Article Link: Read it on The New York Times
Published in December 2020
Some New Yorkers, in an effort to support entrepreneurs instead of large corporations, are creating hyperlocal shopping experiences this holiday season. Facebook groups, Instagram accounts and neighborhood holiday markets — think of them as micro-Etsy projects, organized via social media — have cropped up to showcase local talents and businesses.
Here are profiles of three such efforts across the city.
Keeping money in the neighborhood
Red Hook, Brooklyn
On Dec. 5 and 6, Red Hook hosted its first community-run holiday market, showcasing all local vendors.
“I’m not buying anything from freaking Jeff Bezos,” said Victoria Alexander, a real estate broker who lives and works in the neighborhood. She’s a founding member of the Red Hook Business Alliance, which planned the event. “I want my community to thrive.”
The market took place at several businesses and organizations around Van Brunt Street, including Pioneer Works, an edgy arts center. Known more for its art installations and concerts, the space was transformed into a funky holiday bazaar, selling masks dripping in sparkles and dishes made out of recycled beer bottles.
Even though a line formed outside Pioneer Works (only a few people were allowed inside at a time), it was all good, as shoppers were serenaded by a violinist and a guitarist performing around the block.
“The word I would use is hopeful,” Richard Phillips, a painter, said of the scene. “I will definitely be strolling around. We need to support these local businesses.”
Luquana McGriff, the owner of A Cake Baked in Brooklyn, was one of the market vendors, selling her goods that weekend at Cora Dance, a dance school. “I need to pivot and get new opportunities to stay afloat,” she said. “I don’t have a storefront location, so this is a good way I can introduce myself to neighbors.”
Jen Nelson, the owner of Red Hook Pilates, has been turning her studio into a vintage store over the weekends. She, too, took part in the holiday market, selling unusual items, from cocktail glass sets to colorful silk scarves. “Some of the stuff is special to me, so I love when I know the person buying it,” Ms. Nelson said.
“If you are supporting Red Hook business owners, they then go food shopping here and buy their kids clothes here and spend their money in the community,” said Ms. Alexander, the market organizer. “We are creating a more robust economic neighborhood.”
Mermaid sprinkles and American flags
The Rockaways, Queens
“Calling all local sellers,” wrote Tabytha Flynn on the Friends of Rockaway Beach Facebook Group in November. “I thought it’d be nice to have a post where creative locals can post what they make in the comments!”
Over 100 people ended up commenting, many of whom Ms. Flynn had never heard of. “You know those wooden American flags? I always see them on Etsy, and I didn’t realize someone in the Rockaways actually made them,” she said. “My husband bought one already, but these are way nicer.”
Ms. Flynn is buying most of her gifts from this list of suggestions. Her favorite: mermaid-shaped sprinkles for her 3-year-old to use in her princess-themed cooking class. She didn’t even have to pay for shipping: “The woman who makes them dropped them off in my mailbox the next day.”
Elizabeth Hanna used to own a hardware shop in the Rockaways and knows firsthand how difficult it is for independent shops to operate during a crisis, as she did in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. “It all became too much,” she said. “It was physically and mentally draining.”
So in March she started a Facebook group called RBNY: Rockaway Businesses Need You to help relieve some pressure.
With almost 4,000 members, it’s where locals crowdsource information about which businesses still have Christmas lights in stock and if any local artists make customized ornaments. A user last week posted a picture of Betsy’s Bungalow, a craft store, decorated for the holidays with bow-filled wreaths and oversize candy canes. “Where is that?” asked one user. “The North Pole,” joked another.
Ms. Hanna regularly buys gift certificates from independent businesses and raffles them off to her followers to keep them engaged. She also actively looks for new vendors.
These efforts are helping businesses stay afloat, said Christine Zaremba Gonzalez, who used to work in educational technology but currently makes jewelry, everything from blue beaded earrings to mask holders with crystals.
Ms. Gonzalez has an account on Etsy but finds it hard to get noticed on the expansive platform. “My neighbors are really my biggest source of income right now,” she said. “It’s been a lot of word of mouth. The Rockaway community, once they get a hold of something, it takes off.”
Grass-roots campaigns to promote small businesses
Justin McKibben remembers exactly when he knew Chinatown was in trouble. “There was this day in early March when I skated to my favorite dumpling spot, 88 Lan Zhou, and I went right past it,” Mr. McKibben, a software engineer, said. “I skated back and skated past it again. I realized all the lights were out, and it was closed, so I couldn’t even see it.”
Mr. McKibben wanted to help his dumpling spot and other places survive the pandemic, so he organized a 30-person brainstorming session on Slack. Send Chinatown Love, a grass-roots movement that supports local businesses, was formed.
The all-volunteer group works on getting businesses the tools they need to thrive. It has helped some, like Tokyo Mart, a grocery on Mulberry Street, sell online for the first time. It has also distributed almost $125,000 in cash (from donations) to about 22 merchants.
Another group, Welcome to Chinatown, uses Instagram to tell the stories of Chinatown’s shops and restaurants and also offers merchandise promoting popular haunts like Eggloo, a purveyor of Asian-flavored waffles and pancake mixes, and Jing Fong, known for its dim sum. All of the proceeds go to the businesses.
Grace Young, a cookbook author, has made it a point to do her holiday shopping in Chinatown, at mom-and-pop stores like Ting’s Gift Shop and K.K. Discount. “At Ting’s, the last of the old-school souvenir shops, they have these mahjong sets that I am definitely going to get,” she said.
She is encouraging others to do the same on her social media accounts. “The Ting Ladies, three generations run Chinatown’s last old-school souvenir store, was started by Grandma Ting 62 years ago,” Ms. Young wrote on a Facebook page dedicated to Manhattan’s Chinatown. “Closed for 6 months, Ting’s reopened in September and is struggling to survive. Please go buy some gifts! They need our support.”