Saturday, January 24, 2009

Market Memories

I went to the Waterloo Farmer's Market yesterday to find out what my favorite vendors are going to do when the market closes in a couple of weeks. I bought some amazing smoked cheddar from Mickey McGuire and some sausage from Stemmlers... there wasn't much else left beyond tube socks and Tupperware. As I was leaving I picked up some apples from the guy with astronomical prices and a sign saying he doesn't use chemicals. When I got home I realized he had conned me; the apple on top was in good shape, but all the rest were wizened and rotten.

I'd forgotten that I'd seen that guy try to pull the same trick before. One Saturday a few winters ago I was looking for pears and noticed at his stand that the baskets were full of rotten fruit with one or two good ones on top. I walked across the sidewalk to where a guy had a truck backed up, the back open, with tables of pears and potatoes laid out. I saw the kind I wanted and lifted the top pear to check the rest were okay. The farmer, an old man, was sitting in his truck; he started yelling at me in a strong German accent to not touch his fruit. I put down the pear but stood there, sort of stunned, and that somehow made him madder. He not only yelled louder, but came towards me in a threatening manner... at which point I assembled my wits and took off.

I grew up in Waterloo in the 60s, so I have some experience with being yelled at by men with thick German accents. Back then a lot of stores in the area were German-speaking, and non-German speaking kids were frequently met with some abuse. Maybe the market was the last vestige of Old Waterloo.

Don't get me wrong: I love the market. I'm a regular shopper, and I stayed loyal even as most of the good vendors moved across the street to the stockyards while sellers of miracle supplements and cut-rate throw rugs moved in. But my final purchase seems sort of fitting, given the shady commercial history of our farmer's markets.

When I was growing up there was a very successful farmer's market in Kitchener, in a wood building not unlike Toronto's St. Lawrence Market. In 1971 the Eaton Company won a fight to tear down the market building and Kitchener City Hall to make way for an Eaton Center. Eaton's did this in small towns all over Ontario, replacing historic downtown buildings with featureless red-brick malls. Saturday market vendors were moved into the parking garage of the new Eaton Center. While the old market had outside spots with hitching posts, the new market was not Mennonite-friendly, and so the old order Mennonites who had sold at the old market refused to move to the parking garage. Thus was born the Waterloo Farmer's Market.

The Mennonite Market (as we called it then) was built in the country just north of Waterloo, across the street from the stockyards (where live animals were sold at auction). Market-goers started wandering over to the stockyards, and so a few vendors set up there, selling things like cheap broken cookies.

Meanwhile, a man called Milo Shantz started a company called Mercedes Corp that aimed to make money off of tourism based on old order Mennonites. They bought up much of the town of St. Jacobs and turned it into a tourist center. Eventually they bought the stockyards and started to market it aggressively to tourists. They rebranded the stockyards "The St. Jacobs Farmer's Market and Flea Market", and it became a second produce market, plus a lot of other junk. It always had a very different feel from the Mennonite market: the vendors aggressively shout to shoppers; there is a wider range of goods and kitsch; there are a lot more tourists.

Everything was fine until about five years ago, when Mercedes managed to purchase the Mennonite market. Immediately the market changed. The very first Saturday, Mercedes closed down the stand that sold Oktoberfest sausages, hot sauerkraut and cups of local apple cider, and replaced it with a concession stand that sold Italian sausage and canned pop. Then they started harassing the vendors. Rates would double or triple with no notice. Vendors who had been in a spot for decades were suddenly moved. There were so many moves that it started to be difficult to find vendors. My favorite bread seller was moved into a remote corner and lost so much business that he had to give up. One by one, most of the good vendors either gave up or moved across the street to the stockyards, while their spaces were rented to the tube sock crowd.

Then last week Mercedes announced that they're turning the Mennonite market into an antique mart. Vendors got only three week's notice. Some have the option to move across the street to the former stockyards, but they were told there will be a delay of several weeks until they can set up. (I believe Mickey McGuire is going to be able to start selling there in April.) Some chose not to move - Stemmlers has recently built an expanded store in Heidelberg, and will give up its market presence.

It's not clear what the old order Mennonites are going to do. For over 20 years I've been buying assorted garden goods from an old order woman who backs in her small buggy and sells from a table behind it. She picks lettuce and other vegetables from her garden on market mornings, and sells them along with some hooked trivets that a relative makes and some other homemade stuff. It's a small operation, and I can't imagine there's room for her in the bustle across the street. I meant to ask her yesterday, but her spot had already been eliminated to expand the car park.



James Bow said...

Hey, there!

Could you drop me a line at james dot bow at gmail dot com? I was wondering if you'd like to contribute posts like this one to the new Waterloo-Wellington Bloggers Association group blog. We need more contributors.

All the best,
James Bow

Kerry Liles said...

My wife and I had similar market experiences in England when we lived there in 1975-76... whenever we went shopping at the local market, my wife would comment that the apples/carrots/etc on display were far different from the bag contents WE got when we decided to purchase. Several times my wife was accosted when she tried to "pick" the specific items she wanted.

Although she lectured several of the crusty vendors and told them she would only buy if she could choose, they were intransigent...

We ended up buying from roadside individual farmers who seemed much more reasonable.

Talk about "biting the hand that pays you"...

Anonymous said...

That's the best piece of local writing I've seen in a long time. Good stuff!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this excellent historical and social commentary on the Farmers' Market. I was there in the autumn of 2005 and was bewildered about the location, the way booths were organized and displayed and the almost casual neglect directed at the Mennonite producers. Now I understand better the local forces at odds with each other.