The story, and the woman, behind the Cleveland Flea

Posted at 8:00 AM, Mar 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-22 08:49:44-04

If there is anyone who appreciates Cleveland's character and rust belt-innovative charm, it's Michigan transplant, Stephanie Sheldon. It's her eye for what Cleveland needs and wants, mixed with her growing love for the city, now a decade in the making, that propelled her to create the Cleveland Flea.

"I really fell in love with Cleveland when I visited from Ann Arbor. It's not usually considered a top destination for moving, but I'm happy with that because Cleveland remains for us," said Sheldon. "It's Cleveland by Clevelanders."

In 2009, the economy tanked and architecture firms were closing, so Sheldon started teaching herself graphic design. At that time, she didn't know of a community of creative people. She started pop-up restaurants and invited people from creative backgrounds. What she found was many of them were pursuing hobbies in soap making, textiles, and furniture, but none of them went beyond the hobby status.

"I wanted businesses to have a customer connection. I always say it's commerce and connection," Sheldon said. Many pursuing a hobby couldn't afford to expand their business because they were not making any money off their hobby."

And the Cleveland Flea was born.

Divine inspiration

Sheldon recalled one of her earlier experiences organizing the Cleveland Flea that kept her going. It was a nun in the neighborhood who came up to her in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood where the flea first started.

"She was looking for me all day and finally found me and told me, 'I just had to tell you that nobody cares about us here except you. You are the ray of hope that I haven't seen in years. I see people smiling again,'" said Sheldon.

Cleveland and the public were new to the idea of an outside marketplace where everyone could gather in one space to discover hidden handcrafted pieces produced by budding entrepreneurs and vintage gems once forgotten in dusty corners of buildings. 

"When you go to other cities like New York or San Francisco, there are a lot of flea markets, but none of them feel like the Cleveland Flea. It serves a specific need that Cleveland needed. City pride, connection to other people who make it worth living here," Sheldon said.

"Everyone who comes to Cleveland Flea is repeated customers so businesses have to make new products. That’s why are a business incubator because they have to consistently propel themselves to the next level. The stakes are just higher."

Still growing

Going into the fifth season, the flea has continued to grow and exceed Sheldon's expectation. In the first year, there were about 30 vendors attracting 1,500 shoppers. Fast forward to the end of the first season, six months in, the flea attracted over 10,000 shoppers and 65 vendors.

What keeps Sheldon going is the urge to continue evolving Cleveland's DNA in industrial manufacturing to "small batch manufacturing" as she calls the makers of the flea.

"We throw people off the diving board. It's terrifying, but you have to jump. We really tell the businesses to bring fire and we will fan the flame. So long as you have the passion, we will fan the flames," Sheldon said.

The Cleveland Flea has become a staple in weekend plans for Clevelanders. The outside market starts on April 22 and goes through October. Shoppers and vendors can expect changes and additions to this year's market.

While nothing is finalized, Sheldon expects to add new installations such as a mobile office and shop and new benches. There will also be a entrance fee of some kind, but she assures the price will be low.

Q&A with Stephanie Sheldon

1. Favorite go to local places?

One my favorite things to do in Cleveland is show people around. I like Cleveland Hostel for staying in the city. A Very local key place to stay with lots of entertainment. Le Petit Triangle is one of my favorite places. It feels like you're transported to Paris. In Hingetown, there is Jukebox bar, a local neighborhood spot. This feels like a neighborhood hangout.

West Side Market is probably my favorite place in the entire city, hands down. I was in love with the West Side Market the first moment I came to Cleveland. My own life is dedicated to markets. No one realizes many cities in the US don't have a public market. We take it for granted.

2. Favorite cocktail spot:

Spotted Owl in Tremont. Absolutely my favorite.  Fun fact. I field measured the space for another restaurant before Spotted Owl took over space.

3. Surprising fact?

I'm more an introvert than an extrovert. Oh, and I hate planning things. I really, really do. This business only emerged for me because it was necessary. My purpose in this world is to do the things that are necessary to me. I don't like event planning. What keeps me going? I am 1000 percent committed to it. We all want to do something out of our comfort zones but we end up just staying on the sidelines.

4. Transplant discovery?

I went to the University of Michigan. I didn't realize how much people in Cleveland hate the University of Michigan. People would refuse to serve me. I thought that was a crappy way to treat people. Cleveland needs to get over it. Another thing that was surprising to me was how much of a community this place is. Cleveland is the people. You see the city on day one through the city.

5. Good getaway?

One of my favorites mini trips is to go out on the lake. I feel totally transported to a different viewpoint of Cleveland. That is something I want to do more of. I think we can all get out on the water more.

Visit the Cleveland Flea