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Flashback: Mike Berman, director of the Downtown Holiday Market, on the lure of the marketplace

The 2014 Downtown Holiday Market

Mike Berman, executive director of Diverse Markets Management

Editor's note: This piece was originally published over a year ago in Elevation DC. Now that the holiday market season is in full swing, we're bringing it back. We've updated the dates in this article to reflect the dates the Downtown Market runs this season, but have otherwise left it unchanged.

For a long time, there were only a handful of options in the District for those looking to browse for vintage armoires, fine-art photographs or handmade jewelry. These days, though, markets are undeniably having a moment, with outdoor fairs, pop-up bazaars and flea markets cropping up all around town. Mike Berman, the executive director of Diverse Markets Management (DDM), has both witnessed and helped usher in those changes. Starting out as a fine artist selling paintings at Eastern Market two decades ago, he has been a longtime advocate for the arts community. His company now runs the Flea Market at Eastern Market, as well as the annual Downtown Holiday Market with the Downtown DC BID (Nov. 28-Dec. 23) and the Big Chair Flea Market in Anacostia, among others. 

Berman shared some insights about the past and future of the District’s marketplaces with Elevation DC.
How did the flea market at Eastern Market get started?
The short-ish history is that 30 years ago there was market activity, mostly crafts, at Eastern Market on Saturdays, which was run by the nonprofit Market 5 Art Gallery at the time. The director, Jon Harrod, asked Tom Rall, now a director with DDM, to start a Sunday market. And so he became the first and only vendor, selling antiques. It started very small. Back then, Capitol Hill was quiet on Sundays, the food hall was closed and 7th Street was dead.

How did you get involved?
I am a painter and sold at the market on Saturdays. I started to participate on Sundays and found that it was a better day for me as a fine artist, with a more interesting clientele. There was a lot of politics with Eastern Market, revolving around the Saturday operations and the Market 5 Gallery. There was a plan to re-manage the market and its disparate elements, and I got involved in that discussion. My activity grew into helping Tom manage the flea market.

How did that turn into your current company?
Over the years, the Eastern Market flea market grew to be so successful that we were turning people away because couldn’t accommodate all the vendors. So we had the idea to start another company to do other markets and special events. About nine years ago, the Downtown BID had a vacant space where the old Convention Center was and wanted to activate it, so we came together to start the first Downtown Holiday Market. It was a great idea, but the wrong location. A better placemaking spot turned out to be right in front of the Portrait Gallery, so we moved it to its current location on F Street, between 7th and 9th. After a number of events, our company also bought the Flea Market at Eastern Market from Tom.
"It’s an open-air environment where people are taking back public space. It’s alive and full of experiences."
There is a new development planned at the site of the former Hine Junior High School, whose lot the flea market has operated in. How will that change things?  
After the school closed, the city put up a solicitation for developers for this prime piece of property. At a lot of town hall meetings, it was very clear that the community really wanted the market to maintain a presence. When the developer came back with a pretty large plan to develop the whole site and leave a small area for the market, many argued that it was much too small. At the end, though, we came to an agreement to continue to operate throughout construction [on 7th street, which will be closed off] and be the operator at the end of the day on the finished site, which I think will be around a third of what we are now. The market currently has 100 vendors. 

When will that happen?
They were actually already supposed to start construction, but there is a legal fight about the project. It is similar to the dispute over a West End project that would replace the library and firehouse, among other things. So, it is unclear when construction will be able to begin. 

Why do you think markets have been successful in D.C., particularly this recent crop of them? 
People really love to come outside to congregate in a public space and enjoy the interaction. It’s not a mall, it’s not controlled by one corporation that’s going to drive you through Macy’s. It’s an open-air environment where people are taking back public space. It’s alive and full of experiences, and vendors bring all sorts of unique things that you’re not going to find elsewhere. In the case of flea markets, you’re finding old vintage furniture or clothing, which are having a renaissance with young people right now, as well as the larger crafty movement.  

How has that changed from the past?
There weren’t that many well-organized, continual markets in the city. Georgetown and Eastern Market really were the standard bearers. But there is interest in having markets, as shown by the successes of District Flea, Eastern Market, Crafty Bastards, the Downtown Holiday Market and others. I wish there was room for more; there’s just so few empty parking lots these days.

Why are markets important for the city? 
They are a great coming-together space. They become a heartbeat and center point of a neighborhood. They also incubate small businesses. We have a whole list of the stores that were developed by vendors that started at the flea market, where they were able to test-market their idea. And they have longer retention rates; they don’t just pop open and close. So it is important economically. In the case of Eastern Market, it’s a big economic generator for Capitol Hill. After you are done at the market, what are you going to do next? Go to the bars, restaurants, spend money in the neighborhood.
"After you are done at the market, what are you going to do next? Go to the bars, restaurants, spend money in the neighborhood."
What is the government’s role in all of this?
For the aforementioned reasons, I think that markets should be encouraged by the city, but they haven’t made it easier yet. The regulations are tough. To be a vendor, it’s just not as simple as showing up. 

Do you think DC is a good place to be a small local business or an innovator?
There is a lot of room for it because there isn’t a lot of retail – partly because rents are too high. Everyone would rather put a restaurant here and it’s hard for retail to get a footing. But the community desires more retail. It is why this pop-up movement has been flourishing. It’s easier to try out a market than open a store.  

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Read more articles by Rachel Sadon.

Rachel Sadon is a freelance journalist based in Petworth with an interest in politics, culture, urbanism, and new ways of telling stories, especially when they intersect.
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