Wess Hernandez used to spend his weekends hawking kids’ clothes, crochet thread, and homemade magnets at Queens’ Aqueduct Racetrack until the flea market there closed, sending a score of vendors like him east to New Haven.
The sprawling weekend flea market on Ella Grasso Boulevard has seen an influx of new vendors after the Aqueduct market closed. Developers there kicked out the flea-marketers to make way for a new casino.
“Word was out [about the closing of Aqueduct], and at Christmas I got a big increase [in vendors],” reported Charles Cheslock, who has operated the Boulevard flea market for 20 years. In his two decades of leadership, he has sought to tame blaring stereos in several languages, convince the public that the market is a family-friendly affair, and negotiate a new kind of vendor licensing agreement with the city.
It’s work he loves, he said. Recent rumors that the Boulevard flea market might suffer the same fate as the Aqueduct one are “absolutely baseless,” he said.
Spread out over at least two acres off the Boulevard near Adeline Street, the flea market hosts anywhere from 20 to 150 vendors on any given Saturday or Sunday, Cheslock said. There are handbags for $10 each and two bottles of perfume for $10, and places where any item—bracelets, make-up kits, yards of jewelry, and lint brushes—can be had for a dollar.
Down one row, amid calls of “One Doll-uh!” and the chatter of a dozen languages, vendors display CDs by the hundreds and video games like Playstation 2 Airforce Delta Strike cheek by jowl with reproductions of the Last Supper and an evocation of 1960s French bombshell Brigitte Bardot.
To make all this happen, Cheslock holds a managing vendor license from the city, for which he pays $3,500 a year. The vendors who were trying to sell Wandy Rodriguez these size 6 Airmax sneakers for $37 Sunday said they pay Cheslock $100 a day to vend, or $400 for every weekend of a month.
In exchange, the vendors don’t have to seek their own licenses from New Haven. Cheslock in effect holds a single license for all of his vendors. Cheslock said he is proud of having negotiated that change in zoning with the city.
He said he argued that the arrangement is like a parking lot, private property which he leased. Then-Police Chief Nick Pastore agreed. That was 15 years ago. The market that Cheslock took over was building on an already decades-old New Haven institution that had operated for at least 50 years on the Boulevard and, before that, on Union Avenue.
Today the market opens from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Several thousand people go through the market on a weekend.
He concurred with Hernandez that the business is largely weather dependent. That’s partly because 80 or 90 percent of the vendors come from outside of Connecticut. They check the weather and make their call on whether the trek is worth the considerable labor of loading, unloading, and traveling in addition to eight hours of negotiating with bargain-savvy customers.
The weather dependency applies to the customers as well, many of whom also come from New York or Massachusetts and yet arrive every week or twice a month. Rodriguez’s Airmax purchase was her first Boulevard deal, but her daughter comes every month from the Bronx, she said.
Other customers of the West African sneaker vendors said they came from Boston to shop for themselves and, on occasion, to buy merchandise for reselling at other flea markets and similar venues.
“They’re all great people,” Cheslock said of his vendors, praising their work ethic in a tough business. He added that at times managing them can be tough as well.
“I have a lot of people who play music. They want to blast it. I don’t allow it,” Cheslock said. “It’s a courtesy. The guy next to you can’t hear his customers. You should have heard it years ago. You couldn’t hear yourself think. You explain to vendors, they understand, if you can speak their language. We walk and monitor it.”
The market has visible security, including off-duty cops. Cheslock said that 21 years ago, when he took over, there was a sense that people were afraid to come down there. He countered that with advertisements in the Register and with pony rides and other family-friendly features.
He said proudly that in 21 years there has never been a mugging despite the presence of some tough customers. He’s endured some shoplifting. “But we prosecute them,” he said.
Today his only advertising is twice a month in the Spanish-language La Voz Hispana weekly. Otherwise “it’s all word of mouth,” he added.
Cheslock said he still sees the market as more than just a place for buying and selling. “I call it a melting pot. It’s the League of Nations down there. I love watching the kids, they’re incredible, the way they look at the toys,” he said. “It’s a family place.”
Major Stancill and his family were making a day of it, intending, he said, to circulate amid all the many tented vendors. He said socks and underwear were great buys. So were pots and pans. “It’s a miniature mall,” he observed as his wife finished buying nine pairs of boxers (three for $10) and nine T-shirts for the four big boys in their lives.
Then they headed off to get some dresses for little Brianna.