Doors to the warehouses in the West Bottoms haven’t yet opened on a First Friday morning and already hundreds of shoppers are milling about. The scene isn’t exactly “Running of the Brides” at Filene’s Basement — there won’t be any pushing or shoving — but the shoppers are eager to see what the 600 or so vendors inside have to offer.
Wicker furniture, old wood windows, scuffed up church pews, wire garden obelisks, soda crates, bubble gum machines, a rusty outdoor glider bench with chippy paint and dozens of other items sit in the parking lot outside Good JuJu, a sampling of what is to come when the doors open. Several pieces have “sold” signs on them.
“If you find something you like, buy it,” says Wendy Habrock, 43, of St. Joseph. “Because it will probably be gone when you get back.”
Habrock’s daughter, Kari Habrock, and friend Haylie Smith browse nearby. The three take off work every First Friday so they can get the best pickings.
The warehouses in the West Bottoms were built more than 100 years ago for agricultural, freight and industrial purposes. Today, the area is a mecca for Americana shopping, chock full of one-of-a-kind, antique and vintage merchandise. Some are open every weekend, but most open only on First Friday weekends.
When the weather is good or the holidays are approaching, Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, vice president of Full Moon Productions, estimates 40,000 people will make the pilgrimage to the warehouse district over the three days of a First Friday weekend.
Full Moon Productions owns several of the warehouses that contain the 22 flea markets and vintage boutiques. Arnett-Bequeaith has done research and believes the West Bottoms might be home to the largest indoor flea market in the nation.
And it’s starting to draw attention from other cities, with tour groups from Omaha, Wichita and Des Moines bringing in busloads of shoppers, she says. The nationally renowned Vintage Whites Market, which holds sales in Montana, Utah and Colorado, will bring more than 100 vendors to town Aug. 26-27 to set up under the 12th Street Bridge.
A big part of the appeal, Arnett-Bequeaith adds, is the reasonable prices.
“I once saw a woman from Fayetteville, Ark., pull up in a tractor-trailer and load it with stuff to take back home and sell,” Arnett-Bequeaith says. “That lady filled her whole store with stuff she bought in the West Bottoms.”
One vendor told a similar story of a man from a manufacturing company in China buying a truckload of stuff to take back and reproduce.
Urban Mining on Main Street in midtown was the catalyst for the monthly shoppers’ bonanza. The antiques shop would open only on First Friday weekends.
Then eight years ago, Good JuJu, which spun off of Urban Mining, opened in the West Bottoms.
Sally and Gary Paredes were among the first vendors at Good JuJu.
“We were the only people down here,” Sally says. “There was nothing. Nothing! We were it. It was so slow originally. The owners were like, ‘Hang in there.’ Finally, after about six months it caught on and there were lines.”
Gwen McClure, owner of Bottoms Up Antiques, was looking for a place to store her growing collection of French antiques when an antiques dealer offered her part of his storage in a West Bottoms warehouse.
Pretty soon they were outgrowing that space, and McClure and that dealer, Steve Rogers of Prize Antiques, decided to embrace the First Friday flea market idea. They recruited about a dozen other local antiques dealers, and Bottoms Up was born. The quality of merchandise in the West Bottoms ranges from junk to high-end antiques, with Bottoms Up dealing mostly in the later.
“We thought, ‘Oh this is to get rid of our junk,’ and (the dealers) came and decorated and by the second month they were bringing good stuff,” McClure says. “I pretty quickly had a wait list of vendors.”
Bella Patina opened in 2011 with 5,000 square feet of space and one cash register.
“We had to get a second cash register before the next month’s sale because there were such long lines,” said Megan Giarratano Allen, who co-owns Bella Patina with her husband, Nick Allen, and his family. Today, Bella Patina spans 25,000 square feet over three floors and is home to more than 70 vendors.
When Will and Shelby Perry moved from Atlanta to Kansas City last fall, they began planning their vintage boutique, called Varnish & Vine, even though they’re both employed full time: He sells information technology, and she is a nurse practitioner.
“There really is nothing like it in Atlanta,” Shelby Perry says. “The first time we saw the West Bottoms, we absolutely fell in love with it. I don’t know what it is — maybe in the Midwest, because there’s more farmland, there’s more rustic and farmhouse merchandise. In Atlanta, it’s more high-end European pieces. You don’t see the farmhouse stuff, but if you brought it to Atlanta, it would be coveted. And you can’t beat the bargains here.”
Because it is so overwhelming — you can easily spend five hours wandering the warehouses and not see everything — we offer this guide to West Bottoms with vendors lists, where to eat and some shopping tips.
Do you have any tips of your own? What’s your best West Bottoms find? Email them to me and I might include them in a future column.