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Marketplace of Perseverence

A pet project to showcase handmade goods blossoms into a regular event, which nearly overwhelms its founders—but their ideals, and stubbornness, push it forward

by Erin Pihlaja on May 30, 2012

“There were moments in the last year and a half that I didn’t know if we could keep doing this,” says Zhenelle Falk.

“It’s hard to see the work it takes to put this on. We’ve had no financial support,” adds Rachel Naylor.

Both women have spent the last four years of their lives trying to sustain a pet project that snowballed into something bigger than they had originally planned. “Our process has been do an event, assess, add a crazy idea, and then find a way to make it happen,” Naylor laughs. While the pair are able to look on the bright side now, the road getting there was rocky enough to almost make them to give up completely.

A different kind of grassroots organizing : Naylor and Falk. Photo by Erin Pihlaja

Falk and Naylor’s project is called Tight Knit, a grassroots organization they co-founded. Tight Knit is dedicated to putting on events to showcase an array of “handmade and carefully curated goods by artists, crafters and collectors from throughout the Capital Region, Hudson Valley, Berkshires and Southern Vermont,” according to its website.

Tight Knit was born in 2008 when Falk met with Rachel Naylor to brainstorm ideas for a festival showcasing handcrafted goods and ’zines. They quickly realized that part of their original idea wasn’t going to pan out. “As we started planning it early September, we saw that there wasn’t a big ’zine community, but there was a huge community of crafters. We had the idea to spin it into a handmade event,” Falk says.

The pair decided to put on a two-day holiday bazaar in the Frear Building in Troy. They were shocked by how well it was received. “I remember sitting there in front of the elevators, and every time the doors opened they were packed with people,” says Falk. “There were hundreds and hundreds of people coming in.”

With 50 vendors and positive feedback from shoppers and sellers, the event was a success. Shortly afterward, Falk and Naylor were approached by Elizabeth Young and Karen Schlesinger, the creators of Troy Night Out, who asked them to do more. Falk and Naylor, riding high on the success of their premiere, agreed.

Tight Knit’s first weekly summer event debuted in June 2009 in Monument Square. Being in the heart of the city’s downtown was important to Tight Knit’s mission. “We all lived in downtown Troy at the time, and saw a jewel in the rough,” says Naylor.

Before the summer season kicked off, Falk and Naylor met with the board of the Troy Farmers Market to see if the organization would move their event closer to the downtown area. At the time, the market was held in a parking lot on the other side of River Street.

The board agreed to move, and settled into Troy’s Riverfront Park. Falk and Naylor thought that people would visit the popular farmers market and then walk the short distance to Monument Square and Tight Knit’s vendors. They were wrong. Most people ended up parking their cars, buying what they needed at the farmers market, and then leaving. “We had to do a lot of work to pull in a crowd. We drew chalk drawings on the sidewalk and streets, put up signs; we did whatever we could to get people up to Monument Square,” Falk says.

Despite a relatively slow start, the vendors were happy with the outcome, as were Falk and Naylor. Afterwards, Elizabeth Young again asked Tight Knit to expand their event. The duo agreed to do the weekly winter market alongside the Troy Farmers Market in the Atrium.

The indoor winter market is held from November through February. During November, Tight Knit also ran its second annual holiday event. “Nothing was easy. We are gluttons for punishment,” Naylor laughs.

Tight Knit charges vendors a fee for their booths at each event, but after covering operating costs, Tight Knit barely breaks even. “We are volunteers—there is no money until further notice,” Falk says. Both women have families and jobs that they need to pay their personal bills. But they wanted to keep growing Tight Knit.

“It’s important to us, to Troy, and the artisans who rely on these events for a big chunk of their income,” says Falk.

The women made it through their first full year of events, and when the 2010 summer season started, they set up in what used to be the old outdoor amphitheater at Riverfront Park. “The city never cleaned it up,” Falk says. “It was filled with old leaves and garbage. There wasn’t proper drainage after it rained, and we were surrounded by pools of standing water. After a while we were able to move to the other side of the parking lot, by the Korean War memorial.”

That season ended better than it began. The vendors were happy with the new location and the foot traffic. Falk and Naylor congratulated themselves on another milestone.

The third annual Holiday event and the 2010 winter market went reasonably well. It seemed as though Tight Knit was holding its own and the women had high hopes. Naylor was enjoying her new infant daughter and Falk was expecting her first child. Life was good for the Tight Knit ladies.

Things changed when the 2011 summer season started. The Tight Knit summer market set up by the river with the farmers market with the knowledge that halfway through the season, the city would start demolishing city hall and both markets would move into the streets.

“We got hit with issue upon issue,” says Naylor. “We wanted to be back in the Monument Square area. We didn’t know that the [Troy] Farmers market had planned on using that whole space.” Tight Knit was given an area on First Street, tucked away and out of sight of the larger and more established market.

The women looked to Elizabeth Young for assistance. “She is the saving grace of Troy,” Naylor says. Young helped Tight Knit secure the block of River Street between 1st and State streets. Then they started getting noise complaints from a business on River Street for playing music during their event. After just settling into their new digs, they had to relocate.

The next move was to a block of Broadway between Second and Third avenues.

“When we opened that week it was perfect. There was tree coverage, the birds were singing,” Naylor says. “We felt like we finally had our home.”

It wasn’t long before their bubble burst. The women were informed that some River Street businesses felt that Tight Knit was cutting off traffic to River Street. The news shocked the pair. Their intentions had been to promote the business district of downtown Troy, now it seemed as though the district did not want their help at all.

“It was obstacle after obstacle. We were doing our best to satisfy everyone but were basically told by one businessperson that we were killing his business,” Naylor says.

After a meeting with the city, the Tight Knit market moved to the block in front of the old city hall against the construction site. “The city put up barriers so that cars drove on the left side of the street and we took up the right side of the street. The vendors were less than thrilled,” Naylor says.

Both of the women felt that they could have fought to keep their coveted spot on Broadway but believed that the River Street area had suffered too much loss in the past year. They felt that moving was the right thing to do, but were firm on the condition that there would be no more shuffling around for the summer.

This was the season that almost broke Tight Knit. Both women had moments where they doubted that they could continue. “Zhenelle and I talked about it a lot. We are really good at catching each other; when one is falling apart the other is there,” Naylor says. “We had such love for this event, it was like a baby. We were trying to guide it through different growing phases.”

They soldiered on through their fourth annual Holiday event and another winter market. Tight Knit needed an infusion and it needed one badly. It was Naylor’s idea to add antique and vintage vendors to the handcrafted event, and model it after popular events like ones taking place in Brooklyn. The new event would be called “Troy Flea.”

“The response has been positive and Troy is the perfect spot for it. We think it will reinvigorate the antiques district,” Falk says.

Troy Flea will offer antiques, vintage goods, arts, crafts, music, and kids’ activities among other attractions. “After the obstacles of the last summer we were determined to make the Tight Knit market a destination to draw people from other places; a full-on assault of the senses,” Naylor says.

Meanwhile, during the past year, the pair had worked on reaching out to Etsy, a corporate online global marketplace that caters to vendors specializing in handcrafted goods, vintage items, and craft supplies. They had managed to maintain a series of e-mail exchanges between Etsy and themselves, but no real leads had come of the communication. Then Liv Carrow, a singer-songwriter who had performed at a Tight Knit summer market in 2011, got a job at Etsy’s new offices in Hudson.

“Etsy is always looking for ways to do community projects that bring sellers together,” says Carrow. “I knew about Tight Knit, Zhenelle had told me that about 75 percent of her vendors were already on Etsy, and I put the two together. I believe in what Etsy and Tight Knit are doing. I’m psyched to have hooked it up.”

In the beginning of May, about a month away from the opening of the summer season, Falk and Naylor met with a small team of Etsy employees at the Hudson offices. Branda Maholtz, an assistant site lead with Etsy, was a part of that meeting. “We were already familiar with the Tight Knit events,” she says. “It was a no-brainer for us, we wanted to help them in any way we could.”

Etsy committed to being at every Saturday event to answer questions, help set up, and to just being a presence at the market. Once every month they will set up a kid’s craft table where children can make an age-appropriate craft—for free. They will also do what Etsy does best: merge technology with the beautifully simple world of handcrafted goods. “There will be QR codes for each Tight Knit vendor who is also an Etsy seller. The shopper can scan the code with their smart phone and go directly to the seller’s Etsy shop. You could possibly purchase something in real life at the event but with access to the online shop use your credit card and get a record of it,” says Maholtz.

QR code is short for quick-response code. The codes are made up of black pixels arranged on a square white background, and some think they will replacing the old UPC barcode of yesteryear. At Troy Flea, these two-dimensional information sources will take an organic, small-town event online with the right app and a few taps of a finger.

After the meeting with Etsy, Falk and Naylor felt renewed. “We were so excited. We needed to hear someone say that what we were doing was worthwhile and that they wanted to support us,” Naylor says.

“People are freaking out. It’s really reassuring to the artists that have been with us since the beginning,” added Falk.

Jaime McElroy, a jewelry maker from upstate New York, is one of those artists. She was new to her craft when she exhibited at Tight Knit’s summer market in 2009. “I love Tight Knit, she says. “They’ve done such a great job of getting behind a community to rally behind this handmade revolution.”

McElroy also sells her goods on Etsy. “Etsy has exposed a whole world of people to handmade goods,” she says. “I shipped to Australia a few weeks ago, I would have never thought that would happen. I think it’s a perfect combination. I can’t wait to do my first market this year.”

It hasn’t been an easy road for Falk, Naylor, and their fledgling enterprise. They’ve grown seasoned after years of complications and have felt the ache of many growing pains. Maybe they’ve ridden the waves on little more than their ideals and stubbornness, but they haven’t given up. Nor do they think that they’ve reached a finish line. “We probably take on more than we should,” says Naylor. “We’re dreamers in a way, but I don’t know if we’ll ever think we’ve reached our dreams.”

The first Troy Flea market is this Saturday (June 2) at River and 1st streets from 9 AM to 2 PM.