INFLUENCER: Meet Maria Tocco of Providence Flea

How a visit to Brooklyn led to founding one of RI’s most vibrant community markets

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How did Providence Flea come to be?

I’ve always been drawn to open-air markets and seek them out when traveling. My first trip to the famous Brooklyn Flea was in 2009. I was instantly in love with the idea of artists and makers mashed up with vintage and consignment. The creativity, the community, the energy of it was infectious. The maker movement was just taking off, and I knew I wanted to shop at a market like that in Providence. But there wasn’t one at the time.

Just four years later, you started the Flea in June of 2013 with 30 vendors. Today you have multiple fleas with different locations, food trucks, musicians, themes, and so many different vendors. Describe that journey.

There have been hard lessons in improvising and adapting. Not having a permanent home for the Flea has been an ongoing challenge, but it has always worked out with the help of good partners in government and the community. I was also fortunate to participate in the Goldman Sachs 10K Small Businesses program, which was incredibly helpful in growth planning.

What has been your favorite part of managing the Flea and why?

Meeting so many interesting and creative people over these nine years, bringing together so many passionate dreamers and doers – helping them plant their seeds in a patch of grass downtown – and watching them grow into a bustling, award-winning community market.

Why is it so important to carefully select small and micro businesses for the Flea? 

We have an application process to make sure vendors are a good fit. I don’t stray from the mission because featuring local, independent, small and micro businesses is what distinguishes us from other markets. We don’t accept service or retail businesses, multi-level marketing, direct sales reps, or franchises. There is nothing mass-produced or new at our market unless it’s handmade or edible! And the vintage dealers offer quality items like vinyl records, retro housewares, vintage maps, comic books, sports memorabilia, art, etc.

Tell us about your pre-Flea career.

I made my career in communications and engagement for 30 years here and abroad. I started the Flea in 2013 while working for the state’s first female lieutenant governor at the time. She was term-limited, and I was recruited by another state department; I left that job two years later as one of the deputy chiefs at HealthSource RI. Although it was rewarding work and I loved my team there, I knew that my heart was in growing my business, and I took the leap.

With the holiday season coming up, where are some of your favorite places to shop small?

Honestly, I shop at our Holiday Markets because there are so many things I want to give as gifts. And it’s all to support local makers and indie businesses. Where else could I pick up a hand-knit hat, a bar of goat milk soap, a potted plant, an original painting, a cinnamon babka, a vintage Pyrex bowl, and a recording of Ray Charles live at Newport Jazz? With a changing weekly lineup, I can cover everyone on my list, including me!

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