By Erin Nash
For The Bellingham Business Journal
Guitar music mingles with the buzz of voices as Dan O’Donnell strolls by an antique sewing machine and a shiny red tricycle. He stops to chat with vendors, a smile stretched across his bearded face. His dog, Frog, stands at his heels wearing a shirt that reads “official greeter.”
O’Donnell’s Bellingham Flea Market is a place where you can buy and sell used and hand-made items, listen to live music, enjoy local art, connect with the community and see a beagle-mix wearing a T-shirt.
“I think we are helping out the artists and the community in general by just making something fun, which is what the Flea Market really is,” O’Donnell says. “It’s something fun to do. Plus it helps people make money.”
Sharon Taylor, a vendor at the market, sees it as a place for the community to gather. She says O’Donnell is always trying to help vendors succeed in any way he can.
This isn’t the only place where O’Donnell promotes success. About three years ago, he founded Positive Atmosphere, an online social network providing a forum to promote and discuss personal development.
“Our mission statement is ‘connecting positive people to inspire and empower,’” he says. “We’re community around that [concept].”
O’Donnell, 30, has always seen himself as an entrepreneur and a source of new ideas. As a kid he would offer to ride his bike to the store to buy candy for friends who were willing to pay a 25-cent markup.
It was this enthusiasm for commerce, creativity and fun that led him to create the Flea Market.
On May 1, 2010, he signed the lease for the old Tube Time space on Cornwall Avenue. Fifteen days later, the doors were open.
On the first weekend, about 25 vendors occupied the front half of the building. Now the market is crowded with vendors selling an eclectic range of items such as tools, hand-made jewelry, plants, used books, toys, clothes and art.
“We’re an event. We’re a weekend thing,” O’Donnell says. “That is what people get excited about. The shoppers, they are like ‘Yeah I didn’t need anything, but I just know it’s different every time and I always see something weird.’”
“In business that’s one of the most important things: You have to be different no matter what you do,” O’Donnell says about his success. “There is just no flea market around, so you just got to make people aware that it’s here. You don’t really even have to sell the benefits of it; it’s just something new instead of being the second farmers market or 30th furniture store.”
Each vendor at the Flea Market pays O’Donnell $26 a day to set up their booth during the weekends. Spaces are given on a first-come, first-serve basis. O’Donnell sells his own items at the market as well as selling items for other people and consigning to vendors.
“It’s totally wheeler-dealer style in here,” he says.
In the center of the front room, Joelle Grinspan sits amidst her display of scarves, necklaces, purses and other boutique-type items. Grinspan says O’Donnell is very fair to all the vendors and a great person to report to as head of the Flea Market.
“I guess he is kinda my boss,” she says. “But it doesn’t really seem like it because it’s just so laid back here.”
On the first Friday of every month, people gather at the Flea Market to drink wine, chat with artists and enjoy local musicians during the Downtown Bellingham Art Walk.
“Artists are just looking for a place like this to get out there,” O’Donnell says. Many artists don’t have a venue to show their work; the Flea Market provides that for them.
“This is a cool place to showcase great local artists,” says Ed Burton, a blues guitarist who plays at the market. He says there aren’t many places for up-and-coming artists to play and that O’Donnell is helping to support and boost the music community.
O’Donnell has been a part of the Whatcom County community since he was born. He says he learned his good work ethic and discipline from his elementary school teachers at Assumption Catholic School and his football coaches at Squalicum High School. After attending Western Washington University for a few quarters, he started working in real estate, in which he has continued for the past ten years.
One of his passions is traveling. “I need a lot of stimulation and variety,” he says. “I get really bored if I’m doing the same thing and there is nothing more interesting than travel.”
One idea O’Donnell has for the growth of the Flea Market is to create an outdoor food court when the weather gets warmer.
“This place will be packed,” he says. “I think we are at least as fun as the Farmers Market. If they can get that packed, I think we can get that packed or more. I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t.”
Speculating about the future, O’Donnell says the Flea Market is a high priority in his life but he doesn’t want to be “the man behind the desk getting old and gray.”
“Between this and Positive Atmosphere,” he says, “I want to be able to live and travel like crazy.”
He views the Flea Market as a fun place that promotes a positive attitude in the community and he wants to be a part of it as long as he is in Bellingham.
“I would like for this market to be in this town, whether it’s in this place or someplace bigger, for decades. Good markets last for a long time. I think it’s cool for the community.”