An entrepreneurial spirit has been stirring in the capital region as the economic wreckage of the pandemic gives way to new small businesses and now a flea market in Hartford to showcase them.
Most weekends since early September vendors from around the region have lined a little-used parking lot at Market and Trumbull streets downtown that’s now the site of the Capital Flea Market. Organized by Evenlyn Black, a 26-year-old mother of two with her own small business, the market is giving sellers much-needed exposure and shoppers a rare opportunity to browse and mingle outside.
“It’s basically a community for us to be able to thrive together,” said Black, who started planning the market after she was furloughed from her reception job at Waterbury Hospital. "With the pandemic, it’s hard. How am I going to get to the points and places I know I want to be if I only stay to myself?
While some of the vendors have been growing their small businesses for years, many have started new ventures or leaned into entrepreneurship as a result of losing work and income during the pandemic.
Mike Forrester, 32, and Drew Bailey, 33, still have their day jobs; Forrester works in construction, Bailey in IT. But three months ago, the national health crisis prompted the Hartford natives to start work on their longtime vision for an apparel company.
They started selling sweatshirts, soccer jerseys and hats with graphics of their brand, Double or Nothing — a slogan that means betting on yourself, investing in yourself, they said.
“We’ve given our time to other corporations and companies, and we want to get our own time back,” Bailey said.
Out of necessity, 51-year-old Brian Perry has done just that.
Early in the pandemic, the East Hartford man was laid off from his job as a dishwasher at Carbone’s Ristorante, and his wife lost her job as a cook at the University of Hartford. Perry decided to revisit his long-held goal to become his own boss, an ambition that had driven him to buy a hot dog cart two years ago.
Aside from the flea market, he works lunch hours on the side of Park Street opposite Pope Park, selling all-beef brats, chili dogs and off-menu vegan dogs to 30 to 40 people per day.
“I thought it was a way to go to business for myself without having a lot of capital,” Perry said, adding that federal stimulus money helped him start out. “I know a lot of people that took advantage of that money and invested in themselves, started their own businesses.”
On Sunday, he wore a green Double or Nothing hat as he leaned back in a chair next to his hot dog cart, No Pork on Dis Fork.
“I bought a hat, they bought a couple of hot dogs,” he said of Bailey and Forrester.
Julie Nguyen, 28, also started her business “over the COVID season,” as she calls it.
Months ago, she quit her job with Manchester schools to care for her ailing father and help out at his Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon Flavor, in East Hartford.
After the sit-down restaurant fell victim to the pandemic, Nguyen decided to start Purposeful Creations, selling homemade herbal teas, tinctures and salves.
An herbalist in training, she recommends some mixes for flavor — like pumpkin pie tea — and others for health — like her “lemon drop” recipe with turmeric and lemon grass. One day, she’d like to get a mobile food stall to sell her drinks fresh at events.
“When people support, that’s what they’re supporting,” she said.
Savannah-Raye Mills and Justice Conaway, both of Hartford, started Just Savvy Boutique a year ago but have given the mostly online shop even more energy these past six months.
Selling clothes and accessories is one of several side gigs for both women. Mills, 26, works computer security and applies false lashes, while Conaway, 25, works in a day care and does nails, along with film and editing projects.
Just Savvy, though, has given the women confidence as entrepreneurs. That’s reassuring in a climate where job prospects are slim and businesses keep going under.
“You’re never truly secure unless you’re the head, head boss, and with COVID coming in, it just showed people even more what security is out there,” Mills said Sunday.
Capital Flea Market has also featured an author, a pistol permit instructor, a gyro stand and handmade birdhouses, blankets and jackets, among other goods.
Black started her own small business in spring 2019, Blossom Boutique, selling natural hair care products.
So far, just running the market has kept her busy, but she plans to introduce a table with her products soon. She sees herself owning multiple businesses one day and giving back by supporting people experiencing homelessness, as she has over the years.
Most recently, she and her children, 9-year-old Elijah and 2-year-old Zion, were crashing in her mother and aunt’s living room sharing a cot. Black says she got her own apartment again in March, but the isolation wrought by the pandemic has driven her to build her network of small business owners and budding entrepreneurs.
“Being in a messed up situation, feeling like you’re alone, that can make you situation worse,” Black said. “So I want to let people know, ‘Hey, I care about you and I want to help you guys any way I can.’ ”
When the market closes for the season, Black plans to turn some of the proceeds into care packages for the homeless with essentials like toothbrushes, socks and face masks.
For now, she’ll juggle all that and her day job.
“You know I’ve got to have my bread and butter for my babies while I follow my dreams," she said.
The flea market will run most Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Nov. 29. To become a vendor, contact Evelyn Black at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at email@example.com.
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