Scenes from the AquaDuck Flea Market

There are few places in this city where a shopper can find a sari, a six-gallon used rice cooker and a vinyl copy of Jermaine Jackson’s 1972 solo debut on all within hand’s reach, all at deeply discounted prices. But just such a thrifter’s paradise exists off Fountain Avenue in East New York at the AquaDuck Flea Market, the largest flea in Brooklyn.

The roughly three-acre outdoor market is a sprawling cornucopia of used oddities, off-brand home goods, knock-off Jordans and working class folk looking for deals. After 10 years in Brooklyn — its home since being kicked out of the Aqueduct Racetrack parking lot in Queens— the flea is once again being displaced, this time by an Amazon fulfillment center. Yet AquaDuck remains a bustling scene, where a cast of New York wheelers-and-dealers haggle with Brooklynites trying to stretch their dollar.

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A makeshift storefront at the flea (Photo by Stephanie Keith)

The first thing to know about AquaDuck is that it’s a flea market in the traditional sense. In this borough, especially in the northern stretches, the word “flea” is often applied to high-end gatherings of independent merchants and makers, overcharging for mid-century ottomans and vintage Fleetwood Mac tees. AquaDuck is not that. The outdoor flea is squeezed between a bus depot and a smattering of warehouses midway between Linden Boulevard and the Belt Parkway.

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At the flea (photo by Stephanie Keith)

The flea outside the flea
Before even entering the flea, shoppers are greeted with a long row of vendors that represent a sort of unsanctioned “pre-market.” The lively scene at Wortman and Fountain Avenues announces itself with a smoking drum of jerk chicken and reggae blasting through car speakers. From there, a brilliantly chaotic, two-block-long succession of foldout tables, clothing racks, double-parked pick-up trucks, vans and trailers line the avenue.

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The the pre-flea (Photo by Stephanie Keith)

There is no tidy order to this “pre-market” bazaar. It’s a chaotic menagerie of sellers, buyers and the age-old dance of haggling. One table houses a pile of mint condition tee shirts that once served as party favors for the “2021 Naftali Bar-Mitzvah.” Alongside them, two Hispanic women are pushing a red shopping cart brimming with large avocados, just past the Caribbean man selling a variety of bronze menorahs and Judaica. “You can’t make this shit up,” says Jean Paul, a longtime vendor sitting against a trailer, his dreads almost hitting the ground. “This is New York.”

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Goods for sale outside of the AquaDuck flea (Photo by Stephanie Keith)

The operative word in AquaDuck Flea Market is “market,” as in, it’s a market economy where hawkers buy low, sell slightly higher and see if there’s demand for a semi-used electric saw. On a side street off of Wortman Avenue, a thin, fast talking New Yorker named Snake is unloading goods from his van. He had a union job for over 20 years, he explains, then he had colon cancer, and now, after two years in remission, he finds himself at AquaDuck.

“This is the life of a hustler,” he says, after setting up a large easel (for sale) alongside an antique meat slicer (no longer for sale). Some of Snake’s inventory recently came from a deceased person’s estate, where he picked up what he presumes to be real silver flatware that may hold value. He quickly shuffles through butter knives and spoons as proof, “Silver. Silver. Silver.” As for the meat slicer, a similarly listed item on eBay indicates it may be too valuable for the flea.

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A special find outside the flea (Photo by Stephanie Keith)

These unlicensed vendors are a point of contention for the owners of AquaDuck. In their eyes, these sellers are benefiting from the official flea’s foot traffic without paying rent. Jean Paul gave up his own spot at AquaDuck two years ago.

“One day it snowed so I couldn’t get inside the flea,” he says. “Instead, I went across the street to sell and I made 500 dollars.” But for him, the tension between the official and unofficial vendors shouldn’t distract from the larger point about AquaDuck: “We serve a purpose in the community. People come here, they buy loads of things, they send them back home,” he says. “Some people can’t afford to go to Macy’s and Best Buy.”

‘Honest people trying to make a living’
Just before the flea’s official entrance, Kathy Mooney is riding her mobility scooter through the crowds of shoppers, making small talk with fellow regulars. A proud Irish woman from Queens, she’s been coming to AquaDuck for over 44 years, back when it alternated between Aqueduct and Belmont Race Tracks. “Sometimes you can hit it really right,” she says, as she pulls a cigarette from the back of her scooter (case in point: last week she says she scored a range of coveted items for just $40). Years ago, longtime vendors offered assistance after she split with her abusive husband. “Honest people trying to make a living,” she says.

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Kathy Mooney is ready to shop (Photo by Stephanie Keith)

The official AquaDuck Flea Market is more orderly than the outside perimeter. A small crew of employees monitor the grounds and vendors operate barebones “storefronts” in a semi-permanent residency. Some shops specialize in specific goods — sneakers, electronics, luggage, produce — while others seem to just carry whatever surplus items they were able to procure. One such vendor, an older man who goes by Morty, is quickly trying to service the handful of customers sifting through tables of random items. A woman asks if he’s still carrying the underwear from last week. “No, no.” he replies in an ambiguously European accent. “Maybe next week.” Morty moves on to the next buyer whose $5 bill doesn’t seem to pass muster. “This looks like it was in the laundry machine.”

On the east side of AquaDuck, a cluster of food vendors churn out dishes like jerk chicken, tacos and boiled nuts. Lou Lanzillotta, looking authoritative with Ray Ban sunglasses and slicked back gray hair, is making small talk with the corn-on-the-cob vendor. Lanzillotta works for the owner of AquaDuck, a man named Dominic Ammerman who, as Lanzillotta explains, isn’t the type of guy who’d want to participate in an article like this. When Lanzillotta walks the grounds, he schmoozes with vendors like a politician, at one point teasing the hat vendor for not carrying any MAGA merchandise.

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A storefront inside the flea (Photo by Stephanie Keith)

“It’s not the guy from Westchester or Long Island making money here,” he says, as he heads towards an office tucked in the corner of the flea. “It’s the working class.”

However, that sentiment is reserved for the rent-paying vendors inside the flea. A retired cop of 31-years, Lanzillotta thinks the city should enforce some sort of ordinances to manage the vendors outside. “I can’t even go out there anymore,” he says. “It upsets me too much.” But of course, all of that will be rendered a moot issue if the flea ceases to exist once AquaDuck’s 10-year lease expires in October 1.

And that’s the rub: The future of AquaDuck is a giant question mark.

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(Photo by Stephanie Keith)

According to Lanzillotta, there are potential irons in the fire, but nothing concrete. In 2010, when the flea market was getting kicked out of the Aqueduct Racetrack’s north parking lot, it was to usher in high-end retailers and a slot machine casino. This time, the flea is getting displaced by Amazon. There may be little love for this three acre stretch of pavement — where surplus bar-mitzvah swag, rice cookers and Jermaine Jackson records trade hands — but maybe there ought to be.

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Shoppers at the AquaDuck flea (Photo by Stephanie Keith)

The flea is a treasure trove of unclaimed oddities, but more importantly, a place where basic goods — from formalwear to kitchenware — can be bought by, as Jean Paul puts it, the people who can’t just shop at big box stores. Over a decade ago, The New York Times covered the AquaDuck Flea Market’s departure from the racetrack, when the flea’s future was first up for grabs. Asked for comment at the time, Arturo Alonzo, a 45-year-old vendor, replied, “I’ll be O.K.; I’ll go to another market.”

Jean Paul, still hustling on Wortman Avenue, has similar thoughts about his own future come October. “I’ll move on,” he says. “I’m resilient.”

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Photo by Stephanie Keith

The AquaDuck Flea Market is located at 700 Fountain Avenue, open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The post Scenes from the AquaDuck Flea Market appeared first on Brooklyn Magazine.

By: Jeremy Elias
Title: Scenes from the AquaDuck Flea Market
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Published Date: Tue, 23 May 2023 18:45:26 +0000


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