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A Future of Hyperlocal, Curated shopping: Lessons From NYC's Hester Street Fair

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It may be a sign of the times that when a TV star wants to get creative, she opens a flea market. Well, that's not quite right; my friend SuChin Pak (of MTV, Planet Green, etc) didn't really start a flea market, but a market for crafters, farmers, foodies, entrepreneurs, or what the New York Times calls "a hyperlocal block party."

The Hester Street Fair is nothing like the pseudo street fairs of summer that plague New York City streets with mass-produced gyros and knock-off sunglasses. Not only won't you find a hint of sweatshop labor here, but-- forgive me for sounding oh-so-2010--you're most likely to meet your product's producer. During my stroll through the fair last weekend, SuChin pointed out Black truffle and Thai Chili macaroons from a recent culinary-school grad, lobster rolls from a lobster family from Maine, and Dickie-pants-turned-cat-toys from a Brooklyn crafter.

The world's oldest pushcart market

SuChin likes to say that this fair was really founded in 1895 as a nod to the neighborhood and the immigrant community that once sold everything from a cart here. The Lower East Side's Hester Street was once home to the world's oldest and largest pushcart market. The New York Times described Hester Street in 1895 as a place in "perpetual motion" with pushcart vendors selling chickens, ducks, geese, lemons, unbreakable metal combs, cloth baby shoes, fish, corn, potatoes, matches, candles, seed bread, cookies, cake, candy and "World's Fair Snowballs" made "while you wait."

There is something romantic about shopping amid the 25,000 pushcarts (the number in the Lower East Side in 1900), but the modern Hester Street Fair is far from the mayhem of a century ago. Back then many vendors bought from wholesalers (even "damaged eggs"), while today all produce (sold at the fair's entrance) comes directly from farms within a 250 mile radius.

A modern-day pushcart bazaar

This "modern-day pushcart bazaar" (another Times term) is free from the middle men that only grew larger and more powerful in the 20th Century because it is shopping that has been curated. SuChin wanted to avoid creating an outdoor shopping mall (like those on Bleeker Street and West 4th that I walked through every summer when living in the West Village) and chose instead to pull in many vendors who had never sold before.

"This is what I wanted to start with the fair," she explained stopped in front of the ice cream sandwich makers- and virgin salespeople- from Melt Bakery. "We really felt like it could be an incubator for a lot of businesses and entrepreneurs. Just because it's really expensive to get storefront in New York City it doesn't mean that there's a lack of people to run their own businesses".

From MTV to market

This spring on a Skype call with SuChin from Barcelona, I was surprised to hear her say that the fair is her most creative outlet in a long time. This is from a woman who regularly interviews pop stars and has had her own diary-style show about her life.

But now I get it. Running a hyperlocal market means you control what and who comes in. As we stopped in front of Macaron Parlour, she mentioned her first encounter with recent culinary school grad Christina Ha. "Christina had the best email ever. She had a four page dissertation on why she should be at the Hester Street Fair."

SuChin has curated who gets in here and she's incubating their growth. She tells me proudly that the duo from Melt Bakery are now looking for a storefront.

A curated life

It's a rarefied spot. Even SuChin admits that she can only afford to run the place because her landlord owns the property (which was empty for several decades prior to this summer). But I can't help but wonder if our future may look a bit more like this.

Just as our online future seems to be curated, perhaps our shopping experiences will be more filtered by others: screened for local, organic, biodynamic, fair trade goods. Perhaps it's a pipe dream, but I'm certain that if this hyperlocal universe ever arrives, there'll be a lot of satisfied people. Just ask SuChin (Oh, and you can find her nearly every Saturday and Sunday at the fair; 10am-6pm at Hester and Essex Streets).

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