A Historic Farmers’ Market is reborn in a familiar place.
I was a reluctant market shopper. For years, I would grit my teeth before heading to the overcrowded Brewery Market on Saturday mornings. You had to brave crowds clogging the narrow hallways. And don’t get me started on the stairs: a case study in gridlock.
I was desperate for the completion of the new Seaport market, and figured all the vendors would be moving there when it opened in 2010.
But then a funny thing happened. Not all of the people selling at the brewery were enthusiastic about the new business model, and a plucky group decided to stay behind. They formed a non-profit vendor co-op and rebranded themselves as the Historic Farmers’ Market. And after a couple of tough years, their persistence is starting to pay off.
That’s no surprise to longtime shoppers like Alex Pearson and Margaret Kelly Pearson, who’ve been regulars here for a decade. (They are such fans that they had Sweet William’s Country Sausage provide the meat for their wedding.)
The Pearsons are busy chatting with one of the vendors when I ask why they come here. “I love this place—the architecture and everything else about it. I love the complete package. It’s like family,” says Alex, 31, who manages the Garrison Brewery store on the Halifax waterfront. Margaret, 30, a history student and Passport Canada employee, adds that over the last few months she’s been noticing more vendors and increased selection.
“I think there’s a bright future here—but I’ve only really been optimistic the last five or six months,” says farmer Ted Hutten, who is co-president of the co-op that runs the market.
Hutten and I sit near his tables—piled with root vegetables, cabbages, fruit, juice, and leafy greens from the greenhouse. To my left, customers line up at Que Tal Restaurante Mexicano for taquitos. Downstairs, I can see a couple lingering over coffee in mismatched vintage cups at the quirky General Café. Behind me, Angus McIllwraith has sold out of his homegrown shiitake mushrooms; instead of heading home, he’s sticking around and chatting with shoppers.
For the last 28 years, Hutten has been a market fixture (sales in his first week came to a grand total of $55). He gave the Seaport Market a try when it first opened, but only lasted three months. The new market had longer opening hours, and he wanted to get home to water his greenhouse in the afternoon. “I stayed behind at this market because I wanted something that offered me a chance to retail my products without sacrificing my sanity and my home life more than I already do,” he explains. “It’s Saturday morning only, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. There is something really neat in knowing you only have that six-hour period to buy your produce. And it allows me to do what I do best, which is farming,” Hutten says.
Of course, Hutten, who has a devoted clientele for some of the more unusual vegetables he grows, wouldn’t stick around if the sales weren’t there. He says he knows he permanently lost some longtime customers to Seaport, but “more and more are coming back. And they’re coming back for the vendors.”
One of those vendors is former CBC Radio host Costas Halavrezos—AKA “The Spiceman.” In December 2010, he launched a new career selling fresh spices. And he decided to sell them at the old market.
Halavrezos first set up shop before Christmas. “There was a rush, and there were seasonal vendors in December,” he recalls, “but it was very quiet in January 2011 after they left. That seemed like the low point.”
Asked if he thinks the market is bouncing back, Halavrezos says, “I think it’s past the cusp. I see a steady growth in customers.”
Few people have been at the market longer than musician Dusty Keleher, who has been busking in the building for nearly 20 years. Just about everyone shopping at the place passes his spot, so Keleher has a unique point of view on the demographics of the market. “Some mornings when I walk in, I can feel that there’s some hustle and bustle. There are students coming down, retired people and everything in between. Age-wise it runs the gamut,” he says.
Talk to vendors and patrons at the market and the word “sad” comes up a lot. Some are thinking of the dark days of a few years back, while others find the empty spaces depressing. The market may be on an uptick, with 25 to 35 vendors on any given Saturday, according to market manager Lisa Morrison, but there are still cavernous rooms lying empty.
“People will say to me, ‘I love the authenticity of this market, but it makes me sad,’” Hutten says. “There’s a sadness when people remember what it used to be like.”
But he takes a more practical approach. “A lot of people love the building, and the feel of the building. There’s some kind of nostalgia and romance there. I don’t see it that way. I do like the building, don’t get me wrong—but I like it because it’s functioned well for me,” he says.
Besides, Hutten and others are quick to point out that they are not trying to re-create the old market experience. Instead, they are building something new. Morrison calls the period after the Seaport opened “the divorce.”
“There was a lot of scrambling,” she says. “The market needed members and vendors, and money to keep it together.” Now that things have stabilized, she says the market’s board is working towards having more than 50 per cent primary food producers, with most of the rest of the members selling locally prepared products.
“That’s really what has made these markets,” says Hutten. “If you look at the traditional farmers’ market model over the last three decades, it’s the small scale entrepreneurs and family farms that have really built these.”
Morrison, who was hired in September of last year, agrees. She says, “The success of a farmers’ market is based on it being governed by primary producers and that’s mostly farmers. You don’t go to the farmers’ market every Saturday to buy a scarf or some mittens or a wooden bowl. You go to get food for the week.”
For Morrison, “the crafts are a bonus, and they are important because they add to the atmosphere, but the primary producers are the constant that draws people.”
One of the issues that rankles the market’s board and management is their name. They’d like to call themselves the Brewery Market, but they can’t, because the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market has registered that name with the Nova Scotia Registry of Joint Stock Companies. “That’s tough because Brewery Market is the way people have always referred to it, and it’s a locator too,” Halavrezos says.
For her part, Morrison agrees that not having commercial access to the name is an irritation, but, she says, “Everyone knows we are the brewery market. Everyone calls it that. We are a market in the brewery.”
As the Saturday rush winds down, Lin Mickalyk, a self-described “market aficiando” is heading out the door with her shopping bags. “I’m a farmer’s daughter, so I like to support farmers,” says Mickalyk, who is retired from the telecommunications business. “I like the spunk and tenacity of the vendors here, and I want to support that.”
Tenacious is a good word. Stubborn might be another. “I’m very stubborn. I can out-stare anyone,” says Hutten. “But I’m not here because I’m stubborn. I’m here because I believe in it and it works for me.”