SuChin Pak went from MTV to the lower east side and launched a mini empire
It was bad enough for her Korean immigrant parents that SuChin Pak chose a career in TV journalism over becoming a lawyer or a doctor—especially after she nabbed that political science degree at Berkeley. But then, years later, after interviewing everyone from Jane’s Addiction to Beyonce as a correspondent for MTV, she switched her focus to flea markets. “My parents were like, ‘What? You went to college, you’re living in New York and now, you want to sell socks?’” says Pak, 37, with a throaty laugh.
"As long as you have great sunglasses and the right slouch, you could be wearing a hemp sack."
Of course, Pak’s trajectory didn’t exactly lead to a stall on 8th street. Along with her younger brother Suhyun, she co-founded the Hester Street Fair, an LES souk with eclectic edible fare like Filipino desserts and Maine lobster rolls, and cool kiosks that sell everything from vintage sequined turbans to mid-century mod glazed ceramics. The Saturday morning meander has also become a fashion runway for hungover hipsters wearing macramé rompers and skyscraper wedges. Pak’s own summer uniform is utilitarian and simple: a pair of pleated Zara pants with a tee shirt or a lightweight United Bamboo or Opening Ceremony summer frock with gray or oatmeal Converse Chuck Taylor high-tops. “As long as you have great sunglasses and the right slouch, you could be wearing a hemp sack,” she says.
No matter what you wear to the fair, expect to be accosted by Pak, who’s easygoing but exudes a thrum of intensity. “I’m always passing out napkins or telling people to get extra sauce on the taco,” she says. “I feel completely at home telling people what to do since we’re hosting the party.” Other Hester Street Fair partners include TV exec Adam Zeller and architect Ron Castellano. The genesis? Pak and her brother originally pitched the idea to the board of the co-op where they own a two-bedroom on Grand Street. At the time, the principals sought a clever, community-fostering way to fill the brick building’s empty lot. Deluged with ideas for dog runs, the board green lit the Pak plan. That was back in 2009.
On the morning of the very first fair in April of 2010, her parents—who own a café in Oakland, California and work behind the counter full time—were visiting, and the whole family hovered at the entrance expectantly. “It was 10:00 and no one was there. I was thinking, ‘We’re fucked.’ I saw a group of people on Essex, and at first I thought that another event was happening down the street,” she recalls. “But they were all coming to us. It was one of the very rare moments in life that still brings me to tears.” Now, the fair attracts up to 10,000 on a good day.
Pak pauses to beam as we eat breakfast at a low-key café in Los Angeles. She reveals a foodie streak when she asks the waitress if the soft-boiled eggs come with “toast soldiers.” A little over a year ago, Pak decamped for the Coast to have her first child—a son named Kai—with husband, Mike Bender. (He’s the genius behind Awkward Family Photos, the self-explanatory blog that has become an L.A.-based mini empire.) Now, she’s bi-coastal. Wearing just a last-minute swath of mascara and with her hair tousled, she looks refreshingly like a woman treading her way through the swells of new motherhood. “I’m going through a crazy identity crisis,” she admits. “My whole career is based on saying ‘yes’ to everything. Now, I have to take on less.”
"My whole career is based on saying ‘yes’ to everything. Now, I have to take on less."
Currently, she hightails it to Manhattan for a week of every month to tape her on-air segments as the chief correspondent for Daily Candy and co-oversee all things Hester Street Fair-related. It’s a booming business. Since its inception, the gritty venture has expanded to night markets (every Saturday though 10 p.m. in August), a partnership with the HBO summer film fest in Bryant Park, a start-up food fest and even a catering arm. “What has worked for me in my TV career and for us with Hester is that we have no idea what we’re doing, so we see everything as an opportunity,” she says, modestly. On the horizon, she envisions creating authentic outdoor eateries/marketplaces like an Asian version of Eataly in New York or a Spanish-style boqueria here in Los Angeles: “The way that people relate to food and the homemade culture is a huge business.”
Pak should know. She and her brother get their hands dirty every time she goes back to New York. “We still hand paint a lot of our signs,” she says. “We got a stencil so they look fancy, but we‘re still passing the paint brush.”