An hour before showtime, Stephanie Sheldon glides through the clamor of what resembles a small city hastily rising. Artists, buskers and bakers are erecting tents, stocking shelves and firing up doughnut fryers for the season opener of the Cleveland Flea in a huge, semi-secluded parking lot in AsiaTown.
A young-looking 38-year-old with a cellphone to her ear, she’s a hipster version of Martha Stewart. Her bright blond hair, stylish and short, contrasts with an all-black ensemble of jeans, hoodie and sneakers on this brisk April morning.
“Hi Steph!” a vendor calls. Another reaches for a high-five. Sheldon falls into a quick hug before her eyes stab a problem.
“Why is that truck there?” she shouts, marching toward a food truck crawling up East 36th Street. Her voice is calm but seems to cut through the din. People pause in their work and turn.
A man rolls down the passenger window and pops his head out of the Beachcomber. Painted in vibrant shades of blue with palm trees and Tiki masks, it resembles a rolling surf shack.
“You’re supposed to be over there,” Sheldon commands, pointing with her phone toward the far side of the scene. The engine roars, and the truck lurches toward its post.
Order is briefly restored.
Watching from her booth a few dozen yards away, candlemaker Amy Maki laughs. “She’s always doing that,” Maki explains. “I know this looks insane, but they keep a nice flow. She’s definitely The Girl. You can spot her from a mile away.”
With the creative mind of an architect, the style of a wedding planner and the drive of an entrepreneur, Sheldon has become the maker of makers. By gathering a community of artisans, creatives and side hustlers, she’s built the Cleveland Flea from a pop-up arts-and-crafts fair into a model for economic development on the verge of becoming an export. But as the Flea enters its fifth season, can Sheldon keep the momentum as others look toward what she’s built and want a share of her magic?
Her influence has definitely spread beyond a monthly pop-up market. Economic planners are watching. Some of the 176 vendors here today have employees helping them set up. That’s because they now have a storefront, often in a neighborhood coming back to life, something unimaginable when they joined the Flea three or four years ago.
Through the Flea and her other ventures, such as holiday fairs and do-it-yourself classes, Sheldon has likely helped nurture more small businesses than any startup incubator in town. Her consulting firm, Indie Foundry, now gets calls from suit-and-tie executives for help energizing the mall or corporate offices.
Fifty miles down the lakefront, Huron beckons. Word has spread about her success with the Flea, and city leaders have asked her to come and show them how to do something cool, even audacious. Sheldon has an idea — several, actually.
“I struggled, early on, to create a career or a job that brought me a lot of purpose,” she says. “This really does that for me. I feel like I can be full steam ahead.”
The Cleveland Flea unfolds behind a MidTown colossus.
A former elevator factory, Tyler Village overwhelms East 36th Street between Superior and St. Clair avenues. Tucked between brick industrial buildings and elevated railroad tracks, the massive parking lot has transformed into a communal town square.
Vendors, who started arriving at 5:30 a.m., work from beneath tents clumped together according to theme — handmade arts, street food, vintage finds and collectables. Food trucks semicircle a common like chuck wagons. Folk singers and DJs create the soundtrack that changes as one strolls.
The crowd is as diverse as what’s for sale. Artists and collectors, coffee-sipping couples, moms and dads with restless children, empty nesters who bought those vintage wares when they were new and a noticeable number of dogs walk the highly designed bazaar.
It’s the kind of market where you can leave with a handcrafted chair or a hammock, a porcelain tea set or a pair of Moscow mule-worthy copper mugs, quick stepping to a polka beat.
“It’s all types of people,” Sheldon says. “It’s a Cleveland thing. It just feels like a celebration of the city.”
Having arrived in Cleveland barely a decade ago, the small-town girl from Michigan has shown the region the untapped power in its army of artists and dreamers. Some call her the “Queen of the Flea,” but others see a catalyst for a new economy — a woman for her times.
They see a key addition to a city that possessed all the ingredients for an arts-driven renaissance — restless talent, empty buildings, online marketing tools — save the curator.
“She’s created a new kind of culture that didn’t exist in Cleveland 10 years ago,” says Lillian Kuri, a vice president for the Cleveland Foundation. “We didn’t have a makers movement. We didn’t have a collective experience that’s authentic. That’s new.”
Kuri, an architect, is an expert in placemaking, a development strategy to revive urban spaces by creating quality experiences.
“It’s the new wave of economic development,” Kuri says, adding that Sheldon puts Cleveland at the crest. “She’s on par with the best of the best.”
To that, Sheldon might say, I know. Her steady confidence could smack of conceitedness, if not for the happy smile that softens her go-go demeanor and ruthless work ethic.
That she is doing something unprecedented, she has no doubt.
“We created all our own systems, all our own processes,” Sheldon points out. “I need to be the expert at this kind of business. There’s not a lot to draw from.”
It’s a point that irritates her a bit: While her success has drawn attention, the all-consuming work frequently gets overlooked.
Sheldon and the Flea’s two full-time staffers — Laura Drapac and Elizabeth Flanagan, both of whom have been with her less than a year — plot every detail from Flea headquarters on the third floor of Tyler Village’s Building 42. Their warren of offices display the tools of their uncommon trade: computers and whiteboards, coils of rope, a 300-foot tape measure, more than 100 extension cords, two tables saws, buckets of paint and a pallet of brightly painted tree stumps.
Three days before the season opener, the forms and permits that could be demanded by a fire marshal, a health inspector or liquor control agent are neatly stacked beneath rocks on a tabletop. “Everybody thinks stuff like this just happens,” Sheldon says, snapping her fingers. “It’s hard. It’s risky. That’s why people don’t do it.”
It’s not enough to stage a show that attracts thousands of people, many of them suburbanites, to an urban neighborhood off the beaten path. She needs them to come back next month. Thus the flourishes that appeal to people into art and whimsy.
This day, colorful streamers flutter from scaffolding that forms a gateway on East 36th Street. Inside, diners nosh at ingeniously crafted portable picnic tables, the benches little more than boards bolted to Home Depot buckets. Cacti make sturdy centerpieces.
The mobile hand-washing station, near the portable toilets, resembles a homey bathroom with his-and-her sinks and mirrors.
Sheldon designs, builds and positions almost every piece of infrastructure, following one golden rule: “It doesn’t need to be precious, but it has to be thoughtful,” she says.
You don’t just grab a beer at the Flea, you order a craft cocktail from the Happy Camper Bar Car — a silver, 1972 Airstream Safari converted into a mobile cocktail lounge.
“Nothing is random,” observes Kuri. “She has a great design sensibility. You can’t understate how important that is. That’s why I keep going back.”
Then there are the vendors, a select group of artists, jewelers and furniture crafters whom Sheldon fondly calls “creatives.” All of them have navigated an application process that looks for originality and passion.
They greet one another like happy campers back for another summer. And why not? They’re doing what they like and love. They may earn many times the $325 vendor fee. Because of Sheldon, they can make the rent and maybe, one day, quit their day job.
“She’s driven by relevance,” says Drapac, the Flea’s vendor liaison. “She’s always interested in what people are looking for right now.”