NYC Street Fairs: Where Culture, Commerce Collide

Features

By Ryder Davis

An average working day for a New York City street vendor begins at 9 a.m. and continues until 5 p.m. — seemingly normal hours in America. But their jobs can take them to faraway places such as Madagascar or Chile, in search of rare or unique goods that will appeal to Western customers. Those customers, as described by Nepali women’s clothing vendor Yogesh Shakya, find the rare goods “legitimate and desirable” because of their seeming connection to another culture.

Several New York street vendors come from a retail background — some owned and operated retail stores in Downtown Manhattan before pivoting to street markets. Shakya owned a store called Omyogi Handicrafts, selling the same items he would later sell in his outpost at street fairs — handmade crafts, including jewelry and pants, from places ranging from Nepal to Jamaica.

Hailing from Kathmandu, Nepal, Shakya moved to New York in 2009 hoping to start his own business. He became able to leave Nepal by winning what he called a “green card lottery.” Shakya visits Nepal with his wife every two years to collect more worldly goods and also travels around America to wholesalers, increasing his supply of merchandise.

Last year Shakya realized that rent and other costs were far too high to turn a profit. “Rent was steep and operating costs were too expensive because I kept the store open every day,” Shakya said. So he transferred his entire business model to a portable stall which he sets up in New York street fairs a few days a week.

People find [my goods] worthy and peaceful because most of my stuff is related to yoga and the inner zen,” Shakya said.

Most of these street fairs are set up in Manhattan, but according to the vendors, they are occasionally organized in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. To operate a stall in one of the many street fairs, one must register with several different companies who run the street fairs and apply for a vendor permit from the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). These permits cost $10 a month, and most vendors submit their applications directly to the DCA office downtown because an online application requires an extra fee. A vendor must possess an official United States ID and a sales tax identification number in order to apply for a permit.

Another stall, posted just a block down Broadway from Shakya’s, sells authentic Kenyan wares including pottery, masks, and bracelets. This stall is owned and managed by Kenyan native Susan Mwangi and her son Kevin Mwangi. Mwangi imports her goods directly from Kenya, and returns to her homeland a few times a year to locate and purchase especially rare pieces that could appeal to Westerners.

Just like Shakya, the Mwangis operated a retail store downtown but, due to costs, transferred their business to a stall. Their store, called Midtown Enterprises, sold nearly the exact same merchandise as their stall does today.

The younger Mwangi explained the benefits of operating a stall rather than a store. “You get far more customers on the street than the store, so it’s easier to maintain our operation. And as the years went by, the rent raised and raised until it was [too much],” Mwangi said.

Mukya Ghale, who owns a stall that sells exclusively women’s clothing, has been working in street fairs for six years and truly enjoys his line of work.

I had a friend who used to do it, and I helped her, and I liked it. You stand [at the stall], you’re your own boss, and you have your own schedule,” Ghale said.

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