By Jennifer Webb | Photo by Thomas Skernivitz
Conducting an interview so soon after deboarding might rattle some people. But Sheldon’s cheery ability to do two or more things at once typifies the 35-year-old architect-turned-entrepreneur/consultant/developer who is making things happen for creative Clevelanders who dream of ditching their day jobs.
Sheldon is the genius behind the Cleveland Flea, a monthly market that has popped up in a few Cleveland neighborhoods to provide exposure for some of Cleveland’s artisans, innovative food trucks, antiques vendors, and repurposing craftsmen. Since its founding in April 2013, the curated market has grown to include 140 vendors, drawing about 20,000 shoppers on a single day each month.
“Instead of a craft fair, this is a community event, very much an old-style market like you’d find in Europe,” she says. “You can go and hang out all day. Everyone from a baby to someone who’s 95 years old would be comfortable.”
The retail market is more than a chance to find unique treasures. It draws together local artists and those who want to support them to punctuate an understated indie culture this Michigan native says makes Cleveland so charming.
The Flea has popped up in parking lots or inside the Slovenian National Home near East 55th Street, and since July has taken up residence outside Tyler Village Building at 3615 Superior Ave., in Asia Town. Sheldon is working to move the Flea again, this time into a renovated warehouse on Euclid Avenue and East 70th Street in the Health-Tech Corridor that she envisions as a permanent home for the market and a collaborative space for her “makers,” with room for classes and more. As before, the neighborhood is in transition – not quite trendy but full of potential and ripe for discovery, which she says is part of the draw for shoppers. Ironically, the new space – fittingly called the Victory Building – was one of the last buildings she worked on as an architect.
“We’re not going to go to where it’s easy for us; we’re going to go where it’s helpful,” Sheldon says. “We do have the ability to draw attention and redevelop neighborhoods, so we want to be where they need us – and that part of Euclid really does need us.”
While she is working to partner with Cleveland Foundation and Evergreen Business Services on this new “co-work space,” Sheldon doesn’t rely on much outside help to finance her dream. She pays for the Flea with cash earned from the Indie Foundry consulting firm she launched after the architectural firm for which she worked closed its doors. As she shared advice with part-time “makers” to help develop their branding and business plans, she realized they lacked opportunities to sell locally. She also sensed a burgeoning demand by Clevelanders to buy local. That’s when she decided to launch the Flea, based on similar markets she’d seen in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, and other cities.
“I travel a lot and realized there weren’t a lot in Cleveland that were like this, that were monthly, a mix of arts and foods and handmade goods,” Sheldon says. “The basis is to be an incubator for small businesses.”
Although her business advice is founded largely on gut instinct, she’s unabashedly proud that she’s proved on target. Several clients have been able to quit their “regular” jobs to dive into their passion, including Beet Jar juice bar in Ohio City, Wright and Reed (a leatherworker), and Brew Nuts, a startup that makes craft beer doughnuts.
“I’m very intuitive with what I think is going to work. I don’t draw up traditional business plans. I’m not a big fan of venture capital projects. I fall on the bootstrapping side of things,” she says. “We’re not growing at light speed. We could do more things with a lot more money, but we don’t need that right now. Innovation can lead the way when you don’t have a ton of capital.”
She admits that she can be naïve about business concepts, but she shrugs that off: “I just learn and adjust. Part of the process is learning as you go.”
What she’s learned is that Clevelanders are ready to embrace a diverse, nontraditional community vibe permeated by a whiff of surprise. “Creatives” who tap into that market can succeed in living out their dream of pursuing their passion full time.
“People want to buy local again; they really want to support these local businesses,” Sheldon says. “When you’re buying something, you can meet the people who are making it now. It’s a rising tide in the retail scene in Cleveland. Shopping and supporting these people makes you feel like you’re part of the rising tide.”
For more info: theclevelandflea.com
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