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Metro, News

Flea market warms cold Providence winter

Six-year old local market offers customers, vendors sense of community, art, vintage finds

Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2019

Flea market founder Maria Tocco gained inspiration from other markets in Boston and Brooklyn. Tocco hopes to find a year-round home for the market, as well as host event at the University and spotlight non-profits.

Old fur coats with faded fabric lie piled next to brass lamps and boxes of cracked, yellowed vinyl slips. A worn teddy bear and an ancient film camera appeared to stare at first-edition comic books on folding card tables. This is a flea market — a monument to those fascinated by the eclectic, the odd and the creative.

In the winter months, the Providence Flea Market makes its home in Hope High School’s gymnasium. Maria Tocco, who founded the Flea in 2013, was inspired by the Brooklyn Flea Market.

“I had been visiting (Brooklyn) thinking, ‘Wow, this is really cool, why isn’t there something like this in Providence?’” Tocco said. She started the market as a side-gig while she worked as the communications director for Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts.

“It was amazing how the community really embraced it. … We had about 30 vendors on the first market, and from there it started to grow. … Now we average around 55-60 for the holiday markets,” Tocco said. The market has had 500 vendors attend various sessions since last summer. Food trucks, live music and non-profits, such as the University’s knitting club, Tink Knit, also attend, Tocco said.

“We want to provide a community market,” she said, explaining that vendors and customers become friends through the event. Pointing at two vintage stalls, Tocco said that the two vendors had met at the Flea.

“They’ve become really good buddies, they go to Boston (and) do research on their vintage finds together,” she said, adding that they also travel together to Brimfield, Massachussetts, the home of the oldest flea market in the United States.

Tocco said that the Flea not only provides community, it also embraces “the upcycle, recycle, reuse mantra,” and pairs that with “makers and artisans who are doing handmade stuff.”

In the future, Tocco hopes to find a permanent year-round location for the market, which would allow the Flea to host workshops and sell alcohol.

She also expressed interest in increasing engagement with the University: “If there are other nonprofits that are interested in getting exposure, we are open to hosting them, interested in helping them out. I’d love to do a flea at Brown, that would be really fun.”

Vendors go through an application process before they can open shop at the market. Tocco gauges whether potential stalls will fit in with existing vendors and assesses their products. Vendors at the Flea cannot be “multi-level marketing organizations,” she said, as the Flea is intended exclusively for artisans. Many vendors consistently return to the Flea, which has a regular cast of characters.

Bill Foley owns and operates Foley’s Finds and has participated in the Flea for about eight years. Foley taught high school history and English for forty years in R.I., while pursuing antiquing on the side.

“I love trying to find (items), I love dealing with the people and selling,” he said. “I have an eclectic mix, … I have boxes, I have historical paper, pretty much the whole gamut. Old books.”

He took out a dark green box labeled with military stencil font. Inside were tools for stamping metal. “This is from WWI, one of the things they’d mark is dog tags. And this is authentic and actually used,” Foley said.

Johnny Maguire, owner of Colonel’s Collectibles, also did not always intend to be a vintage item dealer. “I was a guitar player, I played in a band that did well. I always liked collecting things. I didn’t start with all of this: the art, the comics, the records,” Maguire said. His old band played “rockabilly, kinda old rock and roll stuff. … That started to slow down, and I started to get into this.”

Maguire acknowledged the sense of community offered by the Flea, saying most of his friends were “vintage people.” “I know a lot of people that make things and jewelry, but they come and go. But the regulars, … we all stick together. (Tocco’s) trying to do a good thing. I like doing it.”

One of the regulars, Jennifer Tradd, sells vintage clothing and antiques at her stall, House of Philippa. “We love (the Providence Flea). Providence is a great town. We love the students. They’re great. Just because they know what’s on the cutting edge of what’s cool right now, and I try to keep up with it as best I can. We also get people, all walks of life from Providence.”

Former Herald reporter Tanushri Sundar ‘21 and Jasmine Gabor ‘21 were among Sunday’s most recent market crowd. “I really like it, it’s a really charming place. There’s one stand over there that’s really freaky, it has dolls and like surgical tools, which I think is interesting,” Sundar said.

Gabor said she often finds items “a lot cooler than anything you can find in a store” at the Flea, which she described as a “cute, vintage market, with a mixture of vintage items and local artists.”

Rhode Island School of Design graduate Laurelin Sitterly produces art about plants and animals at risk and uses the Flea to showcase and sell her work.

Sitterly described Providence as “a very eclectic community. … So many people just doing their thing, a lot of different cultures mixed in. Kind of a vibe that really supports trying to push up small businesses, support the quirky and the odd, all of that, you know, the great weird.”

The next Providence Flea Market will be held at Hope High School, at 324 Hope St., Feb. 10, from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M.

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