A success story

The Nahalat Binyamin market is a haven for shoppers from the frenetic to the eclectic.

nahalat binyamin 88 (photo credit: )
nahalat binyamin 88
(photo credit: )
On a Friday morning, the Nahalat Binyamin crafts market heaves with shoppers. Some scurry about looking for last-minute Shabbat gifts. Others wander from stall to stall, content to amble among the booths as they take in the sights and sounds of this historic quarter. The thick rolls of multicolored material lying against the fabric shops of Tel Aviv's garment district add to the area's rainbow splendor, characterized by a concentration of eclectic 1920s buildings. For some artists, the market is both shop and outdoor workshop, where they create their art under the watchful eye of the public. The market is worlds away from the honking horns and screeching traffic that permeate the nearby junction of King George, Allenby, and Sheinkin streets. The security barrier at the entrance to Nahalat Binyamin demarcates the city's hustle and bustle from a meandering outdoor gallery with a bohemian atmosphere, where almost 290 artists and artisans ply their wares. Sitting under the cool shade of giant umbrellas, they laugh and talk with passers-by without pressuring them to make a purchase. As Bina Mochiach, manager of the midrachov (pedestrian mall) says, "We don't like to use the words 'buyers' and 'sellers.' We are artists, and the shoppers are like visitors in a museum." Open twice a week year-round, the market attracts upwards of 5,000 visitors every Tuesday, and 10,000 on a Friday - and many more during the holiday season. The Nahalat Binyamin artists' association that organizes the market also puts on special events. This High Holiday season, the association is hosting two festivities - a bee and honey celebration for the Jewish New Year and a pomegranate themed festival for Succot. In the run-up to Rosh Hashana, the street literally buzzed with bees. Activities included a glass bee hive display allowing passers-by to watch the process of honey production; an exhibit of bee hives from the 1950s; candle making for children; a centrifuge showing honey separation; and an apitherapist who demonstrated the practice of curing health problems with bee venom. For the Succot pomegranate festival, each stallholder has created a decorative pomegranate to be displayed on specially crafted wooden trees during the celebration. Natal - the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War that uses art therapy as part of its program - has also created 24 pomegranates that will hang alongside the artists' work. The pomegranates will be auctioned off after Succot, with the proceeds going to Natal's emotional and social support programs for people who suffer from the Israeli-Arab conflict. The nonprofit organization enhances public awareness of trauma through a variety of different therapies including psychotherapy, individual and group therapy and non-verbal treatments such as art, body movement, music and yoga. Natal volunteers will sell New Year's greeting cards and calendars featuring some of the pomegranates in the market. Even the coffee shops and restaurants that line the pedestrian mall will sell food and drinks made with pomegranates. The Nahalat Binyamin market was founded in 1987 with six artists. "The original idea was to give a place to artists who have no wish or no means to open a gallery or shop," says Gil Pashut, who manages the association's public relations. Every artist pays 300 NIS for a place in the market, of which 100 NIS goes toward security (all the entrances are secure). Pashut sells glass and enamel jewelry close to the market's entrance. Laughing and chatting with the vendors on either side of his stall, he is not the type to be stuck inside a shop. He began selling jewelry in the market when still in the army. Two years ago, he began his fourth stint at Nahalat Binyamin. "The market was opened to create something different. Israel has become a mall culture. This is another option for people who like the sun and sometimes the rain and wind of the street, to walk between the trees and coffee shops and find unique items," says Pashut. One such visitor is Lindsey Bennett, a tourist from the UK, who wanders around clutching gift bags to her side. "It's my first day in Israel, and already I've bought all the gifts I need for family and friends," she exclaims. Bennett, who recently took a trip to Thailand, is enthusiastic about shopping at Nahalat Binyamin. "There were certainly elements that reminded me of a Thai market, especially the vibrant colors, but I found it a much less insistent place to be a potential buyer. I really enjoyed being able to touch and linger over different stalls, which isn't something you always have the ability to do in other countries." Much of the market's success can be attributed to a strict set of rules. Mochiach explains that the association meets every two months to discuss potential new vendors. "Something like 150 to 200 people want to join the market at each meeting, but we only accept about 15 to 20 of them." Once accepted, the artists must adhere to three main criteria: Their products must be original; they have to be handmade; and the artists themselves have to commit to coming twice a week to sell their goods. This last rule is strictly enforced. "The artist has to be the one to sell it," Mochiach explains. "They can't pay someone to sell. It's not a factory or a store. We need the connection - the dialogue between the artists and shoppers." Alice Bliss, who sells bags for mothers and babies, explains the relationship between buyers and sellers. "There's a really strong bond with the crowd. Artists often say that they draw inspiration from speaking to people and getting their feedback." "All the fun is that you get to ask questions and receive answers," agrees Pashut. "Some of the artists even practice their art in the street. It's an experience that you can't get anywhere else. All the indoor malls look alike. But here, you can be outside in the air, with all the people." Beyond the seemingly idyllic veneer of Nahalat Binyamin, Bliss, who has been on the midrachov for a year, reveals that working in the market is not always easy. "It's difficult but very satisfying - a chance to really do small production and make a living. But it's always difficult." For Bliss the problem is balancing retail and production. "We spend two days a week selling, so that leaves only four days a week to actually produce. There's an irony to such a system - either you are selling or you've sold everything and don't have enough time to make anything." The interest shown in Bliss's stall makes it apparent that her problem is one of production. Her bags are bright, fun, and practical. The most ingenious product and the one that attracts the most attention from passers-by is a large beach bag. "Everything started with this bag," says Bliss, an American who studied design in Colorado and later worked in costume design for film, theater, and television. When her daughter, now aged two-and-a-half, was a newborn, Bliss would take her to the beach. Fed up with toting a diaper bag that would inevitably get filled with sand, she designed a special beach bag that is washable, durable, and opens into a protective sunshade for babies up to nine months old. Bliss has many plans for expanding her line but admits that it is hard to implement them. "I have new ideas all the time, but I'm so busy trying to keep my stock up." Despite the challenges, she is extremely enthusiastic about the market. "This is a wonderful place - very eclectic and fun to work in. Even before I thought about selling here, I loved to come to enjoy the colors, the people, and the atmosphere." "Visitors can stay a whole day and enjoy themselves, even if they don't spend any money," agrees Mochiach. "The market is not just about buying something. We are happy when they buy because everybody needs to make a living, but we don't charge for entrance or the entertainment. I call it a mini-festival for free." Pashut echoes these sentiments. "This is something different. It's always more fun to buy and receive something original and handmade from Israeli artists." The Nahalat Binyamin market will be open throughout Succot, from 10 a.m. on October 19, 20, 21, 23, and 24.