While Christmas markets tend to conjure up sugarplum images of trees, trinkets, fruitcake, mulled wine and Santa cameos, Trenton’s take on the yuletide mart features holiday shopping with Jersey attitude.
The Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market’s annual Wreck the Halls! event, set for Dec. 10-11 at the Cure Insurance Arena, is the perfect place to find idiosyncratic gifts and stocking stuffers with a backstory.
More than 400 vendors will offer everything from tattoos to horror-inspired teas to blood vial keepsakes, filled with blood drawn on-site by a licensed phlebotomist. Acey Slade, a touring member of punk band The Misfits, will be there as a vendor, selling his Newark-roasted Cat Fight Coffee.
The TPRFM is both a shopping experience and a celebration of subcultures. Over the past 10 years, the entertainment roster has included sword-swallowing sideshow acts, games of Dunk the Punk, Thunderdome scavenger hunts and live music from such cult faves as The World/Inferno Friendship Society. The TPRFM is also a food truck feast, serving up Jersey delicacies such as Taylor ham, Italian hot dogs, hoagies, tomato pies and the ever-popular pork roll breakfast pizza.
“We aren’t your grandmom’s Christmas market,” says founder Joe Kuzemka, 48. “We have seen it all in terms of vendors. It takes a lot to surprise us at this point. We encourage people to come as they are and to celebrate themselves as people and humans and to not worry about being judged under our roof because that’s not something that we will ever let happen.”
Weird NJ publishers Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman are returning vendors who will appear on Dec. 11, showcasing merch including Jersey Devil car air fresheners that smell like The Pine Barrens. They will have the latest issue of their magazine, with stories about werewolf parties, exploding whales and Belleville Muppet meetings.
“This is not the kind of flea market where you’re just going to see a bunch of junk,” Moran says. “It’s a lot of creative stuff, a lot of handmade stuff. Joe had the foresight to make it more than just a market. He makes it a destination so much so that people will come on Saturday and Sunday because the vendors are different.”
The punk rock moniker does not represent a focus on a single style but instead evokes the DIY spirit of small businesses and local artisans. It also reflects Kuzemka’s youth, spent checking out hardcore and metal shows at Trenton’s legendary City Gardens nightclub.
“I realize that the words punk rock are associated with things that aren’t necessarily family friendly,” says Kuzemka, who also operates a shop called Out of Step at the Trenton Farmers Market. “But we’ve bridged the gap between having a proper amount of attitude and balancing that with being family friendly. You can be family friendly and cutting edge. We see people of all ages, from young parents who bring their young children to seniors who are coming with friends. There is a little bit of something for everyone.”
Even as COVID and E-commerce have devastated brick and mortar retail, the TPRFM is expanding. It outgrew its longtime venue, The Roebling Wire Works, and there are now three markets a year hosted by The Cure Insurance Arena and The New Jersey Expo Center in Edison. The event has drawn vendors from 30 states, plus Canada, and patrons from all over the country.
“We started with a strong focus on the arts and grew into a place that creates a high-volume shopping experience for all kinds of small businesses,” says Kuzemka.
“During the pandemic, there was a movement to support small businesses. The Targets and the Walmarts of the world were suffering, too, but they have plenty of money. We were very lucky that we were able to do two years of outdoor events and, coming out of the pandemic, people remain focused on supporting small businesses, and that’s getting ingrained into a new generation. All of that leads to events like ours being able to flourish.”
Guests at this weekend’s market include Tony Moran, who portrayed Michael Myers in the original “Halloween” film, Black Sabbath/Dio drummer Vinny Appice, and Gina Schock of The Go-Go’s. There will be live music both days from a lineup of 10 bands, plus food trucks cooking empanadas, pierogies, cheesesteak pretzels, Korean tacos and award-winning cupcakes.
Kuzemka aspires to spotlight his hometown and dispel some of the myths about Trenton. He grew up hearing his grandfather tell stories about the city during the post-WWII era, when downtown was a robust shopping hub. Many companies either moved away from Trenton or went out of business, leaving behind a city grappling with poverty and increasing crime. An influx of artists has put Trenton on a path towards revitalization.
“One of the things that Trenton has suffered from since the 1960s and 1970s, when there was the quote-unquote white flight, is that people in the suburbs grew up thinking Trenton is not a good place to come,” says Kuzemka. ”Over the past 10 years, we’ve attracted roughly 250,000 people who may not have otherwise come here and I am sure that of those 250,000, some have discovered local shops and restaurants or music venues. If people give it a chance, they will see there are things happening here that are positive. There’s wonderful food, there’s music, there’s culture, there’s artwork.”
Kuzemka started the TPRFM after having a conversation with a friend at a bar on Thanksgiving Eve in 2012. At the time, he was working a day job running a marketing department for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency while organizing Art All Night as a side gig. He left his day job about five years ago.
“I was telling my friend that I had been thinking about starting a punk rock flea market for a while and never pulled the trigger,” says Kuzemka. “She inspired me and said, ‘I think you ought to do it.’ The next day, I started working on it and it changed my life and now I do this for a living. We want to inspire visitors to do the same thing and live a dream of being their own boss or starting a business or finding an outlet that will allow them to express themselves creatively.”
Moran and Sceurman of Weird NJ first crossed paths with Kuzemka circa 2015 at their own market in Montclair called The Strange Xchange (currently on hiatus due to the pandemic). He invited them to the TPRFM as guests, which led to regular appearances as vendors ever since.
“If people are doing something creative in the state, they tend to gravitate toward each other, and the flea market just has a great, really friendly vibe,” says Moran. “With a lot of these vendors, you’re dealing with the person that actually created the item. That is an added benefit. You can say, ‘I bought this for you from the person who made it with their own hands.’ ”
Moran found a treasure at the TPRFM that he keeps on his desk to this day. He was once called in to investigate a pile of porcelain hands lying in the woods outside Trenton. It turns out they were model hands from a shuttered latex glove manufacturer.
“I wanted one of the hands to bring home as a souvenir but I couldn’t find one where at least one of the fingers wasn’t broken,” says Moran. “Then I realized, of course, if the fingers weren’t broken off, they wouldn’t have thrown it away. I was at the TPRFM and there was a guy who had one of these fully intact glove-form hands and I thought it was perfect karma that I would locate it there.”
During the flea market, Moran and Sceurman typically hear stories from fans and collect contact info so they can follow up on promising leads.
“I get back from one of these and my pocket is stuffed with little scraps of paper and I spend the next couple of weeks trying to figure out what everything is,” says Moran. “I’ll scribble something and it will just say, ‘John, entryway to hell in Manalapan.’ ”
Kuzemka still has his notebook from the first market in January 2013, with projections that 400 people would attend. He was flummoxed when 2,000 shoppers showed up.
“It was at that point we realized that we had lightning in a bottle,” says Kuzemka. “I initially thought it could be a one-off event. Once the day happened, I saw that it was going to be more of a long-term thing.”
Tickets are $15 for the weekend. Kids 10 years of age and younger get free admission. There are also $57 VIP packages, which include exclusive music performances, commemorative swag and access to a lounge overlooking the market. Visit trentonprfm.com or ticketmaster.com.
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