By Erica Fisher
The West 25th Street Flea Market, located in an empty parking lot, is New York City’s exaggerated version of a yard sale. Up to 125 vendors sell everything from bric-à-brac, old records, vintage cameras, fur and costume jewelry to second hand clothing, military surplus and antique furniture.
But, the eclectic collection at this transformed parking lot doesn’t just come from random garages and basements. This flea market hosts a number of immigrants, who sell imported arts and crafts—Ghanaian beads, African tribal masks, and jade Chinese statues—from their respective homes.
“I have never been to school for this,” said Kaba Hydara, 49, who moved to Brooklyn from Gambia 20 years ago. “It’s just common sense.”
Centrally located in the market, Hydara’s booth hosts beaded necklaces and masks, hand-woven cloth tapestries and wood-carved chairs. His products range in price from $5 for a cow horn bangle from Kenya to $600 for a Kuba cloth tapestry hand-woven in Congo.
While Hydara stocks merchandise from Senegal, Congo, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, he says the most popular items are the Ghanaian beads
Hydara, who has been in the business for 20 years, hasn’t been back to Africa since he left in 1989. Instead, he has built a network of suppliers who bring the products directly from their countries. “They know how to call me and where to find me,” said Hydara, who has been selling at the same flea market for 10 years.
A few booths next to him sits Kofi Camara, 45, in a significantly smaller space with just a single table stuffed with wood-carved stools, statues, and masks—which he, too, imports from Africa. Camara, who moved here from Guinea five years ago, is newer to the flea market business and is still trying to build a network. He gets his inventory from his nephew, who still lives in Guinea.
“This is the only job I have. It’s a way for me to make a living for my family,” said Camara who lives in the Bronx with his wife and five children. “I sell African arts.”
Like Hydara, his collection comes from all over the continent. “East, West, Cameroon, Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Ivory Coast, everywhere” he said.
Camara specializes in African masks, which range in price from $50-300. His favorite, an old dancing mask from his own country with long hair attached, is priced at $300.
Hydara and Camara accept cash only. They don’t keep track of inventory or log their sales. In many ways, their businesses operate like traditional African markets. Every Saturday and Sunday they arrive at the flea market between 8-9 am and start packing up “when the customers stop coming,” said Hydara.
Prices, like the hours he works, aren’t fixed, and bartering isn’t out of the question. Camara quoted one customer $30 on a beaded necklace. Five minutes later, he handed him a 20-dollar bill and walked away with the beads.
Back in Guinea, Camara’s father was a farmer. His family grew rice, potatoes, and beans, and Camara split his time between farming and selling art at a local market.
“Here, I can make small money and support my family and my kids can go to school,” said Camara. “I like it here.”
But, there are some days where Camara makes no profits, he said. “It’s hard,” he said. “I have to pay rent.”
Wang Mugen, 60, who sells in front of Camara and imports jade and bronze statues and other artifacts from China, agrees.
“I don’t make a lot of money,” said Mugen, who moved here from Shanghai 11 years ago. “Now, not everybody has a job,” he said, referring to the economic climate.
Since business has slowed down, Mugen has been forced to downside. He used to have three booths at the market. Now, he only has one. His lone table is brimming with Chinese beads, $15-20 paintbrushes, and $30-600 jade and bronze statues ranging in size from three inches to three feet.
“I work with the arts,” he said. “If you have money, you can buy art. If you don’t, you don’t buy.”
Mugen says if he buys a statue in China for $200, he can usually sell it here for $350. But, Mugen hasn’t been back to China in 15 months.
He used to go once a year.
“Now I am like an American person,” said Mugen, who was wearing worn black cargo pants and beige Polo shirt. He passes out professional business cards, and even though his English is far from perfect, he knows the price of every single item for sale.
Despite gloomy sales, Mugen still comes to the flea market every weekend except when there is “snow or big rain.” “Small rain, no problem,” he said.
Hydara says he moved to America looking for “a better life, a different life.” Today, he works just two days a week at the West 25th Street Flea market and says he makes enough money to support his family so that his wife doesn’t have to work.
While Hydara has experienced success in his career, he, too, admits the flea market is not predictable or stable. He describes his self-run, self-operated business as “a lotto.” “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
“Some days I don’t make one dollar, and sometimes I make hundreds, even more,” said Hydara, who will typically make only $4-5 on a necklace that he sells for $20. His space at the flea market costs him $600 each weekend.
But—if he doesn’t sell $600 worth of merchandise in two days he says, “There’s always next weekend.”