Eastside Flea Powered by a Female Force

By Alli Hayes
@allwildcard

“This needed to happen”, Jill Whitford beams about the arrival of a permanent space for the Eastside Flea. It’s something that her and friend/business partner Linda Ounapuu created for the East Van community.

We cozily lounge in their office within the century old Ellis building on Main Street, a big sunny window overlooks the cusp of Chinatown and Strathcona, rustic wood floors and racks of some of the most stylish vintage clothing you can find in town are here. Fleetwood Mac is playing in the background.

It’s been a few years coming for the deserving creative mavens to call this a venue and office of their own. The local, handmade, and always original weekend mecca market, The Eastside Flea is now backed by trio Jill Whitford, Alberta Randall, and Brodie Wishart: a creative force of passionate women, their journey to showcasing the essential, fashionable, and sustainable small businesses that our city has to offer.

Born a Bad Seed entrepreneur Whitford explains that the wonders and concepts of the Eastside Flea (ESF) “started at the Waldorf… handmade items and vintage market, the venue also held The Chosen Ones there, a really great vintage clothing market that no longer happens. I used to vend there, when the Waldorf was up for sale to development and I was sitting there with Linda (former Eastside Flea partner), asking, ‘Is this all going to disappear?’ We wanted to start our own market, so we came up with a concept, looking for venues, and it was close to impossible to finding a space to host something like this.”

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It’s hard to imagine East Van without the renowned artisan bazaar. For four years, The ESF called the Wise Hall (on Adanac Street) home, an iconic spot to find packed food trucks outside on any given weekend.

“It ended up being so perfect for the time we were there, but there was a lot of conflicts because [the Wise Hall] hosts so many different events, so we could only get it for certain times. We would have to load-in and load-out every time, we only had until 4 p.m. every time. Throughout the years, we always kept an eye out for other venues, we wanted to host our own market in our own space, with more control. The Ellis building popped up on Craigslist, it was amazing. We came and viewed it, but it was totally out of our reach.”

“I’ve been on board with the Flea for just over a year now. I’ve seen so many businesses go from being a side hustle to now being their full-time job. Coming to the Flea every month, they built their businesses and grew so much using this platform, this community-driven space to come and vend and chill with like-minded people – all together. It’s not really happening anywhere else on a regular basis that I can think of, it’s really important!” Randall adds.

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Wishart’s timing on joining the ESF was spot-on, and an example of sticking to and navigating your interests.

“I’ve definitely been following these ladies for a few years, I knew Jill because she used to come into the cafe I worked at every morning. I just emailed her out of the blue almost, and Jill and Linda were looking to hire. It’s kind of been something that I’ve said to my boyfriend for the last years before I started, I wanted to get involved somehow. How can I help them somehow? Here I am!”

The sheer focus of these women’s visions have stuck in the minds of shoppers and vendors of the Flea. With lots of initiative very present in a challenging city up for grabs, Jill Whitford, Alberta Randall, and Brodie Wishart aren’t looking to compare notes or do things according to a certain stature.

“I’ve never really been worried about what other people are doing, we had a clear vision about what we wanted to be, and the philosophy we had with the markets, whatever ‘big box’ stores are selling, we want to be the exact opposite.”

Crowded markets are a testament to the East Side Fleas success. Photo: ESF Instagram
Crowded markets are a testament to the Eastside Flea’s success. Photo: ESF Instagram

The fun part is also that more and more people are familiarizing themselves with local product shopping in the area, something that has attracted the attention of many different people in many different age brackets.

“Even through the year that I’ve been here, I’ve seen a shift in the demographic of shoppers broaden, I feel like people are coming around to the idea that it’s not hard to support local, and to put that money back in the local economy. It’s a much more sustainable way of shopping. It’s probably what I feel most passionately about for the Flea. It’s really important for it to be bi-weekly; if you need anything we will help you find it,” Whitford shares.

Randall opened up about the great blend of vendor culture as well and how transformative the experience has been for makers in the city.

“It’s a very strong mix of vendors who come every single weekend, to newcomers, and to people that sell once in a while. I’ve always wanted to keep it that way, to keep it fresh, but also to provide an opportunity for people who want to use the Flea as a full-time job, basically,” Randall offers.

The beauty of calling a venue of their own has been very beneficial to having multipurpose space. A lot of space.

“Because we are still technically a pop-up market with available space, we’ve started opening it up to artisans with workshops, and people who want to teach others their craft,” Whitford says.

Houseplants, jewelry, bags... you can find it all at the East Side Flea. Photo: ESF Instagram
Houseplants, jewelry, bags… you can find it all at the Eastside Flea. Photo: ESF Instagram

“The exciting non-profit we just started is called the East Van Arts and Culture Society. So if you want to do a dance rehearsal, if you want to do your own workshop, or if you want to do a small business seminar, we can make that happen. Space is so limited in Vancouver: so expensive, and so unaccommodating, if we can use this space more multi-purpose, I’d really like to. The workshops have been selling out overnight,” she says, positively aware that the benefits were a long time coming.

It’s clear to the organizers that the ESF isn’t just a flea market, but a positive community that’s fostering feminine camaraderie.

“I truly feel the female community here [at Eastside Flea]. I see so many familiar faces every time we host the market, and a lot of vendors are collaborating, too! A piece of jewellery, or art, or they’re making tote bags together, they’re making all these connections. One of our vendors works at a leather supply company, so now a lot of our leather goods vendors are buying from her at discount prices. It’s crazy just watching all the networks. Everybody helping each other, specifically women: I see it. There obviously is a male presence, but the camaraderie of these women in business is really special, because I don’t feel like there are a lot of resources that are accessible for that. It’s a great platform for women to get together and teach each other and learn and help each other out, every body knows something that you don’t know so it’s awesome to figure it all out.”

Check out the Eastside Flea Holiday Market every second weekend, starting Nov. 4. Friday Shop n Bops run from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday/Sunday markets run from 11 a.m to 5 p.m.

alliAlli is a wildcard. Faux fur is her wingman. She is constantly moved by art, cool parties, and independent film, and continues to create her own projects. She wishes her photographic memory did her Instagram more justice.  Check out her blog at http://www.thewildcardwins.com