an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Going to the Flea: A Saturday Tallinn Tradition

 

Over the past decade, the fortunes of the Flea have ebbed and flowed in keeping with the wax and wane of the crowds. Regardless, the Flea continues to be as reliable as the phases of the moon – not counting the occasional eclipses caused by the annual Food Festival or major Estonian holiday. Telliskivi Kirbuturg (The Brick’s Flea Market) welcomes visitors from 10 AM to 3 PM every Saturday regardless of the local weather. Yes, adjustments are made for the changing of the seasons. When the weather tends to be nicer from May to September, the Flea takes place outdoors. It then moves indoors from October to April seeking shelter in the Brick’s Roheline Saal (Green Hall) during the long Estonian winter when everyone longs for the color green.

While fleas are the one type of market which don’t feed my more general obsession, I will say that I prefer visiting the Brick’s Flea when the market is indoors. If you’ve ever organized events, you know that for an event to feel successful then you need to match the size of the crowd with your available space. You could have twice as many people attending one event rather than another. And yet, if half the seats are empty at your first event and there is standing-room only at your second event then the second event feels more successful even though the overall crowd is half the size. It’s just the way we’re wired. And this is why I like the indoor Flea – there is usually a much better match between the crowd size (stalls and their potential customers) and the event space.

One of the biggest challenges facing the good people at the Brick is that their outdoor spaces are so vast. In fact, they’re so big that they’re hard to fill. As a result, even when their visitor numbers are relatively large, the Brick can feel empty. The Saturday Flea is a perfect case in point. When the Flea is at high tide with hundreds of stalls and a commensurate number of visitors, then you can see the proverbial Flea on the Brick. You know it is there. But when it is low tide and the Flea is down to just dozens of stalls on a slow Saturday, then you can barely find the Flea on the Brick.

Of course, there are ways to plan your visit to the Flea to make sure that all the stars are in alignment and that you get to see not the Super Moon but the Super Flea. The Super Flea – known as the Telliskivi Kirbu-Festival (The Brick Flea Festival) – has taken place once a year for the last seven years, usually in late August. This annual Flea pretty much covers the entire Brick. And while visiting the Flea is usually free, this one time a year it costs you a nominal one Euro to enter – a price well worth paying. Strangely, the admission fee seems to attract more visitors than it deters. Perhaps it is that feeling of attending something special – and you even get one of those concert wristbands to show others you are.

The Super Flea is the regular Flea but on steroids – or the kind of weekend flea you would encounter somewhere near LA or at a car boot sale outside the center of London. In addition to all the used clothes and toys which seem to account for almost 90% of the items for sale at any Flea, the Super Flea also features handicrafts, antiques, jewelry, and much more. Hungry? Then there are two rows of food trucks and food stalls in addition to the Brick’s regular watering holes. Feeling sporty? You can enter a ping-pong tournament. Need a break? You can listen to live music or watch a fashion show at the main stage. Have kids? No problem – bring them along as well. Not only is there a kids’ play area and kids’ stage with entertainment for younger visitors, there is even a Kids Flea where kids can sell their old toys to other kids – under the watchful eyes of their parents, of course. More and more, local fairs and markets are adding a kids’ section to encourage the next generation of Estonian entrepreneurs. As an American kid who got my first job delivering newspapers at age eleven (I needed money to buy my first aquarium), I’ve always taken such youthful entrepreneurship for granted. For Estonia, this new trend has marked an important cultural shift.

Now if there were a Super Flea to visit every week or even just once a month (say on the first or last Saturday), then I would become a regular Flea fan. Problem is, I’m not sure it would be entirely sustainable beyond the usual event fatigue. As it happens, there are dozens of competing events taking place in Tallinn every weekend which would draw crowds away. Also, it seems that every single town in Estonia is now busy hosting its own competing weekend fair or festival – and sometimes much more often than just once or twice a year. Some market vendors have adapted to this new reality by taking their stall on the road and hawking their wares in a different town every Saturday and/or Sunday in search of new customers. The end result is that the Brick’s annual Super Flea may be the best that we can hope for – although it would be nice to experiment and see what else might work …. After all, the Brick only seems to come fully alive at large events like the annual Food Festival or the Super Flea.

As the regular Flea is far too focused on clothes – and, to be honest, on women’s clothes, I usually only do “the buyer’s walk” and check out all the stalls when I happen to be at the Brick on a Saturday during the day. When the Flea is at its ebb, it sometimes feels as if it gets overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Brick or that it gets lost among all the other competing happenings from outdoor art exhibits to al fresco dining. One thing I do have to wonder is if it might be possible to concentrate the Flea into a smaller outdoor space commensurate with its actual size to see if that would do some good. One of my favorite London food markets, for example, would adjust its overall size (open space) and the configuration of its stalls based on how many people they expected to show up that weekend. Again, the goal is to make the market look crowded in order to generate that right amount of market energy or buzz.

In any case, as someone who doesn’t care much about clothes and who is happy to wear the ones I like until they wear out, I’m probably not the Flea’s target client in any case. However, I’m 100% behind the philosophy of the Brick’s Flea – originally set up by the NGO Estonian Flea Market which was itself an offshoot of the New Use Center which tried to change the habits of our single-use, disposable society. Any visit to the Flea – or any thrift store for that matter – will show you that the world is drowning in a sea of unwanted clothes. Factories around the world are spewing out more petroleum-extruded fiber than ever before and making new clothes faster than we can wear them out – and even faster than charities can re-distribute them to those in need. The curse of nylon and other synthetic fibers is now smothering our planet in polymers even less recyclable than plastic bottles and bags. So, a big thanks to the Flea’s organizers – and other like-minded thinkers in Tallinn – for trying to find new life for old clothes and other used things.

As I don’t tend to shop at the Flea, I will keep trying to do my bit for the planet by buying clothes made from natural fibers – cotton, linen, wool, and more – and then wearing them for as long as I possibly can. After all, old clothes made from plant fibers are ideal for making real handmade paper …. But that’s another story.

 

You can find the Flea on the Brick almost every Saturday from 10 AM until 3 PM at Telliskivi 60A either outside in the courtyard or inside in the Roheline Saal (Green Hall) depending on the season. The easiest way to get there is on the no. 1 or no. 2 tram headed for Kopli. Get off at the Telliskivi stop and head inland.

Image: Miniature wool gloves handmade by Marju Tamm on Vormsi Island. She also knitted my wonderful regular-sized gloves but they were a bit too big to fit in my small black photo box …. You can find out more about Vormsi crafts (sadly) in Estonian-only on the Vormsi Käsitöö Selts (Vormsi Handicraft Society) website.

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