cases, bags and hoodies. Her iPhone case designs feature teacups, rotary phones and sewing machines with a retro feel.
“At Porter Flea, there is such a great variety from all the booths, so you can find something for yourself, your nephew, your boss; there’s just so much to choose from,” said Gresham.
Jessica Leigh Jones makes clothes and accessories that are “a mix of ugly and pretty,” sometimes focusing on throwback adornments like first-place “fair buttons” made from fabric scraps. The name Tuft is taken from a candytuft, a flower that is Jones’ favorite shade of pink.
“Nashville has so many different types of artists. … We have people making cool light bulbs, furniture, prints, leather goods, clothes, baked goods … everything,” said Jones. “Nashville’s low cost of living really draws these types of people, and this is when you actually get to meet them and see what they’ve been up to holed up in their houses and studios.”
Alicia Waters and Drew Binkley create original posters and merchandise. For them, Porter Flea provides a quality- and community-driven place to meet new customers.
“As a small business, Porter Flea allows us to be seen by thousands of shoppers who may never have seen our shop online,” said Waters. “We do not have a storefront, so the exposure they provide is tremendously helpful to our survival. Getting to talk to people face to face about what we do is such a blast.”
Waters and Binkley also credit the holiday market with their venture into custom giftwrap.
“Last year we did a spur-of-the-moment Christmas Vacation-inspired wrapping paper for Porter Flea and ended up gaining a lot of exposure and sales online throughout the holiday season,” said Waters. “We plan on continuing that tradition this year, and we’re adding a new design for Home Alone.”