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Westbeth Flea Market-to-me market; Surprising ‘finds’ while hunting for bargains

BY JAIMEE KOSANKE | I posted my recent wedding photos to Facebook and one of my writing instructors from N.Y.U., Kate Walter, reached out to congratulate me. We decided to grab lunch at the Bus Stop Cafe in the West Village for a proper catch up.

“I’m shocked,” she tells me.  I’m 42. Kate was not the only one in my life shocked, I assured her.  An ex also texted me, “No way, Kosanke got married!?”

The morning I was to meet Kate for lunch, I felt my social anxiety creep in. I hadn’t networked much in person lately and I respect Kate and her writing. I stood staring at my closet. My mirror. My closet. I’ve often masked my social unease with a colorful wardrobe, but during COVID I got comfortable. Too comfortable? My choices were sweaters, sweatpants, baggy jeans or, worse…yoga pants. Where did my personality go?

My wedding dress was a multicolored patchwork gown with everything from flowers to polka dots. So, the flair hasn’t completely dulled. I decided Kate would prefer I obsess over my writing than over my wardrobe.

When I arrived at the corner of Hudson and Bethune Streets, Kate gave me a hug and congratulated me again. In class, we connected because we both grew up in New Jersey, we both fled to New York City, and now lived in the West Village. I was grateful to further this connection over lunch. And the Bus Stop Cafe has a great deal. Soup, soda and a generous main for $12.95. Over veggie burgers and salads, we traded COVID stories, family sagas and writing goals.

Kate lives in Westbeth Artist Housing down the street, and after lunch she offered to give me a tour of its lobby and current art exhibit. Westbeth has been an affordable home to New York artists since the 1970s. Hallways and common spaces are riddled with work from local photographers, painters, writers, sculptors and more. You feel the particles of past and present talent brushing past you, and you hope the teeniest bit sticks.

Kate walked me out and reminded me to check out two things, her new book, “Behind the Mask,” which came out Nov. 16, and the annual Westbeth Flea Market that kicks off each year on Election Day. Residents of Westbeth donate artwork, clothing, books and more. Profits go to causes from combating homelessness in the neighborhood to larger relief efforts. She scored a collage a few years ago from a known New York artist for $35. The flea market was closed last year, due to the obvious, but was now back. I was in for both, the book and some bargain finds.

I arrived at the flea market an hour after its opening. There was a line. Entries were limited for social distancing. You were required to wear a mask and provide your vaccination card.  Nothing new here.

I resorted to check e-mails and Instagram. No service. The flea market is in the basement. I put my phone away. I looked around.

There were couples and singles of all ages. People frustrated with the wait. Some turned away to leave, while others set up camp. Two young women from Jersey City were determined to make it in. A mother and daughter walked out with a breadbox for the grandmother.

“I didn’t know this was still a thing,” the daughter announced and held it up to show the onlookers.

When I finally entered the makeshift market, I was inundated with trinkets and chachkas, clothing from outerwear to underwear, paperback and hardcover books including both Christian titles and “The Joy of Sex.”

Based on my tour guide and teacher, I was on the hunt for a piece of art. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I hoped it would find me. I looked at several paintings, photographs and prints, but the gentleman working the area was busy. I was afraid to interrupt, ask questions and reveal myself as a novice among artists.

I sidestepped into the clothing section. It smelled like mothballs and my early 20s, when used and vintage clothing was my look of choice. Realizing the beauty of a piece’s second or third life was the objective. The task of pairing it with nothing you think the owner would’ve had in her closet was the assignment.

More recently, I’ve converted from buyer to seller, downsizing for a simpler life. Dropping off bags of clothes to Beacon’s Closet, only to walk away with $35 and a reality check that my gems were worth pennies.

A group of young women behind me cut through the clutter. “So cute!” “Oh, my God!” “I love that!” echoed through the aisles.  Their arms were draped several times over with their fashion finds. Where did my previous self go? I was determined to reclaim that whimsy. In the basement of Westbeth, I would restore my vintage self.

Every piece I pulled, I wrestled with.  “A younger you could’ve pull that off.” “You’ll look like the old lady that donated this.”  The negative was in stereo; but I fought to remember, I am in 3D.

I moved the hangers left to right, left to right. Left to…oh! A short-sleeved, pink satin, jeweled button-down, with palm trees on the pocket, reared its perfectly ugly self. She was $3 and the right blend of my past and present. She looked comfortable, slightly never-in-style, half ready-to-wear, half ready-for-bed.  This Daytona-retirement-party-piece was the art I had been looking for. I internalized my “so cute” and “I love it.” Sold.

“Springtime,” by Edith Isaac-Rose, another find of the writer’s at the Westbeth Flea Market. (Courtesy Jaimee Kosanke)

On my way out, I spotted something else.

A painting on white canvas. There were two suspicious men in suits, holding ropes and dancing on a tree branch like a highwire. Two happy squirrels lived beneath. It felt undone. As if the artist was still working something out. There were two worlds meshing and a facade of normalcy. It felt current to me.

The man working the booth told me the artist, Edith Isaac-Rose, had titled it “Springtime” and had previously lived in Westbeth. Isaac-Rose was known for expressing her politics through her art, most popular for her “Daily Rage” series, which drew “inspiration from the daily newspaper…that depicted our nation’s corrupt upper class and its victims.” She passed in 2018. He told me this piece should go for $600 to $800.

“I think you should have it,” he said, paused, then added, “Two hundred dollars.”

Sold.

As it happened, her neighbor walked up next to me, and said, “She was a very lovely woman, she’d be so happy someone has it.”

Afterward, I was angry with my introverted self that I did not ask the neighbor more questions. I was also afraid my husband of two weeks would think I spent too much based on a romantic impulse. But he loved it.

I hope with Edith Isaac-Rose in my life now, I will ask more questions. And follow my romantic impulses. I hope when people come over and see my new gems from the Westbeth Flea Market, they will ask me about Edith, her “Springtime” squirrels and my pink ladies shirt. And my answer stands, that both purchases were for a cause she believed in.

3 Comments

  1. Westbeth Westbeth December 2, 2021

    Well-written and very lovely article, informative and personal. Have forwarded to everyone at Westbeth and to the subscribers to the Westbeth website, as well. The Flea Market has been at Westbeth for almost 39 years. In the last 10, we have expanded our Affordable Art Dept, but in all areas we get the most incredible donations from the artists who live here. Your article deftly caught the excitement and the pleasure of shopping here. Looking forward to whatever you will write about next. BTW the next Flea Market is scheduled for sometime in May 2022.

    • Jaimee Kosanke Jaimee Kosanke December 4, 2021

      Thank you for all you do, and for your support. I’ll be there in May, and my entire family may join.

  2. Joann Joann December 5, 2021

    Great article. I adore the folks at Westbeth! Going to the Flea Market Sale every year is the next-best thing to living there! It is consistent, well-organized, and you ALWAYS come away with something great while your heart fills up with joy at the thought of real community. I love it. It’s become a favorite annual event for me and my husband and I encourage anyone to join in the fun.

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