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October 20, 2017
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Boston’s only vintage market can be found in SoWa, a district of the city’s South End that is known for its artistic community. Photograph by Briana Palma.
Signs beckon people inside, where music
plays and people leisurely browse stalls
of vintage and antique goods.
Photograph courtesy of Stephanie Pernice. 

It's a quiet and wintery Sunday morning in the SoWa (South of Washington Street) neighbourhood of Boston's South End. Just a few cars move along Harrison Avenue, while even fewer pedestrians walk along the snow-covered sidewalk. Normally, the parking lot for number 460, a long brick building, buzzes with the motors of food trucks - they're absent because of the Christmas holidays - that are lined up to serve everything from gourmet pickles and lobster rolls to cupcakes and ice cream.

Despite its quiet surroundings, the old factory building comes to life every Sunday throughout the year for the SoWa Vintage Market. Signs beckon people inside, where music plays and people leisurely browse stalls of vintage and antique goods. Some of the vendors gather together, their Boston accents loud and clear as they chat; others sit quietly with books perched in their laps, speaking up only when customers approach.

The only market of its kind in the city, SoWa Vintage came into existence four years ago when long-time dealers Stephanie Pernice and John Warren realised Boston was lacking such an experience. "John and I were going to Brooklyn every week to the Brooklyn Flea," Pernice says. "We live here in the Boston area and when the economy got really bad we went there every week just to survive and stay in business and be able to keep doing this rather than have to get jobs."

Pernice explains that antiques dealers used to participate in the now nine-year-old seasonal SoWa Open Market, a staple of the thriving artistic and cultural neighbourhood that SoWa has become in the last decade. Yet when the opportunity arose to head indoors and use the 7,000-square-foot, three-room space, they decided to establish a separate market.

At the start, only seven vendors participated, but by the end of the first year and just before shutting down for the winter, Pernice and Warren had reached their 30-vendor capacity. Then two years ago, they transformed their market from a warm-weather event to a year-round destination for locals as well as tourists, thanks to support from the tourism and hospitality industries.

Though her business The House of Findings
is primarily based online, veteran retailer
Mayra Gonzalez sells a large selection of
vintage women’s clothing and accessories
at the weekly SoWa Vintage Market.
Photograph by Briana Palma.

And indeed, SoWa does attract an eclectic group of patrons, which seems fitting with its diverse and ever-changing collection of goods. "We have a lot of everybody," Pernice says. "We have a lot of regulars and we have a lot of new people." The market attracts people of all ages, from young collectors to families to seniors. As proof, Pernice points to a miniature, red, bench-like piece. "We have a girl who comes in and she collects dollhouse furniture and little doll stuff, so if we find anything we save it for her."

Still, at the SoWa Vintage Market, there's much more to discover than playthings for children. Trolling through the different stalls - all organised against a backdrop of red brick walls - you're sure to come across recognisable gems for both your home and wardrobe. The findings range from Fendi purses and cashmere scarves to copies of the now-defunct Life magazine and clunky old typewriters. There's even a women's sweater from Filene's, the locally loved department store bought out by the parent company of Macy's in 2005.

On this day, Pernice puts on display a boxy, gold purse purchased at a church sale the previous day. As she shows off all of its features - including compartments for perfume, powder, jewellery and a hidden cigarette case - her passion for vintage and antiques shines through. "Isn't that cool?" she asks, smiling. "And it came with its original little pouch and an original little gift box, too."

Pernice proudly reveals another recent find: a leather, accordion-style men's toiletry bag made by the London Harness Company. "I try to buy Rockefeller-level items," she explains. "That's sort of my shtick. You can get better second-hand things if you buy things of quality than you can buy brand new today."

Although the quality of the items found at the market remains consistent, it has a fresh and different feeling each Sunday. Vendors are required to continually change their merchandise and bring in new items "because otherwise the market stagnates and dies," Pernice says. She also welcomes new dealers on a regular basis to help maintain an element of dynamism for repeat customers.

 

One dealer who recently joined SoWa is Mayra Gonzalez. Raised in New York City, Gonzalez became interested in vintage as a teenager in the 1970s. "I started seriously collecting stuff around age 17," she says. "I sort of discovered it by accident. I would just hang out at church flea markets and garage sales and thrift stores." By 1988, Gonzalez had combined her accidental hobby with experience as a buyer and opened her own store in Miami called Findings.

After moving to the Boston area in 2005, Gonzalez continued to collect vintage women's clothing and accessories, and she began planning for a new business in early 2012. Although she hoped to open another store, the economic downturn led her to the web. In September of last year, she and husband Biorn Maybury-Lewis launched The House of Findings, an online boutique that sells both vintage and modern goods. One month later, the couple joined the SoWa Vintage Market, which Gonzalez says functions as her "lab."

"I just needed a place that I could physically be and see the girls," she explains. "Who are the girls? What are they buying? What are they thinking? I think by talking to them I learn a lot about what they need, what they want, what they like. … It's like a relationship."

Pernice, who has been collecting antiques for 20 years, echoes that sentiment, saying that she prefers selling in markets rather than shops because of the interaction with the customer. "You know, we consider ourselves an adoption agency for vintage and antiques, matching the right person to the thing," she adds.

"I try to buy Rockefeller-level items," she explains. "That's sort of my shtick. You can get better second-hand things if you buy things of quality than you can buy brand new today."

Like Gonzalez and Pernice, many vendors at SoWa specialise in vintage goods; others, though, are all about upcycling and recycling. For example, Carole Bentley and Kerry Draicchio, owners of Painted Pretty, refurbish antique furniture. At their SoWa stall, you'll find old wooden frames and silver platters, which have been transformed into chalkboards. "Our motto is to recycle and reuse everything, so we take old pieces and we paint them up." Bentley says. "A lot of it was basically going to go into a landfill."

Although they're always busy restoring and painting furniture in their studio in Abington, Massachusetts, Bentley and Draicchio's sole retail space is at SoWa. The two have been a part of the market since its establishment and always look forward to Sundays. "We picked out our spot and we haven't moved since," Bentley says.

"I love it," she adds. "You can sit out here and have something to eat and people watch. They have live music in the summertime. And out here," she adds, pointing to the window, "they're playing soccer on the fields and people go and watch that. It's just great."

Bentley and the other vendors admit that getting the word out and driving traffic to SoWa can prove difficult, as the neighbourhood sits on the edge of the city, away from major retail areas like the Back Bay and Faneuil Hall. Still, they remain positive and say they've seen a rise in local interest in the market and the vintage fashion scene as a whole in recent years.

"A lot of people come just for the food trucks and they say, 'Oh, there's a vintage market here?'" explains Bentley. "They have no idea. I think there's still a challenge for this particular market, getting people to know that we're inside and all of that. It takes a little time, but I love it. It's one of the best things we ever did."

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